I did a stupid, fun thing a couple of nights ago and stayed up till 5 AM to watch the end (after the, um, late-beginning and middle) of True Detective on HBO. This was stupid in part because it turns out I have a low tolerance for depictions of ritualistic child sacrifice and, alone in my apartment, got pretty freaked out and upset. Fun because I was hooked.
But also dissatisfied. I’ve tried to piece together why.
True Detective, an eight-part, heavily serialized episodic that follows two hard-boiled, troubled Louisiana cops (Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson), features kickass acting from its leads — a dynamite mix of the interior and the kinetic, dead accurate readings of masculinity under pressure — and photography that makes of the bayou a land of deep colour and enchantment. The show’s surfaces are gorgeous. Even its grit is granted the dignity of a perfect frame, the eloquence of the social realist photograph.
The show also projects an image of depth. Interstitial scenes between the two detectives, most often when they’re in the car on their way from one plot point to the next, are driven by portentous dialogue about the nature of existence, muted debate between McConaughey’s nihilism and Harrelson’s frustrated will to life and power. The implication is that this episodic drama will not only engage us in a grisly whodunit but also offer philosophical insight into the ways people contend with moral uncertainty and horror.
I don’t know that True Detective altogether falls down on this count, but it strikes me, as I’ve been struck before when I’ve watched successful TV crime dramas that purport to seek a sophisticated audience (Breaking Bad and, a bit goofier by design, Dexter come to mind), that the show’s philosophical substance feels pretty incidental. It’s not borne by the show’s structural bones.
Unlike Mad Men, say, a subtler and more political and therefore necessarily funnier show, True Detective builds its action around plot events that aren’t particularly complex. Clues emerge, leads are pursued. Suspects are interviewed. There are stake-outs and shoot-outs. Long sequences track one of the leads in peril as he navigates his way to safety. The bad guys are unambiguously bad. Their crimes are hideous. We may wonder who dun it, we may even wonder if one of the characters with whom we’ve come to empathize is the culprit, but we never really doubt the moral position of the show or what it expects ours to be. If it turns out that one of the (anti-)heroes is the killer, we’ll feel uneasy but easily condemn him.
For all the show’s philosophical asides, the action of True Detective never feels philosophical or even very ambiguous. It reveals character in broad ways — McConaughey’s detective remains obsessed with an unsolved crime many years after the fact, from which we glean that he’s obsessive and guilt-riddled — but it’s more often concerned with the development of a mystery.
And to the extent that mystery requires constant novelty — new suspects, a trail that leads to unexpected places, evidence, reversals — it’s inimical to character depth, which needs a submerged iceberg of character history and relationship that you can’t develop if your lead’s most significant or numerous contacts are with new people. A scene between a couple married forty years (or four months) will almost always provide more occasion for depth than a first date, since the massive past hums beneath the married couple in a way that makes the first daters’ melody feel thin.
There are compelling scenes that deal with True Detective‘s characters’ private lives, but the women involved aren’t strongly individuated and scenes with them sometimes feel general, archetypal of sexual relationships between men and woman. They feel like they’re not what the show’s investigating.
I’m not convinced it’s investigating much, really. Which is okay. But I wish it advertised itself as such, as what it is: a gruesome entertainment with gorgeous surfaces and performances that lend depth to a snaky but intellectually straightforward plot.
I wish it didn’t package itself, like Cormac McCarthy sometimes packages his work, as a vision of the dueling forces of light and dark at play in the world. As in McCarthy, this kind of diction seems at first glance to be impressively Manichean and Biblical, but it’s way more simplistic than its sources. If the Bible constructs the world as an arena in which good and evil contend — and I’m not convinced it does so consistently, even if Milton and Augustine take up that project — it presents that sketch alongside a whole lot of intricate political thought and historical detail and the Song of Songs.
Evil in True Detective‘s terms, evil as a syndicate of raving Satanists beyond reason, exists. But it’s an extreme of an extreme. And to focus on it offers no insight into evil as it exists most of the time, in ordinary or historically catastrophic experience: rational, political, self-justifying, with persuasive rhetoric. Evil as lazy indifference to suffering. Evil as the absence of doubt. Evil as an ideal without compassion.
The fact that (SPOILERS AHEAD) True Detective‘s villain is explicitly a villain, a sneering monster we never learn about in detail, means that its central plot can’t really deal with good and evil, light and dark. Evil is character. To write it off as a monstrous perversion of sadists in furry masks may give wimps like me nightmares, but it doesn’t help us understand how to navigate the stepwise shades that lead to it. It doesn’t wrestle with a problem or help us figure out how to live.
True Detective‘s audience may be liberal, educated HBO fans, but its basic assumptions are thoroughly conservative: law enforcement is comprised of flawed but steadfast men, who are indispensable, since there are barbarians — violent, incomprehensible Others to whom no appeal is possible and for whom society is not responsible — within our gates.
It’s engaging TV. It’s full of elegant craft. But it shores up a reactionary and unreflective status quo. And I’m still kinda sleepy from my 5 AM night.
This article first appeared on Facebook on April 16, 2014.