SPOILERS & WHATNOT: If you’re reading this blog post, I’m assuming you’ve seen the entire first season of True Detective and are up to date on the second season. If that’s not you, I can’t imagine this will be of interest. I do not consider myself a professional reviewer or authority on anything I might cover in this post. I am simply a fan of the show, and I love thinking about it. This is for a few friends and myself.
Ideas and thoughts that follow are my own, but there will undoubtedly be parallel thinking among other writers. I will make all effort to credit authors whose ideas I’ve read. My plan is to write two blog posts per episode. The first will be a shorter first impression type thing. The second will be informed by reading other people’s work and some secondary materials.
Here we go.
Louisiana through the eyes of True Detective’s misanthropic Detective Rust Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey, is how the state always looked to me when I lived there; verdant, decadent, hopeless, beautiful, doomed. There were no mythologized Mardi Gras Indians. Jazz did not spill from the doorway of every neon lit French Quarter bar.
Strange things were afoot, and they were not friendly.
To understand the first season of the show, you have to absorb the idea that the show is intentionally formulaic. It’s essentially Lethal Weapon in the swamp. Rust Cohle is the basically the same troubled cop with a tragic past and deadly skillset as Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs. Woody Harrelson’s Detective Marty Hart is the “I’m too old for this” partner equivalent of Danny Glover’s Roger Murtaugh.
The show’s writer/creator, Nic Pizzolatto, uses a by-the-book cop drama to deliver a nihilistic perspective influenced by horror writers and philosophers like Thomas Ligotti, Eugene Thacker, H.P. Lovecraft, E.M. Cioran, and Frederick Nietzsche. During the first season, there were claims of plagiarism. I have some thoughts on that, but will explore them in later posts.
Season 2 appears to be framed on the California noir genre. Films you might recognize in it include: Chinatown, L.A. Confidential, Sunset Boulevard, and The Big Lebowski. An ambitious fan could write an entire film studies PHD thesis on this genre.
California noir is all about tone and setting. The main characters are usually some kind of detective or investigator. They are given the magical ability to move between the upper worlds of fame and power as well as the lower worlds. If this seems familiar and you studied Italian classics, you might also recognize this shtick from Dante’s Inferno.
Most of the action takes place among lower class to normal people prone to weakness and valor in roughly equal measure. Conspiracy and evil trickle down from unseen powers. Wealth and fame are often mistaken for power until the story evolves, leaving the audience to understand that Hollywood glamour never comes without a price.
The plot is often set up with a series of coincidences. A body is found; a rug is pissed on.
This can rub some viewers the wrong way, but look at your own life. There is no mystical show writer setting up odd coincidences (It should be noted, despite my interest in nihilism, I am not an atheist, but I also don’t believe in an interventionist deity). Things happen, and we assign value to them later. Because a show is a show, these coincidences are manufactured, but they are not necessarily unrealistic.
Just because coincidences bring most the main characters together at the end of the first episode, doesn’t mean there is an actual teleological imperative to the rest of the show to be that way. You have to start somewhere.
UPDATE: this season was so lame, I stopped writing about it.