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Sunday, 12 April 2015

True Detective: True Blood for Grownups

I just finished watching HBO's True Detective yesterday, thanks to my mom having Comcast On-Demand. Given that I caught the first episode sometime last year, and watched the remaining seven in 2015, it's taken me less time to finish than Breaking Bad or the Newsroom.

I have a tendency to check out the first episode of something, and then not revisit it for a good long while. It's not always because of the show's quality (or lack thereof) - it's simply that sometimes I don't have an easy way to follow up with something. For example, I think it was about 3 years between when I watched the first episode of the Walking Dead, and when I saw the remaining 5 episodes of Season 1.

Anyway, with True Detective I hustled a bit more - and I'm glad I did, because it turned out to be pretty good. Not great - not the Wire or the West Wing - but a good way to spend eight hours.

Possibly what caught my imagination first was the show's visuals, and sense of place. The creators seem to really like bird's eye view shots of cars, the size of ants, driving through the highways laid down onto the bayous. I suppose it's to show the scale of the landscape, to emphasize how easy it is to disappear into those bayous, and to hint at what might be lurking there.

The opening title sequence is a good demonstrator of the creators' level of attention to visual detail. Like the True Blood title sequence, its themes are sex and death, two mainstays of Southern Gothic, and there are a lot of images in common, like strippers and desolate houses in the middle of nowhere. For True Detective, some of these thematic images are overlaid onto the silhouettes of the actors, giving a curious double-take effect, where you think you're seeing one image and then the other comes into focus. Given that a lot of the show deals in memory and how stories are distorted over time, this is pretty appropriate.

Within the show, beyond the helicopter shots depicting miles and miles of bayou, the cinematography travels from the tidy home of Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) to the rougher environs of Rust Cohle's (Matthew McConaughey) home and the back country whorehouses, ruined churches and overgrown forts where the rest of the action takes place.

Another thematic point related to the landscape shots is how the landscape is continuously fighting back against the people's encroachment. The killer's home, when we see it at the end, is off in the middle of nowhere, choked by overgrowth; the devastation of the regular hurricanes that pound the Gulf Coast also provides an opportunity for the local flora to reclaim human construction.

As far as the acting, McConaughey and Harrelson make a great uneasy partnership, even if they're sometimes a bit on-the-nose (Harrelson) or almost comically gnomic (McConaughey). Michelle Monaghan is, I'll agree, a bit underused as Harrelson's long-suffering wife who has to deal with his infidelities and drinking. To be honest, I don't think I'd have appreciated the performances as much if I hadn't read the AV Club's episode recaps explaining how this show is also a sort of rebuttal to the misbehaving anti-heroes of shows like Breaking Bad or the Sopranos.

In those shows, the main characters are men who go off the rails and learn to take what they want without bothering with consequences, or have always lived outside the law. True Detective takes the question of whether it takes a bad man to keep the other bad men from disrupting society, and unlike Breaking Bad or the Sopranos, doesn't make excuses or applaud them. Both Hart and Cohle's lives are train wrecks, even if Cohle claims to see the invisible rules keeping a more conventional man like Hart in his place, even as Hart rampages through life fucking women he shouldn't and drinking too much.

A final point is the imagery relating to the King in Yellow, by Robert W Chambers. There are hints and references to a yellow king, and to a place called Carcosa, throughout the show, although they aren't explicitly supernatural like the source material, which was an influence on HP Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. I have to confess to being a little disappointed that they didn't go in that direction, in the end, although I appreciate how difficult it is to depict that on screen and make it work. That said, the only other work I've read that referenced Chambers's work, The Feaster from the Stars by Alan Baker, earned such a bad review from me that I eventually felt bad and took it down from this blog. So maybe keeping it mundane (and equally creep) was the right choice.

So, to sum up, True Detective is a well-done slice of Southern Gothic, in the same vein (no pun intended) as True Blood, but without the supernatural or the soap opera. And now that I've seen it, I can go check out that trailer for Season 2.