I am a member of a small, secretive group. We hide in the shadows and rarely speak of our creed, for fear that we will be shunned. I am one of the few people who did not like “True Detective.” In fact, saying that I “didn’t like it” is honestly a little weak. It actively bothers me. I’ve struggled on whether I should write this piece for months, not because I was worried I’d be ridiculed–that bit about silence and secrets was just a joke, I share my opinions on “True Detective” with people frequently and emphatically. No, the quandary is that I’m the kind of guy who truly wants to love things and allow other people to love things. I go into every movie I watch hoping that it will blow me away. It irks me when people tell me the things I like are shit, because that’s not their decision to make. If I like something, then I like it, and it’s no one’s right to say otherwise. The only reason I’m writing this now is partly because I think there ought to be some criticism in the online echo chamber of “True Detective” fellators, and partly because I’m concerned that the acclaim and popularity of this particular show is dangerous to the direction of the still-fledgling Golden Age of television. Since the Emmys are just around the corner, it seemed like as good a time as any to start the conversation.
Before I dive into what I don’t like about “True Detective,” I do want to commend the things that I appreciate. All of the acting performances are spectacular. I fully expect McConaughey to be a strong contender against Cranston for Best Actor. Cary Fukunaga’s direction on the show is some of the best I’ve seen in television ever, and the visual palette that he established with his director of photography, Adam Arkapaw, is truly astounding. The way that Fukanaga takes the grime, flop sweat, and rusting industrialization of Louisiana and turns it into a visceral, emotional canvas is a delight. My beef is with the show’s creator and sole writer, Nic Pizzolatto.
The easiest criticism to make of the show is its ham-fisted attempt at plot and pacing. To say that Rust shows back up in Marty’s life and says, “Oh, by the way, while you and the viewers were away, I figured out a bunch of stuff, so here’s your information dump” is lazy is an understatement. To say that Marty and Rust have some sort of weird “two plus two equals green ears, and oh, didn’t we see a green house once?” connection to put all the pieces together in order to rudely usher us into the finale is lazy is an understatement. However, many critics have pointed out, quite rightly, that “True Detective” was never supposed to be a tight, investigative thriller. It’s a musing on the psychological toll a case like this can take on human beings; it’s a fever dream where old-school Louisiana corruption meets Lovecraftian, existential horror, all wrapped up in a tight bow of brooding looks and wandering dialog. I could argue that even if that’s your goal, you still have an obligation to logic and plot, but I don’t even care about that. If Pizzolatto really wanted to show the horrific futility and random nature of being a detective in the face of daily evil, he wouldn’t have bothered to cobble together a yarn-and-corkboard investigation to lurch us into Carcosa, he would have had the entire case blown wide open by a normal person calling in an anonymous tip. That’s how cold case murders are solved in the real world. No feats of investigative strength, no late-night burglaries of conspirators’ homes, no smoke-filled storage locker. Just boring, normal people who see something and tell the police.
It’s so horrifyingly random and arbitrary that some cases in the real world go unsolved, while others are brought to their conclusion because a Walmart greeter saw a guy because she left work later than usual. That would be truly, deeply frustrating, which is Pizzolatto’s end goal, is it not? The futility and absurdity of human life, and how we attempt to know ourselves in an inherently unknowable existence?
The last thing I want is the assumption that I’m somehow being anti-intellectual in my dismissiveness of Pizzolatto’s philosophical goals for the show. I have no issue with the lofty desire to bring in a higher level of thinking into a product meant for mainstream consumption. We’ve seen that in all of our favorite series over the years, the “Breaking Bad,” “Sopranos,” “Wire” triumvirate in particular. But, as Rust Cohle waxes poetic, and spins his metaphysical yarn in front of the humorless dynamic duo, I found myself thinking of Westley’s line just after Vizzini has so eloquently ranted about the location of the poisoned wine in “The Princess Bride”: “Truly you have a dizzying intellect.” That’s not meant to be a compliment.
