Before we know "whodunit," it's hard to pass full judgment on HBO's True Detective, a bleak, stylish mystery-drama whose eight-hour run is (as of Sunday) six hours in. That said, we can start to make some judgments and to parse which criticisms of the show still have validity. And, as I sit here on Monday morning, I'm finding that --while the show is great in many ways-- it's quite flawed from my perspective, and these flaws are too central to the show for me to ignore.
First of all, I'm well-aware that mystery is quite a hard genre to write. Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales established the work-a-day formula, but note that executing the formula well can't fundamentally be any easier than the act of writing itself*.
*NOTE: Mystery is an inherently complex genre whose complexities mirror (and usually exceed) those of general storytelling. Any story that has a beginning, middle, and end typically must reveal information strategically to set up the audience for the ending. Generalization? To be sure, but mysteries and traditional narratives require most of the same talents to structure and execute.
And, with that in mind, True Detective has done pretty damn well with a difficult genre. TD introduces so many narrative constructions, philosophical ideas, and conflicting accounts. And it packs its episodes full of clever details and clues. For all its complexity, TD manages to keep it all together, primarily with great cinematography and the excellent acting of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, who ground both the central mystery and the detectives' dramatic arcs. It's impressive.
The complexity of both the mystery and narrative has meant in practice that the show's final two hours could resolve the show in dozens of ways that would all feel satisfactory. And I don't feel like it's cheating to get to that sweet spot by presenting too much stuff (like, say, S2 of Twin Peaks). All this sophistication (as well as the textually-rich hour-long episodes) contributes to an enthusiastic audience. Frankly, while I'm far more critical than the vast majority of viewers, I still want to know how it ends, too.
All that said, what are these supposed flaws that make me so uneasy? Well, most existing critiques of the show have focused on its treatment of women. I'm not really sure that's it. Emily Nussbaum wrote this New Yorker piece critiquing the show on this count. Unfortunately, Nussbaum is not honestly engaging with the work fully. Whether this is her or the show's fault is anyone's guess, but Nussbaum's claim that Hart and Cohle are the "male detectives" who spend their time "bro-bonding over 'crazy pussy'" is quite a misleading oversimplification.
I think a more troubling claim (and, as I'll try to argue, a flaw that spirals out to the rest of the show) comes from Nussbaum's calling-out of the gratuitous sexualization of the women. The presentation of sex in True Detective feels excessive and titillating (such a literal word. Heh.). And it sometimes feels like it's the only thing the women do, outside of talking to and about men. Most of the women are sex workers, sex objects, sex victims, or s.o.-defined Bechedel-flunkies. The sex scenes feel pretty perfunctory and their rate, frankly, quota-driven*. In such a work, with apparent prestige and seriousness, this alone would at least qualify as a minor flaw.
*If I had to play word association, I'd say the apparent one-or-two-per-episode-goin-to-town quota reminds me of none other than the "classy" after-hours soft-core on Cinemax from when I was, like, 12. Do they still have that? In any case, I recognized it was very silly, even then, despite being inordinately hottt.
Anyway, the female characters' paper-thinness constitutes a minor flaw only if you also grant the standard response:
It's a story of two detectives, Alex. The show only has 8 hours to make a convincing mystery and tell an engaging story about the relationship between the two detectives, who, you'll grant, are pretty damn good characters. Focusing on more of the characters would distract from the main story.The "only two detectives and eight hours" thing is convincing to me at first, but starts to fall apart on investigation. First of all, most of the central dramatic baggage for Harrelson's Hart (and even some of Cohle's) revolves around Hart's wife Maggie. Maggie - though well acted - is not given a lot of lines to establish herself as a rich inner person, even though she participates in all of the following crucial drama:
- Demands that Cohle go to dinner at Hart's house, then draws out Cohle's tragic personal history.
- Repeatedly is shown to have deep knowledge of and insight into the tendencies of both Cohle and Hart.
- Tries to get through to Hart repeatedly about how destructively he's acting and how far he's fallen.
- Has revenge sex with Cohle, drawing first Cohle's rage at being used and then Hart's rage at being cheated on.
