If you want the short version of this review, it resides in that question-mark.
I just finished the last of the eight episodes of the first season. Apparently this will be the last featuring these characters – Rust Cole (Matthew McConaughey), Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and assorted others. Next season it will be different characters but a similar concept I suppose – an extended investigation into a complicated crime, one that opens up into a fuller picture of a social milieu, as well as a deeper look into the psychological depths of at least one individual within that milieu.
That all sounds too abstract. More concretely, what we have here is take number 547 on the socially conscious noir-ish police procedural. That’s not in itself a complaint – this is obviously a genre with plenty of potential, hence the first 546 attempts. But what does 547 add?
It seems to me that a police procedural can be good for one of three reasons: it must excel in either (1) the construction of a social world and its nuances – the last word in such success may well have been The Wire, hence it’s almost the sort of project that, were I a writer-director type, I would not even attempt, having seen its perfect execution there, or (2) the depiction of psychological depth (usually some illustration of depravity and moral probity, or perhaps a revelation about the problematic interrelatedness of these two) that somehow reaches new terrain: to step beyond television, consider Crime and Punishment as the perfect archetype of this project – Roskolnikov, over the course of the book, becomes an extremely vivid test-case for all variety of the vicissitudes of human nature, or (3) a thorough and exacting study in procedure itself, one that succeeds through sheer manipulation of plot, suspense, and the unexpected. I can’t think of a TV show that does just this, but in movie terms, this is what makes a film like The Usual Suspects work: there is no meaningful social content (redeeming or otherwise), nor any real psychological depth (most of the characters are stock figures that don’t get much beyond their stockiness). It is a great film nonetheless, mostly because of its adept management of plot events.
The ideal police-procedural crime drama, in other words, would be socially/politically incisive, psychologically revealing, and cunningly realistic and surprising. Thee factors would also overlap with one another, and built synergy between each other, and emerge as a masterpiece. That’s a really delicate three-part balancing act, which provides another way of understanding why it has been tried 547 times (and why so many of those have been failures).
So what about True Detective? In the typology propounded above, it tries most for #2 – psychological acuity, with just a smattering of social commentary (#1), and for the most part, a rather slow and not-that-surprising plot. Again, that it fails as social commentary, or that its plot is not ultimately suspenseful is not in and of itself a criticism. It seems clearest to me that an inward-turned examination of the depths of human evil and its causes is what True Detective Season 1 works the hardest to achieve. So does it?
Well, in a phrase, Dostoevsky it ain’t. At first, this seemed actually to be by intention. In a few early scenes, Rust (the problematic introvert in this homicide partnership) makes some adolescent-sounding “dark” pronouncements, and refreshingly, Marty (his obligingly extroverted “people-person” partner) chastises him for them. There’s an exchange that’s something like this:
Rust: This place just reminds me of the decaying husk of the memory of a town.
Marty: I need you to stop saying things like “decaying husk of the memory of a town.”
For me, this was a well-earned laugh. It happens in either the first or second episode, and it suggests a willingness for the series to move beyond the cliches of “dark” investigatory drama. Ultimately, however, it lapses into that very cliche. As one of the New Yorker’s critics put it, at first, Rust is ridiculed for his pseudo-Nietzschean “death is not the end” eternal recurrence sort of stuff, but by even the middle of the show’s episodes, this stuff is being un-ironically endorsed, not just by Rust, not just by Marty’s hypocrisy, but seemingly by the show’s creators themselves.
Though it’s not strictly relevant, try watching the little 5-minute “making of”-type interviews with the writers that come at the end of HBO’s on-demand streams. They are inexcusably pretentious, with the writer pontificating on the deep meaningfulness of each episode’s title. He sounds more or less like Rust Cole. Like I said, though, that’s not strictly relevant: a writer is often his own worst interpreter, and the crap that comes out of people’s mouths about what they have created (see Lou Reed, Bob Dylan), does not obviate the stuff that they have created. In this case, though, it seems like a reasonable hint.
Somehow as if to self-consciously verify this criticism, the final episode ends on a moment of absolute and utter cheesiness. Rust’s move from cynicism towards idealism is so forced (and for the most part unmotivated) that you’re left wondering how this got past HBO’s censors.