See, I can’t help but think that Pizzolatto is a slave to the things he’s read. He’s actually much more the embodiment of Rust Cohle than perhaps he even realizes. As the show progressed, I came to have the same feeling as Marty as he began to resent being trapped in a car with an infuriatingly cryptic asshole, except that the show was Rust. It’s one thing to have the idea to put a flawed, nihilistic detective together with a grit-grind, red-blooded American goon like Marty. It’s another thing entirely to have your flawed lightning rod essentially be a one-dimensional parrot for the greatest hits of philosophical realism. The characters of “True Detective” may seem intriguing and well-formed due to the show’s voyeuristic obsession with discovering their innermost deficiencies, but when you look deeper, you begin to notice a consistent flatness to each of them.
This is an issue across the board with “True Detective,” in that there is a discrepancy in what it purports to be (and what many fans of the show simultaneously praise the show for) and what the show truly is. It supposedly calls into question the ideas of masculinity and the male/female dynamic. Marty is essentially the embodiment of the brute, the personification of male insecurity. He’s supposed to be the stand-in for every literary or cinematic American hero cop. He’s John McClane if John McClane was forced to examine his worldview in the face of horrific violence, and the constant droning of DJ Nietzsche’s latest mashup album in his ear. But where Marty as a character falls short is his lack of perspective. As competent as he is in many areas, he’s still a buffoon, Pizzolatto’s punching bag. And in fact, that’s what Pizzolatto seems to have intended. He wants to strip away the patriarchal veneer on the action hero mythos and expose it for what it is. The only problem is that goal is a thought experiment, and the end result is a pastiche of dialog and anger, and ultimately, nothing resembling a human being.
Speaking of inhuman characters, we’ve barely even talked about the darling of the television character landscape, Rust Cohle. He has everything you’d want in a psychological thriller lead character: brooding intellect, substance abuse issues, and he can throw a damn punch. With the talent brought in by Matthew McConaughey, Rust Cohle had everything he needed to become an iconic character. Instead, he became a vessel for Pizzolatto’s masturbatory ruminations, a delivery mechanism for a spicy word soup, with ingredients cannibalised from Pizzolatto’s personal library. The good version of what Pizzolatto set out to do is the Coen Brothers’ “No Country For Old Men”: an old detective standing so close to the brink of mortality that he begins to perceive the violence in the world as worse, that the doom he feels for himself is, in fact, an impending demise for society in general, which another character correctly identifies as vanity. Even “Game of Thrones” delves into the crises associated with nihilism in between dicks being cut off every now and then. The conversation between the dying man, stabbed in the stomach with The Hound, and Arya just before Arya mercy kills him is essentially what I wanted from “True Detective” all along. And even better, those two works put in the work to get to that point, whereas Pizzolatto can’t even be bothered to show his math on the back of the test.
That’s what ultimately saddens me about the show. I truly WANTED things out of it. I went in very excited, but with tempered expectations. I’m not a person who delights in not liking things that other people love out of some masochistic pleasure derived from going against the grain. If you asked the biggest proponents in “True Detective’s” greatness what their five favorite TV shows are, they would probably line up exactly with mine. I just can’t help but think that there is an aspect of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to all of this, not that people who like “True Detective” hear the “smart” words coming out of Rust Cohle’s mouth and are afraid to say they don’t like it, because it will make them look stupid–there are too many intelligent people who like this show for that to be true. Instead, I think everyone views “True Detective” through the lens of what they want it to be, which is an ambitious, philosophical narrative with interesting, deep characters, dressed up in the garb of a cop drama. That’s the bill of goods we were sold, and that’s the show that I really wanted to watch. The only problem is that the characters were caricatures of nothingness, the plot only moved forward when the an upcoming scene demanded it, and the philosophy was never challenging, it was just flash. “True Detective” is the mental equivalent of a “Transformers” sequel, except it substituted winding monologues for robots, and philosophy for explosions.
I fear that the reaction to this show will mean that more like it will come as a result–that well-read will become a substitute for smart, and that existential futility will become an excuse for poorly constructed narrative. The Emperor is naked. If I’m the child in the capitol square who has to shout it in the sea of fawning admirers, so be it.