True Detective, a uniquely formatted show on HBO, just finished its first season last Sunday. The series, starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, focuses on the story of two detectives and their 17-year long effort to bring down a serial killer in Louisiana. At least, that’s the case with the first season. Any subsequent seasons, of which there will be at least one, will tell the story of a completely different set of people and circumstances. Despite being only 8 episodes in to the TV blockbuster, the tale of Rust Cohle and Marty Hart is already finished being told.
<The remainder of this Blogcat contains spoilers, so go spend 8 hours watching the show so you can read the rest.>
At this point, I qualify as a relative latecomer to the show, since I started watching after the season finale had already aired. This has left me with a much different perspective than the majority of the show’s fans. True Detective, with its references to cults, supernatural phenomena and obscure literature, created the largest culture of conspiracy chasing the TV-watching population has seen since the island of Lost. The week to week pacing of the show allowed avid fans, starved for answers, to engage in wild speculation about the identity the Yellow King, the explanation for Marty’s daughter’s sexual proclivity, and the Hobo Power of Rust’s apartment after 7 years of chain-smoking Camel Lights.
I personally was able to avoid getting sucked down the HP Lovecraft rabbit holes by getting a late start. Instead of following the show along in real-time, I binged the entire season across three nights, all after the internet knew which questions would be answered and which would not. Because of this, I wasn’t frustrated by the overwhelming number of red herrings that went unaddressed (though Audrey’s dolls being left unexplained is admittedly annoying, even to me). I honestly just hadn’t thought about them that much; instead of dwelling on these questions and letting my imagination run amok, I just hit Play on the next episode.
The reason I’m writing about this is that I think this different perspective has affected my opinion of the show. I’ve written before about how I wrestle with the fact that others’ opinions affect one’s own feelings of a thing, and that’s certainly at play here, but what’s also a factor now is the method or mode of content ingestion. It’s interesting to me that I might feel more or less satisfied with the show if I had watched it in sips, rather than gulps.
In general, I thought the show was excellent. I’m always up for a good whodunnit or conspiracy theory. I’m a sucker for idiosyncratic sociopaths like Rust Cohle, even if they’re not particularly relatable. The cinematography in particular was fantastic, specifically that 6-minute camera shot of Rust and the Iron Crusaders’ takeover of the project stash-house to end episode 4; the sweeping camera, the eerie lighting, the escalating situation, all set to the backdrop of Clan In Da Front, created such a perfectly tense situation that I don’t anticipate coming across a better moment on TV for the rest of the year.
I think maybe my favorite part of the show is not only dependent on my bingeing method of ingestion, but is also what seems to have been a major frustration for so many others. So many of the blogs I read afterward were so hopeful for a twist, or to be taken to some extraterrestrial Carcosa, and were let down to discover that the ultimate reveal was just some creepy redneck. I, on the other end of the spectrum, was actually relieved that that was the case.
I think one of my 395 favorite things about television, or really any medium for fictional narrative, is its ability to have the viewers’ experience mirror that of the characters- something that is especially true in a narrative focused so specifically on two protagonists. Breaking Bad, for instance, was incredible for that specific reason; we followed Walter White at the hip, eagerly wolfing down his rationalizations until we slowly started to understand just how evil of a person he had always been, or at the very least had become. True Detective was able, in a way, to put us in the shoes of the detectives as they, and us as the audience, tried to sift through evidence and figure out what in the world, or maybe out of this world, was truly going on. How did the double-murdering prisoner decide to kill himself? What are all those creepy stick figures for? Why is Rust seeing visions of that spiral design? Viewers were frustrated that so many clues led to nothing, but that’s an inherent part of murder investigations, right? Isn’t it unrealistic for there to be no dead-end clues?
Also, just as it would happen in the real world, these supernatural and conspiratorial clues all resulted in something mundane. There was no magical power held by the King in Yellow. Carcosa was just some ruins in a dude’s backyard. And I think that makes much better television. We weren’t being shown some mystical, time-traveling purgatory like Lost that doesn’t truly exist; instead, the world of True Detective is more representative of real life, where people’s fantasies always have to come back to Earth. Weird coincidences, like similar pictures hanging in two different locations, are just coincidences, rather than significant predictors of the future. Detectives just want to catch the killer; they’re not framing suspects to reroute investigations for the purposes of some longstanding secret vendetta. It’s crazy how disappointing that is to some people. That fantasies are just that. I don’t imagine Rust or Marty were particularly disappointed.
It really was a great show, but not quite on the level of Breaking Bad or The Wire (though what is?). I view it instead as closely akin to House of Cards, as, while of top-shelf quality and design, and certainly enjoyable, both shows are missing something. I would argue that what they lack is warmth.
Both of these series are seemingly filled only with frigid despair. Murder and sin make for great drama, sure, and make for interesting situations in which to put interesting characters, but as much as that’s true, that’s not all that life consists of. In House of Cards, the Underwoods’ soullessness pervades so thoroughly that there are no characters for whom we can root (the best candidate currently is a guinea pig-loving McPoyle). The same goes for True Detective; Rust and Marty aren’t exactly the most moral or gregarious dudes you’ve ever come across, and the characters with whom we sympathize are swept to the side. I’m not saying the show needs to turn into a romcom, but good God, does nobody on True Detective ever have some good, wholesome fun? Can’t Marty get drunk in a bar without it leading to him cheating on his wife?
I’m already excited for the third season of House of Cards, and I’ve already started re-watching True Detective’s inaugural season. They’re both made of really good stuff, and I can’t get enough of the latter right now. The whole “can people change” philosophy in the Time is a Flat Circle concept is fascinating. I could watch the sweeping camera shots of the Louisiana Bayou landscape for hours. But even with how crisp and beautiful they are, the horizon always appears gray, and it would have been nice to see some sunny skies one of those days.