All that said, the show’s non-verbal atmospherics, its visuals, its sounds and its soundtrack are some of its strengths, and contribute meaningfully to the psychological punch of the show. The color schemes – heavily reliant on earth tones centering around – probably not coincidentally – rust colors – project an image of defeat, a post-Katrina haze that this show, set in the Bayou, seems to suggest will never lift. “Them hurricanes” get talked about as apocalyptic events, and perhaps they were. The show feels a lot like Mad Max or games in the Fallout series, though no actual atomic detonation has taken place. Some of the show’s deviations from realism are also strangely resonant – like when Rust sees the swirling of birds in a pattern he’s previously seen tattooed on a victim’s body. And its final action sequence in episode eight was sincerely disturbing in exactly the way that terrible nightmares are.
What about the show’s social context? For one thing, the show jumps between three different times – the early 90’s, the early 00’s, and 2014. This allows for some amusing context and creative use of the establishment scene. Take for example Marty’s purchase of an early 2000’s looking cell phone at a T-Mobile shop. In a world where, on Keeping up with the Kardashians, for example, there are subtitles to let you know who the main characters are every 4 seconds, as well as non-stop self-congratulatory “remember how dumb we were 10 years ago, when we had thick cell phones?”-type jokes, the way True Detective handles setting, in both time and space, is actually very well done, and strikes a pleasingly subtle note. The show captures very well my sense that the 90’s were both a long, long time ago and also basically like now without the internet.
When it comes to political commentary though, there’s only the most token gestures at typical HBO-type liberal piety. There’s a suggestion – one the show never really cashes in on – that there is some sort of mutually coproductive interaction between the pagan-ish bad guys and the world of religious-conservativism-cum-privatization that seem on the surface so opposed. But like I said, these are just token gestures. So too are any of the show’s attempts to explain the source of the psychological depths to which either its bad guys or its investigators have fallen. So too, for that matter, are the repeated illustrations of the parallelism between the criminals and the investigators. They’re all just gestures at social relevance that add little to the genre. They’re not embarrassing or ham-fisted, like the denoument of a Law and Order episode almost always is, just incomplete, and seemingly unimportant to the show’s creators.
What about the plot itself? Even though this show begins and ends as the exploration of the processes of “true detective” work, there are very, very important plot details that are more or less just entirely glossed over. I will say that the discovery of the real “bad guy” is satisfying in a somewhat surprising, understated sort of way. It’s not exactly “the butler did it,” but in a way that works for the environment of the show, it is. It’s almost as though the plot is also something which, the show lets you believe, is the sort of thing that, if you have watched some of police procedurals 1-546, you can work out for yourself. The details of the case actually remain quite vague at it crucial points.
What never remains vague, though, are the action sequences during which key moments in the plot are resolved. There are at least three memorable shootouts, ones that move beyond the conventions of the genre in very memorable and disturbing ways.
One last thought – there’s a sort of totally unnecessary sexism that pervades the show. I think it’s not an overstatement that all but one of the women that appear on camera are made into explicit sex objects (the “but one” being Marty’s younger daughter – the oldest is a quasi-willing participant in a drunken but apparently violent threesome). I know this is HBO, and so there’s some sort of obligation to have some R-rated nudity every few episodes, and that’s not really what I’m complaining about, so much as the insistence that the female characters make just about zero substantive contribution to anything. Maybe this is done in the serve of verisimilitude -I’ve heard that homicide divisions and private investigator’s offices are not the most forward-thinking of institutions in our society – but still, enough is enough. Surely we can find a way to overcome the laziness of woman-as-sexual-accessory plotting.
All in all, it’s tough to issue a verdict. In fact, I’m sort of trying hard not to. One of the frustrating things I’ve felt recently in reading about television shows (or about television in general) is there’s just so much side-taking. “Hated it”/”loved it” become such reductive categories, which for some reason people feel too entitled to in this era of binge-watching and micro-targeted marketing. In general though, True Detective is a competent, though not very original entry into the world of the police procedural. It’s neither particularly socially incisive, psychologically acute nor ever gripping for more than a few moments, but it succeeds just enough in each category to perhaps make it worth watching and thinking about.