TRUE DETECTIVE Episode 1 – “The Western Book Of The Dead”

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Rust Cohle, the slowly graying and mulleted character played by Matthew McConaughey in True Detective, speaks at length in between avant-garde beer can art sessions about the “flat nature of time.” Don Draper, Mad Men’s main protagonist also views life similarly—his carousel brings us into the past to view family moments that now mirror the broken man standing before you, carefully clicking through each frame for meaning, purpose—love. But each character says and implies the same thing—we are trapped, as uniquely individuated people, in this narrative of time. Around and around we go with no escape. Upon returning to time’s originating point, we each begin again down the long road that we, ourselves, have already travelled.

Season Two of True Detective, which began last night on HBO, brings us back into the fold of showrunner/creator Nic Pizzolatto’s world(view?). The plot, thus far, presents an obvious and inherent problem: a bunch of characters (three cops and a gangster) are all tangentially related by a city manager’s death, and come together to find out the most basic of all narrative tension: Who dunnit, and why? Season One executed this same plot structure (dead girl+weird, damaged cops=tension), but whereas Season One offered a unique and often expansive world in which to create narrative, the world in Season Two is painfully formulaic. The narrative space in which the story resides, the fictional Vinci, California, is representative of a type of story we’ve all seen a thousand times, and quite frankly, this reviewer has had enough of. Nothing is more eye-roll inducing and onanistic than Hollywood making things that largely show us how damn interesting everything around Hollywood is. Ditto for the works of Woody Allen, whose ever-present (and never-ending) stream of love letters to New York City is equally annoying and vomit-worthy. Placing narrative in either of these places is largely reductive, and this Season  of True Detective will (probably) suffer for it.

Good narrative (and for that matter, good storytelling) takes place on the margins, and setting a world in either LA or New York has become cliché to the point of farce. No longer are we, as an audience, expected to believe that these people could exist anywhere in the world except in the movies. Characters gain verisimilitude by our belief that they could exist in and among us. That’s how we transport ourselves into them—they are us and thus, we can gain some useful emotional bond with them.

Season Two characters exist from our perception of how these characters would behave as if on TV, and not in the real world, and thus seem more fake than the fake characters of the past. It gets confusing—fast.  Our reference point for most characters is reality; in this season, our reference point is TV. Circular, indeed. The characters in Season Two are characters we know from Television. The nature of the word “True” thus becomes perverted: True means “things we’ve seen on TV,” which creates a whole different issue of watching on the TV something we reference to the TV and thus ground in the “world” of TV, patently devoid of reality. Confusing, indeed. This all basically means that these characters, in a way, don’t feel real. They are hard to identify with, because we know so many other characters who behave in the same way. We’ve already seen this story countless times—on TV.

Art representing our perception and expectations of “art” that then reflexively folds back upon itself is a poor narrative choice, in addition to being boring. It’s a copy; of a copy; of a copy. We didn’t get any characters last night—we got movie stars playing themselves who then play Cops. By setting itself in LA and thus forcing self-reference, we aren’t watching Frank Semyon—we are watching Vince Vaughn play Frank Semyon. From the pilot alone, this is a story we all know, and its stereotyping of LA culture (and the stories created/derived from this culture) is neither clever nor interesting: damaged, noir cops; hippy Dads who just can’t seem to give a shit; the relative merits and detriments of porn; implied sexual depravity; kind-hearted gangsters and the corrupt cops that work for/despite them. We know these stories individually; mashing them all together doesn’t make them engaging.

The best example of creating this scenario and then using it for effect is the overlooked Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but as Audiences we should expect a finer cut of steak rather than clichés wrapped in self-reference. For all of its finer points in the literary/narrative tradition, this postmodern approach to the cop-genre comes across as tired.

A good part of the success of Season One came from structure—Season One’s setting was largely its most valuable character. The swamps of Louisiana and their implied mysticism and madness provided suitable backdrops in which to watch our characters devolve. Cary Joji Fukunaga’s camera was mostly situated below, framing the characters in an endless and vast universe that cared little for the human elements skittering about. Dialogue and narrative supported this theme. The world seemed big; people small. Movement across seemingly infinite landscapes allowed the viewer to experience the futility of it all—the vast nihilism of Rust Cohle made manifest through setting. Season Two’s director, Justin Lin, left the camera too long and too still. Establishing shots did only that—they established setting but not tone, they provided information but not feeling. The stripper told you she loved you, but you knew not to believe it.

Is this his fault? Doubtful—winding and circuitous highway shots mirroring working class factories give setting no doubt; they just don’t happen to be particularly interesting ones. The best stories and narrative exist on the margins, and few are more marginalized than the poor, particularly the southern poor, whose own brand of voodoo and morality took center stage inside of the well-known cop drama. Setting gave a patina of insanity in a narrative structure grounded in the familiar.

But! Time is a flat circle, and we must remember that episode one was just that—one episode. If viewed as a traditional “pilot” for a show, Season Two’s Opener “The Book of the Western Dead” functioned just as it should—character introduction, some (arguably relevant background) information, and eventually our main problem presentation at the end. The problem is in characterization. The expectations for Season Two were sky-high, and by providing formulaic introductions to what (on the surface) appear to be formulaic characters, our expectations were dialed back. I think for most viewers this is a very good thing. These types of narrative introductions are more familiar and friendly, more simple, more easily understood and less “weird” or “gross” and quite frankly, less interesting. Season Two will likely be rewarded for this. The standard American Viewing Audience doesn’t like its boats to be rocked too terribly often. Goodbye, Carcosa; farewell to our Yellow King.

Plot-wise, I’m not concerned. There are enough hints in the pilot to suggest a world that just maybe we can get on board with—stuffed black birds in the front of ominous cars, Weekend-At-Bernie’s-type excursions with your friendly, local, eye-free city manager—all these things put the wheels in motion of (hopefully) some interesting television. Woefully, the only exciting portion of last night’s episode was a retribution-laden beatdown of a suburban dad, administered by good cop turned bad cop Ray Velcoro, played by Colin Farrell. When the camera wasn’t providing establishing shots of uninteresting places, it lingered almost interminably on character’s faces, using their expressions to tell story. While this technique is effective in small doses, the excessive time we spent watching Rachel McAdams, Vaughn, Farrell, and Taylor Kitsch simply look at stuff ground the narrative down to its most bland nubs. Intensity is shown by movement, by dialogue. This technique—the super close up—is the spice to the dish but can’t and shouldn’t carry the narrative load. You would never eat a meal made up entirely of pepper, but that’s what we were asked to do last night—figure it out by looking at these people’s faces.

Furthermore, why do we have three characters that are largely the same? Each cop is (basically) doing the same narrative function of providing theme via character: attempt to do good in the world, lose faith, and then attempt to regain morality by doing unsavory things because the “end justifies the means.” Our one main character is presented in triplicate, and when they do finally get together, we get another stare-down and no interaction.

Season Two started off rocky, but maybe like the trans-California railway that serves as the narrative center, this season is merely a train slowly grinding out of the station, working slowly but consistently to build up speed.

Colin Robins is a PhD student at TCU, where he studies American Literature. He lives in Dallas, Texas with his wife.

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