True Detective Review

True Detective – what sort of a name for a show is that? It would be better if the character’s name was Detective Rustin True, that way it would have been clever. Still, it’s not like True Detective to drop the ball on being clever, in many other ways it’s a very clever show and one that appeals to my particular and peculiar interests.

True Detective is about two detectives (I guess ‘Two Detectives’ would have been another option for a series name if they were stuck). Detective Marty Hart is played by Woody Harrelson (from Cheers), and Matthew McConaughey (Reign of Fire) plays Detective Rustin True Cohle.

Besides the stunning visuals and fantastic acting (take those for granted) the first thing that really caught my attention about the show was Rust’s explanation of his religious beliefs, because it was a bit of a shock to hear Thomas Ligotti quoted almost verbatim. Ligotti, my favourite horror writer and the spiritual successor to HP Lovecraft (in the sense that he writes existential horror that is unlike any other writer of his time) wrote a book called ‘The Conspiracy Against the Human Race’ in which he describes the same philosophy as Rust. In fact it is phrased in so similar terms that I was sure Rust was going to refer to the book he read it in. It is close to plagiarism, although the writer has apparently recently acknowledged the pilfering of Ligotti’s ideas, for what that is worth.

There are other influences too of course, and as well as the odd bit of Neitsche and a general pagan or swampy-Satanic vibe there is the first reference to Lovecraft’s Mythos that I can remember seeing so overtly in mainstream television which is perhaps because although everyone loves Lovecraft these days I suspect that doesn’t go much further than wanting to see Cthulhu throw down with Godzilla. Although Robert W. Chamber’s ‘The King in Yellow’ was not originally written as part of Loveraft’s famous Mythos it was later  (controversially) adopted and integrated. It’s a somewhat tedious read I thought, but the name of the King in Yellow is certainly evocative and the concept (though very reminiscent of Poe’s vastly superior Masque of the Red Death) is also interesting. Like a lot of Mythos stories, and like a lot of Lovecraft’s writing in particular, it’s not so much the specifics of the story that leaves a lasting impression, rather the images created in your imagination. I’ve always been fascinated by the King in Yellow and his pallid mask.

Incidentally, it’s also yet another example of just how terrible The Following was, both shows are influenced by gothic literature but The Following has none of the subtlety or nuance of True Detective instead choosing to perform small pantomime episodes based on the short stories. Which is a shame really, because a serial killer series with a subtle Poe influence could have been great.

Overall True Detective is a fantastic show that depends largely on the strength of the two main actors and the fantastic direction/cinematography. The various literary references, snippets of nihilistic philosophy, hints at the supernatural and other oddities are interesting and add hint of things Lovecraft or Ligotti to the story, although this is perhaps not exploited to it’s full potential. I loved every minute of True Detective, but I was also expecting even more.

Spoilers follow

To elaborate then: in the end True Detective does not really use the various literary influences as much more than character development and fluff, despite dropping hints, clues and seemingly important snippets throughout each episode, they are ultimately revealed to be nothing more than red herrings. There is nothing going on with Cohle, nothing to connect Hart’s daughters to Carcosa, no supernatural element – there is barely a Yellow King, just a fat guy in a boiler suit. It’s possible that this is just the groundwork for the second series and that there are more villains at large – although as far as I am aware no second series has been announced though there is definitely some potential for one – but in the current context I think it is slightly disappointing. In the end, Cohle’s nihilistic outlook, hallucinations and tragic past amounts to little more than a few (very good) emotional scenes, otherwise the character is a fairly generic misanthropic lone-wolf cop. And the final line of the series irked me somewhat, because although it is obviously not Cohle finding religion as some people seem to be saying, it is Cohle changing his outlook. He describes himself as a pessimist when asked what his religion is in the first episode, but the final glass half full or half empty look at the balance between light and dark has him come down on the optimistic side. By saying that light is winning, Cohle takes the optimistic view for probably the first time since the death of his daughter. Which is fine, it wraps up nicely, but I can’t help but feel the show would have had a stronger ending if this was not the case, if Cohle allowed himself to fade into nothingness. Predicatable? Sure, but not as disappointing as the oddly cheerful, everything’s going to be OK ending. We hear Cohle present his antinatalist/pessimistic/nihilistic view of the universe as if it is the only logical way to look at things and his unwillingness to compromise or soften throughout the show had me cheering him on only for him to get a bit soppy at the end? This seemed to be pandering to audiences that were desperate for some humanisation or redemption but I am pretty sure for Cohle to die without mellowing, without compromising his core beliefs, would have been far more powerful and it is somewhat frustrating that he is ‘cured’ of his pessimism, which he had spent all season arguing was rational, by one little irrational experience. Again though, perhaps this is a set up for a second series.

I found the final episode tense and the villain suitably monstrous to cause concern, but I have to admit I was hoping for something more, some supernatural element – even if it was just an extension of Cohle’s hallucination in the heart of Carcosa. I think True Detective promised and teased so much that I couldn’t help but be somewhat disappointed when the ending was so ordinary. Perhaps the biggest twist that True Detective had was that in the end the two heroes use old fashioned detective work (arguably quite lucky detective work) to catch a fairly generic crazy person (he collects dolls and does funny voices) and then everything works out OK. True Detective promised a lot and didn’t live up to it, which is a shame because if it just hadn’t promised anything it would still have been one of the best TV shows around. This, coupled with the fact that the series felt somewhat top-loaded with the very best scene occurring in episode 4 (the continuous take of the botched drug heist), plus the somewhat sentimental final scene and hints of a larger conspiracy that was not resolved have  left me feeling slightly disappointed by the ending.

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