- Repeatedly commiserates about Hart's flaws with Cohle.
- Ultimately forgives Hart after he's caught cheating in 1995.
So in six hours of screen time for the series so far, Maggie has done at least six hugely-important things pertaining to this "story of two detectives". And so, let me get this straight: If Maggie's not important enough to give that third dimension of a rich inner life to, then why is she important enough to be a central part of Hart and Cohle's narrative, characters, and perspective? You can't have it both ways. She can't just be a paper-thin character who is completely defined by her feelings toward Hart on the one hand, and then on the other hand be the conductor of so much of the work's dramatic tension.
Now, you could just as easily read what I've written and conclude that Hart's wife is more than a convenient image or obstacle. She's doing things, influencing the male detectives, fighting back! And that's true, but only because Maggie is written to be smart. But it's always the same sort of tired, conveniently-expository intelligence. She's the kind of smart that drives the male characters' plot, not the kind of smart that suggests a full range of emotions or an interesting schema for her actions. She's not Maggie. She's - as far as the show is concerned thus far - Hart's disappointed, insightful wife. Her insights are on Hart and Cohle. Her disappointments are with Hart. And that's who she is. She doesn't like to be cheated on. Neither would anyone else. There's, like, one scene she's had outside of Hart or Cohle, and it was the time she flirted with a random bar patron to get back at Hart.
My point is that when you've spent that much time on a character that does so many different things, you can't turn around and claim you didn't have enough time to develop her. If the show doesn't have enough time to flesh out its third-most-important character as more than an elaborate, purely-reactive counterpart? Then that is a major flaw that's hard to ignore. The show should have been given more time or told its story with less momentum riding on her.
But for all of this, I don't really care if Maggie is fleshed out. That's not the central problem. No, Maggie is just the cheat code to the central problem of the series. Maggie is the key to Hart's bullshit because he spends seemingly half his screen time ruining their marriage, acting hypocritically and self-destructively, cheating on her, and ignoring her. It's sort of like a sitcom character in season 7 that never goes to their job if it's a family show or never goes to their family if it's an office show. Hart just never does anything except ruin his marriage. He never acts like a good cop or detective, and has no apparent principles that he actually sticks to, other than vague regurgitations of arbitrary, jealous masculinity. It's not readily apparent whether he's even competent.
Cohle is doing everything important that actually amounts to purposeful action or perspective in both the mystery and the drama.
Not at all a reflection on either actor (McConaughey and Harrelson both have wonderful, understated performances), but in the writing, you can't help but notice a glaring asymmetry. Cohle is essentially doing all the detective work himself; Hart is mostly just along for the ride. Cohle spends extra nights looking up casework; Hart "needs people" and is constantly hitting on potential mistresses and one-night stands. Cohle has integrity and wisdom and a well-developed perspective on human nature; Hart grouses for him to shut the hell up. Cohle keeps silent because he correctly judges that Hart wouldn't understand him anyway; Hart mindlessly repeats his backwards status quo while violating it constantly. Cohle is provokable and, by default, an aloof jerk; Hart is sadistic and vengeful to anyone that hurts him.
Now, all of this stuff reflects on good written characterization for both Hart and Cohle (and, certainly, great acting to flesh it out). The problem is, if you'll notice:
Hart sucks as a foil.
Hart's main skill is his charm with people, making him, yes, a natural foil to the cold, aloof, sometimes-sadistically-frank Cohle. The problem with this dynamic is that it's too lopsided: Cohle is inevitably always mostly right, except to be slightly more cynical - and infinitely more heartless - than is strictly necessary. Meanwhile, Hart is never more than superficially right, always pointing out the tiny flaws in Cohle's methods, but mostly just mad that Cohle made him think things about himself.
The main difference between Hart and Cohle - and the show is adamant and multiply explicit about this - is that Hart is fundamentally incapable of self-awareness and the attendant self-control and consistency that comes with self-awareness. Cohle is extremely self-aware, even of this very dichotomy, and this gives him immense power over most situations and intense insight, despite having less of the natural charm and understanding of conventions of Hart.
