HBO earned its reputation as the best TV production company going during the last decade with dramas such as ‘The Sopranos’, ‘The Wire’ and the comedy ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’. Maintaining that standard of programming was always going to be tricky and recently the quality of their output has been leaner. ‘Boardwalk Empire’ looks good, but is an entirely soulless affair. Personally I could take or leave ‘Game of Thrones’ – it is bloated, and often vapid. Despite the excellent ‘Girls’, HBO’s recent catalogue has been transcended by shows on other networks, particularly ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Mad Men’.
Which brings us to ‘True Detective’ a mini-series produced by HBO, which started airing in the States at the start of January, and is due to start in the UK in late February.
Two of my favourite televisions shows were the screen adaptations of John le Carre’s novels ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ and ‘Smiley’s People’. Both were made by the BBC in the late seventies and early eighties, and crucially, as six episode mini-series. Whether this was intentional, or as a result of budget constraints is unclear, but the six episode format was the perfect length for each. Combine this with Alec Guinness nailing the role as George Smiley as nobody else, not even Gary Oldman, has done since, and you had a winner.
The direction and structure of many recent shows suggests that the mini-series format is under utilised in modern television. It’s understandable though, things are competitive out there. No show that gets commissioned wants its narrative to have a self imposed shelf life. Why restrict yourself? If something’s a hit you want to retain the scope of elongating the narrative arc to suit everyone’s pockets. Sometimes, as was the case with the (eventually) basket case ‘Homeland’, that can have dire consequences for a show’s quality and plausibility. Instead of writing to preset plot and character development arcs, the drama’s direction is constructed around the number of episodes ordered, or in this case the narrative’s conclusion can be altered when the promise of funding for another season arises. Staying truthful to the telling of a story as you had envisioned it must be hard in the face of such cynicism. Let’s just say that had Nick Brody been able to detonate the device at the end of season one, ‘Homeland’ would’ve been viewed far differently, especially critically, and would’ve been a vastly different show structurally moving forward. Perhaps it would not have existed beyond that season, or at the very least prevented itself from that bizarre schizoid detour it took in season two. Say it did end with the climax that wasn’t but should’ve been, and say instead of being a needlessly elongated season one, it was a seven or eight episode mini-series, wouldn’t that have been entirely more appropriate structure for its story?
‘The Wire’ remains the benchmark for television, and in essence its five seasons were mini-series, each focusing on a different echelon of Baltimore’s society and its connection to drug dealing. Each season’s focus on each sub section of society, and its effects, direct, or indirect on the narrative’s original focus, the street and the police, became seamlessly interwoven into what was already established. Like ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’, the knowledge that the plot is entirely self contained, and that it will end, and has to, is critical to the approach of the show’s successful construction. This means that the intricacies and details, the elements that enhance the drama, can become prioritised and crystallised instead of worrying about how to justify the show’s existence and popularity from year to year on the fly. Writing, character and plot development always thrive when there’s a certainty in their finality.
‘True Detective’ is such a show. The show revolves around the interview of two former detectives, Rust Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (played by Woody Harrelson), who once worked a serial killer case in mid nineties together. They’re being interviewed again in the present day by two coppers who are working a new murder case that shares many similarities to the two murders that were investigated by Cohle and Hart. At this stage, three episodes in, it is not yet revealed who the original killer is, or whether Cohle and Hart apprehended or killed the right person. But because it’s a mini-series you know we’ll be getting to that, and as such it just makes what’s happening here and now all the more engrossing.
So far, exposition of the case has been kept to a minimum, and is largely pre-supposed, as the detective’s questioning Hart and Cohle are in control of the questioning and its direction, as they already have the rough information as to what happened. One result of this is that it puts Hart and Cohle and their views of each other front and centre of the retelling, or rewriting, depending on your view, of the narrative surrounding the case. This is compelling, not only for the next revelation relating to the case itself, but how you perceive their personalities and how you believe this influences their retelling of events. Hart in particular is suspicious of why the detectives Gilbough (Michael Potts) and Papania (Tory Kittles) need to question both Cohle and Hart. That you see both Cohle and Hart each being given different justifications only adds to the mystery and unpredictability of what’s to follow. At this point it’s clear that Cohle’s thoughts are of more interest to Gilbough and Papania, but that Hart’s view of Cohle is also important.
On occasions we are shown the true events in direct juxtaposition with the character’s retelling and perception of them and each other. It creates a dilemma for the viewer of who and what to believe. Hart is defensive, and tries to paint himself as conventional, particularly in comparison with Cohle, and the way Cohle lives. Your suspicions of how he attempts to portray himself become roused when we are shown the exchanges between him and his wife, played by Michelle Monaghan, and between him and Cohle. He is clearly not as conventional a thinker as he’d like to believe or appear to be and has complex issues of his own, which have yet to be fully explored, but hopefully will be in the upcoming episodes. While interviewed Hart talks about his marriage and job, in the past tense, as being supported during this period by his dalliances with his mistress. Yet despite this ‘assistance’ we see him struggling to live up to this façade in a domestic setting. He’s clearly dissatisfied, bored and is someone who’s trying desperately to want it to be enough. He’s irritated when Cohle intimates that Hart is someone who is ‘incapable of guilt’, and that such people ‘tend to have a good time’. Hart retorts that he ‘tries not to be too hard on himself’. Yet later on we see Hart’s guilt and insecurity come to the fore when he comes home to find Cohle talking to his wife after having mowed the lawn, literally. Hart sees this in metaphorical terms, for what he’s worried he cannot provide or no longer wants to. In each of these scenes Harrelson brings it, and the domestic subplot feels authentic. The insidious decay of his marriage is an underrated facet of the show, to which the effect of Cohle’s introduction is only starting to be realised.
