sâmbătă, 22 martie 2014

Defending True Detectives

It's only fair if I start with some confessions. Among many other things I am fond of, I am a huge Woody Harrelson fan. Also, I am fiercely loyal to almost everything HBO ever made and I consciously choose to defend its productions. This all leads to one possible conclusion: I will treat "True Detective" with the same bias everybody else across the media did, but acknowledge that I am not the most objective reviewer. So, just to make it clear, I really love the show.

I felt a certain amount of outrage at the negative reviews, but then again, there is no bad publicity in show business. The entire Internet seemed flooded with theories about deeper meanings, conspiracies and, of course, possible endings. I am deeply thankful to all the nice people who have obsessively searched for cultural references, through weird fiction and Lovecraft, taking it so far, that at a certain point, I felt like reading somebody's doctoral thesis in comparative literature. Connections to great writers who ever mentioned Carcosa or the Yellow King would have eluded me if it weren't for these people. With their commentaries, they made the show richer, without diminishing its appeal. To all of you, sincerely, "Thank you!!!".

Here are some of my reasons that account for this show being a highly enjoyable experience:

"Location, location, location"

My strange fascination and love for the Deep South started with "True Blood". Until then, I knew only a handful of things about New Orleans, Mardi Gras and the swamps. Curiosity made me read more and more about the region, its culture and history, the strange ethnic mix which made this society and its cuisine unique, the great people born there and, of course, the arts and music they created. The southern accent grew on me as I got used to the beautiful and melodic tonality. So you can understand my joy upon discovering the setting in "True Detective". I am aware that the portrayal of these faraway places is not completely accurate, but I fell in love with the image. Across the vast expansion of the bayou, little wooden churches rise; tents echoing with preachers’ voices, people singing, the air vibrating to the tunes of gospel music and the sound of the banjo. Abandoned buildings and homes, houses engulfed by savage vegetation, murky bars and strip joints surrounded by drunkards and laughter. This exaggerated, caricatured place is the perfect background for a gritty police drama.

Louisiana in itself is a character of the show. The decaying landscape, painted in a heavy, foggy orange tint showcases a collapsing society. Humanity and its values fade away as the universe that spawned them is falling apart. As Matthew McConaughey's character puts it, "this place is like someone's memory of a town, and the memory is fading". The noir character of the series is perfect for a good Southern Gothic story.

The mix and match cliché

This isn't the first time, nor will it be the last, that we have an ill-matched police duo on the small screen. During the last decades of television, we have grasped the secret to crime solving: putting two opposites together. Take, for example, Riggs and Murtaugh ("Lethal Weapon's"), Carter and Lee ("Rush Hour") and the classical Mulder and Scully ("The X-files"), to name but a few.

Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) seems the very embodiment of the latter tradition: a man of strong belief in family values and social order. Being a cheating (? philandering) husband, absent father, heavy drinker only makes his character complete. Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) left family life behind after the death of his child and replaced it with loneliness and a deeply nihilistic philosophy.

As the detectives are interviewed in 2012 regarding a murder investigation they had conducted in 1995 and their falling out in 2002, we gradually find out that their rendition of past events is not exactly accurate. This becomes clearer while the story moves back and forth during the season. The entire charm of the plot is built upon these unreliable narrators. We are all, in fact, inaccurate storytellers, making up interpretations for others and for ourselves as we go along.

The men we later meet in 2012 are very different from their younger selves. Marty is a divorced, sober private eye, while Rust seems to have left himself and all his hopes behind while working in a broken-down bar. As a matter of fact, the two characters have more in common than they would like to admit. Even after their falling out (sleeping with your partner's wife is sort of a deal breaker), they remain loyal to each other. This is how a real bromance works. Deep down, we all knew, right from the start, that "this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship".

The controversies

Much was written about the show’s take on women and religion. No matter how much we deny it, I am convinced we all love to get into endless, profound fights on these topics, throwing argument after argument at our adversaries without ever convincing them.

In the age-old story of good versus evil, in a story set in the Bible Belt, religion will always be important. It shapes mentalities and influences behavior. I admit enjoying Rust Cohle's cynical ranting about the world, the condescending attitude towards everybody, especially towards narrow mindedness ("Well, if the common good has got to make up fairy tales, then it's not good for anybody") and a fake sense of morality ("If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward then, brother, that person is a piece of shit"). I loved every catch phrase I rarely have the opportunity to hear on TV. As much as I understand the importance of religion as a theme in the series, I do not think of it as being anything more than a piece in the puzzle, one of those elements that allots a sense of completion to a (fictional) universe if depicted the right way.

Let's now move up to what really annoyed me. I know people only see what they want to see and I am no exception. As Darren Aronofsky put it in "Pi": ""You want to find the number 216 in the world, you will be able to find it everywhere. 216 steps from a mere street corner to your front door. 216 seconds you spend riding on the elevator. When your mind becomes obsessed with anything, you will filter everything else out and find that thing everywhere." According to this principle, I can analyze the perspective on gender in everything. But I don’t want to.