In short, Cohle is a philosophical pessimist that considers self-awareness a mistake in evolution, that would commit suicide if he had the constitution. Cohle is hard-working, has integrity, and is full of brilliant insights that just aren't appreciated by his corrupt and backward society (at least as the show presents both). Meanwhile, Hart just does nothing except defend his own ass and make witty rejoinders. If I might venture a single speculation, I'm guessing that Hart shot that bound meth dealer in 1995 because of he realized that they would eventually lead back to him from some past misdeed or corruption. And pure self-preservation without principle, rarely makes for good, cerebral drama (though Taken was pretty good, kind of).
Everything about Hart, all his complexity, all the rage and charm and activity, all of it adds up to excellent characterization in the hands of Harrelson. But it also shows how Hart apparently adds little to anything that's happening in the plot at large, and -the more serious charge- adds little to temper or play off of Cohle's extremes.
The foils of brilliant detectives in literature tend to work because they bring out something in the detective's character. Hart is basically making standard interpersonal messes for Cohle (or any other competent person in the same situation) to clean up, and Hart dismisses and refuses to engage Cohle's philosophy, except by gritty equivocating. Face it: Hart's a crappy foil. It'd be like building an entire season of House M.D. around House vs. Cameron, or an entire volume of Sherlock Holmes vs. Random Opium Den Addict. It just doesn't hold up. Hart's sarcastic to Cohle, and has the basic presence of mind to recognize Cohle's abilities and use them to his advantage. There's more to it than that, but surprisingly, not that much more.
Orson Scott Card, in the foreword to Ender's Shadow, called it a "parallax novel" to Ender's Game. That is, Shadow presents the events of Game from the perspective of a totally different character. The implication here being that Ender and Bean - by having two perspectives on roughly the same events - would bring a deeper understanding to one another's characters and to the story as a whole. The concept of "parallax" applies more broadly than to this special case: I'd argue it applies to virtually any situation with foils asked to respond to the same events in their own particular way.
When Hart and Cohle collide as the two fully-developed characters, we get a parallax view of the world they inhabit, and it's probably the single weakest part of the show.
After all, since we're seeing the world primarily through the eyes of Hart and Cohle (and thanks for noting this, "only 2 detectives, only 8 hours" folks), surely the difference in their perspectives should color the world. In practice, there's really no difference.
Oh, sure, they act quite differently. If they have a suspect in custody, Hart would politely try to get a confession, but would probably be stopped by charm and a desire to please superiors (and to not look like a freaking psycho). By contrast, Cohle looks into the suspect's soul, deconstructs their sins, and tells them, e.g., that they should kill themselves, you know, just looking at the situation rationally.
They act in different ways, but, practically speaking, Hart doesn't actually have a more positive view of human nature - he's just more willing to equivocate with self-preserving bullshit. So what we get is one character preaching and pronouncing a complex judgment and another one that doesn't really disagree, or can't really articulate a disagreemeent. It's a parallax calculation between an observatory telescope and a dude squinting at the Big Dipper a couple rooms over. And the view that predominates in a work is almost necessarily the best-articulated.* We end up accepting Cohle's gritty worldview because that's what the show rhetorically leads us to believe, by not presenting alternatives or even just a fresh perspective. And, if we're to accept this show as saying something in a literary sense, taking the only other 3-d character's perspective wholly off the table is very limiting.
*ex: Jensen's speech in "Network" is the high-flying trapeze everyone remembers, dwarfing the more-ubiquitous "Mad as Hell" speech in enormity.
I'll repeat the caveats: True Detective does a lot of stuff right, it's an interesting show, and plenty of people smarter than I like it very much. Emily Nussbaum's New Yorker article is mostly stultifying and superficial, and if True Detective produces a legendary ending, I'll be the first to applaud it. Plus, given that this blog's first life was as a Lovecraftian basketblog, I'm curious to see what they'll do. But the show's flaws provoke a lot of skepticism in me, and if the ending disappoints and the show is forgotten in six months, I'll not be surprised in the least. After all, the apparent "problem with women" in True Detective is less a problem with its women and more a whole host of problems at the show's core, including bad writerly choices about characters, focus, and perspective. And those choices are informing the rest of the series.