True Detective – False Mystery: A Review
Expectation is a curious thing. It can be both a source of great elation and anticipation and the harbinger of infuriation and loathing. Quite often it carries both in turn, drawing its victim joyfully in with its double strike of promise and praise before delivering its brutal reality that leaves naught but a wreck of broken visions in its wake. Not that all things with great expectations are terrible. Sometimes our expectations are met and we leave pleasant and fulfilled. Sometimes they are exceeded and we talk and dwell gleefully upon the experience with renewed vigour.
After nearly twenty nine years of existence, I have come to realize that expectation is not worth its price. The higher your anticipation for the payout, the less enjoyment you will collect. But keep your expectations low and you should be surprised more often than not.
Today’s review of True Detective isn’t about failed expectations. Instead, it’s that more trouble quandary. It’s misaligned expectations. I had heard about True Detective from multiple sources that all praised it for being high quality television. Had that been all I’d known, I may have sought it out but given how difficult it is for acquiring access to HBO shows, I may have let it slip by. There are, after all, many series which I intend to watch based on the praise they receive. They are the Breaking Bads and Parks and Recreations. They’re on my list to check out not because the initial premise is promising to me but because so much good word of mouth has surrounded them that it seems they are almost like the Titanic; they are too big too fail – or at least disappoint as would be the case here.
True Detective, however, came with an addendum. It was, according to one source who shall remain nameless for his own protection, a good show with Lovecraftian elements. I have been enjoying the Cthulu Mythos over the last few months. I particularly find most tales good travel literature for their morsel like size. However, I have been reading Lovecraft on and off for years now. While my feelings towards the enormous body of work encapsulating the Cthulu Mythos is mixed, I do enjoy the monument of literature as a whole. It’s an intriguing look at fiction writing in a specific time period. It is a culture artifact dug up for our enjoyment. Though its old time society and issues leave it from being truly horrific, those same elements make it engrossing.
Thus, I was curious how a modern take could incorporate the ideals of Lovecraftian horror. I did write that post many months back detailing the issue with Lovecraft and the modern era. I boldly pronounced that type of horror dead, though I hold no great convictions on the diagnosis. So, a critically acclaimed detective show with Lovecraft horror? Well, sign me up!
If that extended introduction didn’t make things clear enough, True Detectives was not to my tastes. I suppose I am partly to blame for having my vision of what the work would be. I didn’t do much research before diving in, hoping to avoid any spoilers beyond what I heard from acquaintances and friends. Perhaps if I had done some early investigation, I could have spared myself the disappointment and the time.
But then I wouldn’t have this post to make.
Of course, as True Detective gloriously made a point of itself, the biggest clues were right under my nose the entire time. The mini-series is an HBO show. There’s a certain… reputation that the station carries. I had not seen many of its original content before and had been living quite happily in my ignorance. In a sense, True Detective is a great crash course to the expectations of the programming executives. It has certainly made clear to me that I would not like their vision of what television is or should be. I shall politely avoid their True Blood and Game of Thrones. Though peering at their wikipedia page, I did like the Newsroom though I don’t think it’s nearly as revolutionary as the rest of my family may believe. Course, it seems the Newsroom is only getting three seasons so maybe it’s the black sheep of the bunch.
At any rate, one thing is clear and that is HBO has a quota. I would feel remiss if I didn’t contribute to their quota during a review of one of their celebrated shows.
I have spent a number of hours in reluctant debate with my co-contributors over the series. For those that don’t want to slog through the next couple thousand of words or so, here’s the short of it. I don’t like True Detective. Specifically, I think it is a bad show. This may make me a hipster or just a chronic hater-of-all-things but that is my feelings on the matter.
Course, being who I am, I won’t just slap my opinion and walk away. I will provide some room for discussion. Truthfully, there are some things the show does well. I think Matthew McConaughey has both an impossible name to spell and a very consistent and powerful performance. Woody Harrelson, on the other hand, took a few episodes to get into the swing of his role but by the end I felt he had reached a stable level of performance even if it wasn’t on the same level. I wouldn’t say it was terrible, though, and I can see why he’d get praise for it too.
The cinematography of the series is also particularly well done. At least, I think it is. I’m not a film critic so I don’t know the proper terminology. However, the use of the Louisiana landscape gave the production a very haunting touch. More often than not, the actual vistas and shots conveyed that slow building of discomfort far better than the story itself. There is something domineering about those factory skylines that seem to press down on the viewer as their concrete towers rise over flooded plains blotting out all else from sight. Perhaps the most eerie moment is the slow drive to a half burnt church in the middle of nothing with only a thin line of wispy trees to half-heartily try and cover the ruin and keep the rest of the world protected. Every now and then the show flirted with the cosmological horror so captivating to Lovecraft and his peers. But it’s a fleeting relationship, and one more often carried strictly by the strength of the show’s visuals than anything.
Which brings me to what is bad about the show.
The writing is awful. Do not believe what people say, the show is poorly written. When I first began watching, I was lulled into a gentle state of repose by its marble gargling characters. The dialogue, for the most part, is fine barring for the fact that the actors have a tendency to grind on their lines in their hasty attempt to sound gruff with their affected southern accents. Mostly, I found I had to crank the volume if I wanted any chance to hear half of whatever was being said. The mumbling was so bad, one of my friends recommended I watch with subtitles like he did. The actual written lines are fine even if the characters have tendency for slipping into melodrama in their attempt to wallow in the self-pity of whatever emotional decadence the show was trying to indulge.
