In the couple of weeks between my thinking I should write about HBO’s new series True Detective and me getting around to writing this, the show’s become a bona fide phenomenon. Eleven million people are watching and that’s only going up. So, I’m going to have to do a little more than I was originally planning, which was to just declare that you should watch it because it’s the best show since The Wire and to note that series creator Nic Pizzolatto’s novel, Galveston has a protagonist who carves figures out of beer cans and a jarring time jump.
The first episode reminded me a lot of Alan Moore’s work, so it was no real surprise to find an old interview with Pizzolatto saying,
‘The first time I got excited about writing was reading comic books by Alan Moore and Grant Morrison as a kid. Growing up in southwest Louisiana, in a house without many books, the sophistication and depth of their stories were really mind-blowing for a kid.’
It’s got the Louisiana setting of Swamp Thing, it’s got the Lovecraft stuff, it’s got that pervading interest in consciousness and symbolism. But, to me, it feels most like Watchmen – there’s a murder mystery that’s an excuse to tell a character piece, it’s told in a nested set of flashbacks with a narration that doesn’t always synchronise with what we’re seeing.
The other Moore-esque touches are the ironies that don’t quite qualify as jokes – we see some weird events when we follow Rust Cohle’s side of the investigation, and those of us of a certain age will remember the early X-Files episodes where odd coincidences, swirls of leaves or glimpses of shapes added up to a compelling exercise in Fortean worldbuilding. Here, just as we’re getting used to seeing the world through his eyes, Cohle casually mentions that, yeah, he took a lot of drugs and still gets the occasional flashback. Cohle has that quality many of Moore’s protagonists do, where it’s unclear if they’re deranged or the only person sane enough to see what’s really going on. The series looks to be heading to the same answer Moore always gets to: it’s nothing personal, it’s reality that’s deranged. You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps.
Yeah, yeah, the series namechecked the King in Yellow and there are lots of fun little details that suggest a set dresser was sent out to buy everything they could find with antlers, stars or crowns on it. I just don’t see the show as a puzzle box, there’s no real ‘Who Killed Laura Palmer’ aspect to it. For one thing, it’s not exactly got a huge cast, so the pool of suspects is a pretty shallow one. Making Cohle or Marty the murderer would also make them far less interesting as characters, so I doubt that’s where this is heading. That dodgy Church guy is clearly covering something up and senior police guys are in on it. Well … duh. Louisiana. The various elaborate online theories about which incidental character did it – the gardener, the Vietnamese cook, one of the women in the school photo – seem not to be missing the point of the show so much as missing the category. It’s called True Detective, but it’s about the nature of truth, not the nature of detectives.
We’re encouraged to challenge the ‘reality’ of the show. We’re getting – and, crucially, seeing – basically different people’s opinions of what happened, rather than any objective accounts. We’re being lied to, we’re being told partial truths, we’re seeing things unfold both gradually and out of sequence. A lot of us quickly noticed that Marty was happily married in the flashbacks but not wearing a wedding ring in the present day sequences. The process of that marriage breakdown is … well, broken down into inciting incidents. We see the spikes, the betrayals, the drama. ‘The marriage ended when she found an incriminating picture’ is a story they tell themselves, but it’s clear that the real issues were things like the way Marty ate pasta and hogged the remote and didn’t mow the lawn. People have concentrated on Rust’s monologues about life, the universe and everything, but … well, if you’ve read any Alan Moore, or anything else in the Gray Tradition, you’ll have heard a lot of this kind of stuff before, some of it practically verbatim. What makes the show tick, and practically unique, is melding that with the beautifully done domestic scenes that manage to get the real sense of years and decades passing in double quick time. Anyone can make a cop investigating a burnt out church spooky, it’s the everyday stuff that’s the difficult bit to get right.
This is a masculine show. The women are almost all lightly drawn, and for all I said about the portrayal of Marty’s marriage, Michelle Monaghan doesn’t really get to colour outside the lines of a fairly standard ‘long suffering cop’s wife’ stereotype. In places – mainly Alexandra Daddario’s Lisa Tragnet, Marty’s court stenographer mistress – more was needed, I think. But it’s a show that concentrates on its two leads. None of the other male characters really get much to work with, either. And when I say it’s a masculine show, I mean it’s one where masculinity is a problem, where masculinity is in crisis. This is a patriarchal dystopia. The police department, the biker gangs and the business savvy church are symptoms of the same problem – male dominance, a culture of violence with members barely pretending to follow their codes of honour. Rape culture, sure, for starters. Marty is struggling to even realise he has to navigate this terrain. In a show about what can and can’t be taken for granted, Marty thinks being a man is the easy bit. As it turns out, he can cope with the monsters and the shooting. It’s the real life stuff that scuttles him. Three times, he has physically attacked other men for having consensual sex with women he knows. All the things Marty takes for granted as a man are shown to be just lies we all agree are true.
It’s a great show, one that without any fuss and without spoonfeeding sets down the rules (‘if they’re drinking from a bottle, it’s 1997, if it’s a can it’s the present day), and then delights in subverting them, to the point that a straightforward shot of someone getting up and walking out the room feels like the fourth wall just tumbled down. The cliffhanger of the sixth episode is that the two series leads meet. They’ve spent half the show in the same scenes, but somehow the cliffhanger is as momentous as Locutus of Borg stepping into shot.
True Detective’s a beautiful show, intensely told. Er … you’re watching it already? OK. Carry on.