Superficially Cohle’s present day phenotype reflects the likely end result of a person broken by a combination of drug addiction and alcoholism, and whose ennui and phobic scepticism of humanity’s worthiness have colonised his significant intellectual capacity. But the more he talks the more uncertain you become as to why he’s truly the way he is in the present. He claims ‘he knows who he is’, yet in an earlier flashback he talks of acknowledging the futility and denial of man’s programming, and of his own, and hints at his hopeless inability to do anything about it, as he ‘lacks the constitution for suicide’. He speaks passionately of the lingering effect of looking at DB’s (dead bodies) for hours, and that it has made him believe that beyond ‘time, death and futility, there are broader ideas at work, mainly what is owned between us as a society for our mutual illusions’. The disparity of his present day acceptance with his still wrangling younger self works to alter your retrospective view of his earlier thoughts – it leaves you with the lingering question of whether Cohle truly wants to believe what he thinks of himself, mankind and its existence – that man’s self awareness is a cruel accident of evolution. Is he a victim of his own superior mind, and that his descent is a product of his realisation that he’s correct? However you’re also just as likely to think, given the evidence presented, that it’s more to do with his tragic and unfortunate life circumstances and experiences, which have simply worn him down and driven him to believe in such a bleak outlook. Perhaps it’s both, or neither of these things.
What is certain is that this show is at its strongest and most compelling whenever McConaughey’s on screen, particularly when he’s given licence to open up Cohle’s mind, which can be quixotic, esoteric and existential in equal measure. Visually we’re treated to some of his trippy experiences of technology and nature morphing into peculiar shapes, the distinct after effects of his days using drugs whilst working undercover, or so he claims. It’s a technique reminiscent of those used in the movie ‘Drug Store Cowboy’ with its tumbling cows. I’d advise you to watch that movie if you haven’t.
Without doubt the main attraction of Cohle’s character is his propensity for incisive erudite observations. This happens most often in the scenes where he is being interviewed. At the end of episode three he gives a captivating opinion of the moment of death and what it truly means. He believes we all realise in that final moment what we’ve denied all along, that life is all ‘presumption and dumb will’ and that it was ‘A dream you had inside a locked room…A dream about being a person’. He talks of looking at endless pictures of dead girls, their eyes tell of them being ‘relieved’ at ‘how easy it is to let go’, and ‘realising what they were’. It’s one of the most gripping scenes of television I’ve seen. Enticing dialogue that makes you think, really think, is so rare nowadays.
Most of Cohle’s dystopian soliloquies are emphatically imbued by the decaying backdrop of small town and rural Louisiana, where wider social themes are explored. In a scene where Cohle and Hart arrive at a parking lot of a seemingly deserted mall in a small town, Cohle observes that ‘This place is like someone’s memory of a town, and that memory is fading.’
Heavy industry is declining, or at least shrinking, but its residual effect on nature and most of the local people is perpetually apparent. Cohle points out, in a variety of ways, that poverty and desperation are a direct result of a lack of education, ‘people here don’t even know the outside world exists…they might as well be living on the surface of the fucking moon.’ And that these are the conditions on which religions thrive, ‘people are weak, they’d rather throw money in a wishing well than buy dinner’.
This building sense of desolation is used effectively in a set piece at the end of episode two. The seemingly ubiquitous massive chemical plant is in the background, one of the few sources left of wealth creation, and it is contrasted with a ruined church in the foreground. That the church lies in heavy grassland, and the scene is set in bright summer sunshine, is at odds with the sense of impending dread that builds. This has been developed by listening to Cohle, what we’ve learned about the case itself, and about the nature of life in this place. All of it leads to the conclusion that the Gothic aesthetic is part of reality.
As Cohle and Hart enter the church the camera scrolls upwards to see an Owl sitting on one of the beams. It turns out to take no significant part in the narrative’s sequence, except that its appearance, as a bird of prey, as you soon find out, can been viewed as symbolic of the presence the killer once had in this church, as the place where he picked one of his victims. It’s this level of rich and dense detail that sets this show apart.
I have no idea how this show will end, only that it will. But I’m calm and contented in the knowledge that it’ll be done right, because the characters are just so well written, and compelling, that the narrative resolution is secondary, and really is only compelling because they are the ones who are weaving it, contorting it and personalising it. If only more shows were as structurally circumspect, certain of themselves and in the thrall of their own art and not commercialism, as ‘True Detective’ is, then the overall standard of television shows would be a good deal better. But sadly, on this point, Rust Cohle’s pessimistic outlook applies.