Each time I read an article about how badly women are portrayed in this TV series, I felt like calling "bullshit" and feminist hogwash. A review in The New Yorker accuses the show of treating its female characters poorly. I do understand the point, but I disagree with it being "macho nonsense". The women we meet are not "paper-thin". A lot of the women we are introduced to are prostitutes, I’ll give you that. On the other hand, the first victim is also one, so of course you would meet some more trying to find out who she was and with whom she had come in contact. Marty's mistress, a young beautiful woman, is a court stenographer, not a dumb bimbo. If the fact that she has fallen for a married man and has a hard time letting go means women are badly portrayed, then I am sorry, but the world is full of badly portrayed women. I kind of disapprove of her for going to Marty's wife, because I would never do that. It is childish revenge without any thought of consequences, additionally to being humiliating.

Since we mentioned Marty's wife, Maggie, she is called a "fuming prettiness" in the same article. I honestly enjoyed her being pretty and I do consider it is important to her character. I love seeing a good-looking woman on TV because "a thing of beauty is a joy forever". I am convinced she is calculated and manipulative in her own way. The revenge sex with Rust seems a bad decision, but it is one made out of desperation and lack of further solutions. She is entangled in the very fabric of the narrative as a wife, mother and loyal friend to both Marty and Rust.

Comparing her to Claire in "House of Cards" seems absurd. These are two very different women in two different circumstances. Most women would never tolerate the fact that their husband has occasional affairs for some profitable reason, no matter how much his Washington career depends on it. Her cold and understanding reactions seem unrealistic compared to the frustration, anger and desperation Maggie feels. This seems real to me. She remains dignified and accepts his missteps until her everyday life and dignity have been bruised.

And the last point on the "to be annoyed about list" is the many comparisons. If I try hard enough, I can compare any number of random shows and movies, but some analogies are exaggerated. There is a huge number of police dramas at any given time. So comparing this show to "The Fall", only because it has a female police officer as a lead character is somewhat far- fetched. Yes, there are parallels, but each TV show has something that makes it similar to next one, as well as things that set them apart. Comparing something you do not like to something you like a lot is pretty easy. Sometimes things need to be treated as singularities, enjoyed as unique creations.

The True Detectives

Beyond my admiration for the great performances of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, I have discovered my love for the characters they portray. Heroes and anti-heroes in their own right, they do bad things and good ones, because "The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door".

I always thought that being a good policeman required a certain calling, like being a good doctor or teacher; that only a certain type of men (or women) would choose to put themselves in the service of others without blinking. In my idealistic world view, being a cop requires sacrifice and devotion. And this is what I saw in Marty and Rust. Most people are capable of leaving work at the office, but I live with the impression that law enforcement, especially being a detective investigating homicides, makes this almost impossible. Haunting images of old and current investigations are probably impossible to get out of one’s head.

Marty uses occasional visits to a bar or his mistress as a relief system before switching to “family mode”. Is this only an excuse to promiscuity and self-indulgence or a very own self-defense mechanism? Probably a little bit of both. Rust, on the other hand, has given up on sleeping around and having a personal life, immersing himself into the investigation.

But there is one thing they both have in common. They want to mend the world. Seventeen years after the start of their investigation, ten years of estrangement later, they let go of old grudges and team up to solve the crime that had happened almost two decades earlier. They risk their life without even being cops anymore. A true detective goes all the way to solve his case, to find the criminal, to achieve closure and bring about justice. "Fiat justitia, pereat mundus", because there is no price to be put on justice and it has to be fulfilled at any cost.

The ending

Viewers and critics always have high expectations from a show's ending. They all want their own personal finish, rarely the one writers want. They build their hopes and desires up, so when the grand finale is there, they usually feel disappointed, instead of accepting the writer's vision.

Much was said about Rust's sudden revelation while facing imminent death, how he was suddenly converted into a believer. That this was allegedly not consistent with his character. On the other hand, I ask myself, how would I react in a similar situation? Wouldn't I also remember the people I cared about, the ones I lost and the ones to whom I still owe something? Rust feels the love of his estranged father and the daughter he lost. Most people probably search for something to hang on to when faced with death. And for a man who has nothing left to lose, it is a good excuse to find something worth living for. So it is in no way out of character.

Another issue everybody seems to have are the loose ends. They caught a murderer, but since there is an entire organization of criminals hunting women and children, their victory is shallow. People felt like they needed an ultimate solution, but there is none to give them. It is true that nothing gets truly solved, because there is no ending to their work. We all know it, the world will keep on spitting out murderers and psychopaths, as well as men and women trying to catch them. Rust Cohle was right, "time is a flat circle": we as well as versions of us, repeating the same things over and over again.

Eventually, we should all remember that this is a TV show. It depicts real events but it is not real. It has its own take on the good versus bad story, but it is masterfully told, with great writing and great cinematography. And the fact that it went viral all over the internet, that everybody, including me, feels they have to express themselves in one way or another, only proves that they did something right.