Along with Breaking Bad, True Detective is definitely one of the many impressive series gracing our soon to be defunct TVs (in terms of TV as a medium for banality and the ads that accompany it, and as a stand alone device).
Emily Nussbaum, a very solid TV reviewer at The New Yorker, panned it. I like her reviews and often find them a good guide to viewing, which could be either in the sense of if she likes it, I won’t, or vice versa, but not in this case.
Nussbaum finds if cliche ridden, especially in the cops as buddies, the women as eye candy, and the plot as predictable. Has she seen buddy movies that go all the way back to the 1920s, women as eye candy that go just as far back, or plots more subtly woven around slippages in time? (Emily definitely needs to see more movies.) She’s wrong on every count.
Nussbaum posits the British 5 part series, The Fall, as superior. Wrong again. The Fall opens with standard issue, cliche-ridden T&A shots of the star, Gillian Anderson, who can certainly reward such shots with visual pleasure, if that’s your sort of thing, but they are far more gratuitous than the early shots of a nude female victim of a demented killer that propels the two cops into a spiral of obsessions. The Fall follows that up with an underage baby sitter who goes through the Lolita thing without any nuance at all, and a high class brothel where the nude sex worker, who happens to be taking a shower in the other room but in plain view of the fortuitously placed camera, is there for no narrative purpose whatsoever but has a great body. The women in the bar where our two cops take shelter also has its array of attractive women but we do well to keep in mind that almost everything we see is told through flashbacks from these men’s points of view. Beauty being in the eye of the beholder would be an adage Nussbaum could have taken more to heart. Their pov is decidedly troubled, carefuly crafted (when they’re interogated by two cops some 17 years after the initial incident) and sometimes downright false.
These guys are just a bit unresolved when it comes to women. Far more than Gillian Anderson’s detective who’s got sex down cold. Ice cold. “Sweet nights” to her mean a one night stand that she initiates and terminates. This becomes an ideal because now, Man fucks woman, becomes Woman Fucks Man, and that, to her, is the feminist statement par excellence. Bravo, but it is but one way in which she, unlike Marty (woody Harrelson) or Rust (Mathew McConaughey) is a very off-putting, cold, one-dimensional character. That the editing creates numerous parallels between her and the psychotic serial killer is clearly no accident but it is not terribly insightful either and only posits a highly repressed but occasionally sex-hungry detective is not that different froma vicious, sadistic, psychotic killer. Support your local police just got another strike against it, but if there are any detectives just like Ms. Anderson’s character, I hope they will stand up.
Nussbaum also thinks The Fall is ahead of the game because we meet the killer early on and see much of his handiwork firsthand. This adds complexity. Wrong. Emily, please see Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer for complexity, or, for that matter, Psycho. What The Fall fails to deliver is any plausibilty to this nut job. He’s a grief counsellor (!), and has a happy (sort of) family, with two kids, but holds down as his night job, serial killing. Right. With no effort through the first half of the series to reconcile these insanely incongruous types, the killer becomes something of a pathetic joke, hard to believe in and impossible to identify with in any sense, unlike the socially inept Henry or the earnest and protective Norman. He just seems a mishmash of traits heaped together to get us to scratch our heads. And like Anderson’s detective, he seems almost incapable of talk that involves more than one subject and verb, preferably monosyllables, in any given utterance. If there’s a there there in either of them, the show does a great job of hiding it.
I digress. Nussbaum makes passing reference to visual style and acting but gthese qualities is the heart and soul of True Detective. McConaughey won an Oscar for Dallas Buyer’s Club and his portrayal here of a loner copy with a traumatic past is hardly inferior to his rodeo star cum AIDS victim portrayal. He mutters a lot of philosophical musings that Nussbaum, predictably dismisses. (When was the last time a mainstream critic took philosophic musings by a character in a film, let alone a TV series, seriously? They seem to get a mandatory innoculation against doing so prior to writing their first word.) But Rust’s musings are part and parcel of his character as a near celebate, ascetic, contemplative man who has lost his way and clings to the resolution of this series of horrific murders as his path to redemption. The musings make great sense and deserve serious attention but Nussbaum likes how Marty rolls his eyes at them in the early episodes and frets when he, and the show, seem to take Rust and his high-order thoughts more seriously. This means she, like Marty in the early going, fails to try to understand Rust and what troubles him and how these thoughts might be a defensive, and quite intelligible camouflage for the pain he holds within.
Nussbaum also thinks the Louisiana setting is a bit tired and cliched, but I respectfully disagree. Like Breaking Bad and Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, which she and I both admire greatly (whew!), the show gives Louisiana a distinctive stamp. The aerial shots of the bayous and decrepit ruins of this countryside speak volumes to the kind of world that could harbor, for decades, a serial killer or killers in its midst. Like the opening sequence, seen in each episode, and disliked by Nussbaum, there is a density and fascination to the images that goes well beyond the usual location shot. And T. Bone Burnett’s haunting, mersmerizing music makes the opening sequence far more significant than the heroic cops and exposed female bottom that Nussbaum managed to see, to the exclusion of everything else.
True Detective deserves a place in the pantheon of great new TV series. It should stand the test of time far better than The Fall and far far better than msot of the “entertainment” that fills the dial, even as we speak, and this new marvel of TV innovation takes place before us.