McConaughey’s character, in particular, was prone to long bouts of almost eye-rolling pseudo-philosophy about nihilism and the emptiness of existence. Once again, I felt maybe this was the show attempting to cleverly pull on the psyche breaking horror of one’s insignificance beneath the vastness of Lovecraftian revelations and how bewilderingly unknowable the universe is. Perhaps we would get the slow explanation for a mind that snapped beneath unearthly realizations through the slow interview format established in the first couple of episodes hoping to ascertain McConaughey’s character by the current investigating detectives (as if there needs to be a warning: spoilers are going to abound in this review though most of this is pretty evident early on). Alas, this is not the case and it seems McConaughey mostly just waxes about whatever nihilist mantra the writers happened upon that day of writing as even his philosophical outlook hardly maintained consistency. He bemoans the meaningless of existence in one scene, only to persuade Harrelson in another that he’s indebted to action by some vague sense of duty, honour or human decency which flies in the face of nihilistic pretensions.
More than anything, True Detectives has no plot. Its “story” could be summed up in the span of a thirty minute episode. Instead, the crux of the show focuses on the petty life of Woody Harrelson as he flits from affair to affair while trying in vain to be a good father to his rapidly distancing family. This is interspersed with the repetitive personal conflicts between him and McConaughey who are diametrically opposed personality wise that it leaves you wondering why their chief insisted on them being partners for ten years despite their constant bickering and arguing.
My first concerns with how poorly the show was structured arose in the very first episode. Our introduction to the two detectives is with them driving up to the scene of the crime – a young woman tied naked before a tree as if in prayer and adorned with deer horns surrounded by a bunch of ritualistic animalism stick structures that are never even attempted to be explained in the series. It smacks of such lazy “this is weird cult shit” by not even being remotely close to the source material they’re referencing by looking suitably Wiccan enough for the average viewer to associate it with paganism and – by obfuscating intent – satanism. I doubt, given the show’s rather grim view of Christianity, that there is any malicious intent in portraying modern (or even historic) Wiccan beliefs or practices with satanism and I’m left wondering why they didn’t try dressing the cult artifacts in a more unique or, dare I say, Lovecraftian fashion. Instead, we have some shitty stick bird cages meant to inspire dread but mostly appearing as some poor child’s craft project. Anyway, these first scenes are abruptly interrupted with Harrelson’s constant reminder to the modern investigators (and the audience) that he wasn’t particularly close or knowledgeable about his partner even though he repeatedly informs us that they had been working together for three months.
I was never able to figure out the significance of this three month period. Harrelson is portrayed as a sociable, charismatic man and given the way he kept trying to communicate with McConaughey it is bizarre that the two seemingly went three months without him ever even attempting small talk and then randomly that day he begins to learn more about the foreign Texan. As it turns out, McConaughey doesn’t share Harrelson’s Christian values, which leaves them quarreling for most the first episode over philosophical nihilism before Harrelson’s insistence his partner come to dinner to meet his family and wife.
To simply summarize those two long paragraphs, I don’t know why the show didn’t just have McConaughey new to the Louisiana division and it was… say… his second week on the job. Maybe they were trying to avoid some sort of cliche but they ended up instead with some even more bizarre scenario that was awkwardly brought to the audience’s attention by Harrelson’s own constant stammering. This trend – of making the structure of the story unnecessarily complicated – continued for the entire series. I still don’t know why they even bothered with the two modern investigators questioning McConaughey and Harrelson over their case. It was clear a couple of episodes in that they suspected McConaughey of being the serial killer, but the audience knew without a doubt he couldn’t have been it as the flashbacks to the scenes when both lead actors were police officers was an accurate portrayal of events and not what they were communicating in their interviews. So in the latter portion of the series, they spring their intentions as if this is suppose to be some sort of plot twist meant to leave the audience second guessing the reliability of McConaughey’s character.
However, we had already seen that pretty much the only reason the show extended past the fourth episode was because Woody Harrelson is an awful person with zero self-control. The show completely abandons the interview format in the final act of the story and I was left wondering what the entire point of it was as the investigating officers are pushed completely to the sideline. McConaughey returns in the present to recruit Harrelson and after the shortest amount of detective work they discover the true serial killer and tie up the plot in a remarkably unsatisfactory fashion that neither dealt with any of the King in Yellow teases they had dropped once an episode or even the overarching character flaws that we had spent the entire time entertaining.
And this is why I say True Detective is a bad show. I was happy to proclaim it as “fine and not for me” after the third episode, but really despite their handling of the characters there was just too much inconsistency and complete bungling of the plot for the writing to not be considered bad. Just like this review, the biggest issue with the series is that I can’t shake the feeling it was just an enormous waste of time. So much of each episode is devoted to Harrelson’s crying over his affairs and the personal drama between him and McConaughey that it just felt like the writers didn’t know what they wanted to do. It was eight hours of spinning wheels with the odd “oh right, we have some sort of plot here about government cover-ups and cult worship!” But none of that panned out. Even in the end, the main characters’ flaws are never addressed. Harrelson ends up divorced but his ex-wife shows up by his hospital bed with a smile and warm hand squeeze despite the character not once showing any change in his ability to control his urges for over indulgence in women or drink. I suppose after nearly dying before some hallucination of some vaguely alien blackhole in the depths of a cyclopean sunken city inexplicably found in the killer’s backyard but politely ignored by the entire cast of characters, McConaughey cries a little about the loss of his daughter.
And don’t get me even started on how illogical Harrelson’s wife’s affair was. Nor how horribly presented almost every single side character is. And what the hell was up with that subplot about the daughter that was just hand waved away with a short comment in the present about her “now on her drugs?”
Verdammt! Just thinking about it reminds me more of its nonsense. This is why everyone ends up an alcoholic, HBO! You are the cosmological horror whose very image inspires madness and insanity!