Saturday, April 20, 2019

True Detective - Seasons 1 and 2 - a review

Season 1 - McConaughey and Harrelson
I've finally gotten around to watching Seasons 1 and 2 of True Detective.  For many of you familiar with this series from when it came out in 2014, and on Hulu, this is at best an also-ran reaction, but I'm writing for others like myself who had to wait for the advent of Netflix Streaming. Season 3 is available on Hulu, but not yet on Netflix. Friends whose opinions I share most of the time tell me it's as good as Season 1 and they didn't like Season 2 all that much. I part ways with these friends. I thought Season 2 was excellent despite the trashing by the critics and I'm impatient to see the final season.

Part of me feels like I've just been forced to watch a dogfight between two pit bulls. But another part of me wants to speak out and persuade myself that dark subject matter should not detract from an otherwise superb artistic production. 

Truth is it does, unfortunately. I don't see how one can sit and watch such wretchedness and not get angry at having to witness the world decay and fall apart.  Why watch hour after hour of misery, corruption and shattered dreams? 

The answer, I guess, is because it's quality television.

It's not a new topic, this steady inflation of engaging subject matter in the direction of social decay and crime and
Season 2 - HBO photo
cynicism and disillusionment. If it's not about misery or corruption, evidently it's not cutting edge.

Here you go. I've got a great show for you to watch. All the good guys die in the end, and one after another the main characters fail at achieving their lifetime goals, But it's an engaging story. People fail to connect with their children, fail to shed addictions, fail to repair the world, But they're really sympathetic; they've got heart. Do we really need to go this far, get this dark, to create the kind of tension necessary for keeping an audience engaged in the plot line?

I hope this is not a spoiler, but the trouble with making the bad guy the State of California (in Season 2) and the corruption not only centered in but run by the governor of the state, is that it confirms your worst suspicions about the state of the world. You are convinced. Back in the day of early detective fiction, the cops went after bank robbers and the thrill was in the chase that ensued. Today, it's not realistic unless the hero uncovers the fact that corruption goes all the way to the top. The only thing that is certain is that just when you think things can't get worse, they do.

But screw reality, right? One watches entertainment because one likes a good romp. An adventuresome journey into a world one lacks the courage or opportunity to take in real life. It's what books and cinema are for, right? Never mind that it's dark. The important thing is it's a jolt to the system. Keeps the heart pumping. Keeps the mind engaged and the interest high.

At least you get something for your money and your descent into the dark side. Matthew McConaughey never acted better. Woody Harrelson never acted better. Together they make magic.

Then, when these two actors are done in Season 1 they put their heads together and become producers in a second season with actors just as good - Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Vince Vaughn, three heroes with fatal flaws you can't help developing compassion for - even the gangster who wants to go straight but lacks the courage. You learn the back stories. You learn that the gangster is terrified by childhood deprivation and can't imagine grabbing a piddly $100,000 and running - something most of us would do in an instant to escape the kind of odds he's up against. You really connect with the Rachel McAdams character, the child who has to parent her sister while at the same time coming to terms with the fact that her own parents were missing in action. The Colin Farrell character wants only to connect with his child and you sit and watch the evidence grow that that goal is out of reach and you ache for him.  It's all brilliant writing (Nic Pizzolatto), brilliant directing (Cary Fukunaga; John Crowley), brilliant acting all around. I see why the series is being touted as worthy of comparison with The Sopranos, the show that started us down this path to rooting for killers. 

Ever since I watched The Wire, I have a quick and easy answer to the question, "With all the streaming you do, do you have a favorite?"  I've argued that The Wire should be required viewing in all the public schools in America, that anybody who wants to understand America should be familiar with it. I'm also a big fan of Deadwood and Breaking Bad, two other shows mentioned in that Globe and Mail article as spin-offs of The Sopranos. I now add True Detective to the list, take a deep breath, and admit that maybe it's time to admit I don't really have any interest in watching The Sound of Music, or Little Women, or Little House on the Prairie, so why waste any more time wishing for a more innocent America to return to?  Alice in Wonderland, of course, but that's not nostalgia, it's absurdism, even though it's ostensibly for children.

True Detective, like Breaking Bad, is a slap in the face to naifs like me, people who haven't thought enough, haven't taken the time to realize that one shouldn't have to apologize for the fact that not all plots are suitable for children. Maybe it's true that The Sopranos is a stand-in for modern-day America, a story about wasted talent and missed opportunities, a place slipping away and in the hands of waste collectors. After all, we've sold out what idealism we once had and have allowed money to trump all else. Why wouldn't entrepreneurial types be making money off of drugs and prostitution? And why wouldn't we be creating artistic photoplays based on this modern reality?

Is it, though? Is America now nothing more than a place for more and more throw-away things, more and more throw-away people each day? Is it what is being depicted these days when we watch Game of Thrones as the Romans watched the lions eat the Christians. Is it this bad?

The decay is all around us. The Roman Catholic Church is a filthy organization, rotten to the core. The Evangelicals are clueless whores, led by a pied piper cheered on by their very reverend leaders, willing to believe  that what earlier generations would have been convinced was the devil at work is nothing more than the Republican Jesus being clever. 

American foreign policy is all about getting even more money into the hands of already obscenely wealthy corporate executives, making arms sales to dictators in starving third world countries. At home, the gun lobby is succeeding in getting guns into every American school and home and hospital, to protect us from the worst fears our imaginations can conjure up. Why wouldn't we entertain ourselves with drama based on the assumption that the attempt to build a bullet train in America is simply a front for gangsters working hand-in-glove with the top political class in California to siphon off yet more money from tax-paying saps?

There may be a middle ground between the evil of dirty money that makes America go round these days and "the hills are alive with the sound of music," but I don't expect to find it in my lifetime. We're too polarized. Reality is too dark, and only fools are optimists.

So that's my conclusion. True Detective is a great show. Great acting. Great characters. Great plot lines.

Really great show.

Enjoy it.

Photo credits:

Season 1 - McConaughey and Harrelson
Season 2 - Farrell and McAdams, Kitsch and Vaughn

1 comment:

Alan McCornick said...

I am indebted to friend Margaret, who writes (I quote her here with her permission):

"(From) what I have seen, I would have said that the narrative arc is much less bleak than your reading of the series. Sticking only to series one, the power of a pure (male) friendship triumphs against corruption and personal weakness, in the end bringing down an ancient evil, and in doing so, touches the infinite…I don’t see that as bleak at all!"

Point taken.

Also, I am sensing from this and other responses that I should perhaps have waited until I had seen Season 3, and not given a reaction to two-thirds of the series only.

At the same time, part of me still wishes it were not currently fashionable to tell stories where all manner of evil, pain, corruption, and blood and guts are justified by the fact that at some abstract cosmic level things end well. Where we keep moving the goal posts toward ever more degradation. Where we are so inured to evil-doing that our fights now have to be with pure evil, and everyday dull and boring white-bread evil doesn't cut it anymore.