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Sympathy for the Devil

True Detective

a television series created and written by Nic Pizzolatto
HBO, Season 1, DVD $59.99; Blu-ray $79.99
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Lacey Terrell/HBO
Vince Vaughn and Colin Farrell in the second season of True Detective

The low-key romance that grows between two people working side by side has sometimes been the subject of great literature. It constitutes the most optimistic part of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and the least gruesome part of Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, which ends with an authorial lecture on camaraderie and how men and women are often denied it when confined to gender-specific work. Both novels make their arguments for fond, sensible bonding born of cooperative labor.

Television understood this (somewhat) early on and at least by the 1960s producers began to fabricate work situations where male and female characters (well, maybe only one female character) could week after week banter and attach without having actually to date: the comedy writers’ room in The Dick Van Dyke Show; the investigative reporters and their researchers in The Name of the Game; various West Coast detectives and their secretaries or assistants (Mannix, Ironside); The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s Minneapolis television newsroom. No passion was truly in play in these job settings but sibling-like intimacy and affection between the sexes was the glue that held the ensemble together week after week.

Still, as glue goes, American screen narrative has mostly preferred the bromance, the cowboy aspect of two male detectives getting to know each other on a hot or cold case (women detectives in the UK—Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect, Gillian Anderson in The Fall—have tended to go it alone) and if the brotherly duo also expresses our nation’s federalist principles, as well as its difficult class divisions, by having one educated person at the state or national level team up with a local law enforcement officer who has never left town, well then, people, we have a show. The only gender reversal I’ve seen of this—The Heat, starring Melissa McCarthy as the local cop and Sandra Bullock as the FBI agent—was set in Boston and played for laughs and was one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen.

When True Detective aired last year on HBO it was squarely in the familiar trope of two guys getting to know each other on the job, doing some squabbling, some drinking, and having each other’s back. At the end there is a long predictable rescue of one by the other. And yet it seemed entirely original. This is due to several elements that are all in perfect sync with one another: the Louisiana setting (its shabby gulf towns, its tent meetings of bayou Baptists, its silvery swamps), the exquisite cinematography of Adam Arkapaw, and the acting, all threaded on the same needle by the director Carey Joji Fukunaga. These worked together to give the show the look of a great film, where characters seem a natural part of the locale: through sensitive photography the setting seems to liquefy and flow into the cast to form (not just inform) the characters’ blood and spit, vowels and squints, headshakes and struts. Their hot tears are a warm rain from the wide celluloid sky. This is assisted by first-rate actors, who possess the highest powers of concentration. The ability on a camera-laden set to inhabit a character without a twitch of distraction or preoccupation or visible hint of the internally or externally irrelevant is a scary but brilliant feat.

Ordinary people cannot do it. But I have seen great actors do it even at cocktail receptions full of cell phones. In a world where major writers have announced that they cannot focus on their work without extracting or blocking the modems in their laptops, this kind of thespian concentration is worth noting. (One thinks of the writer Anne Lamott’s remark on her own maturing undistractibility: “I used to not be able to work if there were dishes in the sink,” she has said. “Then I had a child and now I can work if there is a corpse in the sink.”)

Woody Harrelson as Louisiana cop Marty Hart with his angry underbite, interesting blood pressure spikes, and recognizable male jazz moves gives a performance that grows more impressive on subsequent viewings, while Matthew McConaughey as the former DEA agent Rust Cohle with his extravagant enigmas and bored-to-the-gills gnomic utterances is instantly mesmerizing. He believes the world is “a giant gutter in outer space.” When Hart, his CID partner of three months, asks him if he’s a Christian, he says, “In philosophical terms I’m what’s called a pessimist.”

“What’s that mean?” asks Hart.

“It means I’m bad at parties.”

“Let me tell you,” replies Hart. “You ain’t great outside of parties either.”

Rust Cohle feels the entire human species should do itself a favor and just walk off into the eternal sunset. He himself is intermittently on the wagon and doesn’t have the temperament for suicide. He and Hart are a hoot and were made for the long police vehicle rides that Hart would like to turn into a silent zone and yet never does.

“Why don’t you just watch that car commercial if you like McConaughey’s acting so much?” a True Detective skeptic recently said to me. (I love that car commercial, though I’ve now forgotten what car it is for.) Harrelson’s and McConaughey’s performances are indelible and distinctive if easily parodied; one can go to YouTube and find some amusing imitations. (I recommend a video titled “True Barista.”) But as with many parodies they honor with their mockery—no writer was ever parodied more than Hemingway—and parodies do not necessarily disparage their source but rather sing a cozy, observant ditty alongside it, as the Greek etymology of the word parody recommends. In any case, embracing laughter and the object of that laughter is only irony and Keatsean intelligence, not assassination. Watching Harrelson and McConaughey together is pure joy.

There is a bit of Hemingway in True Detective: the terse vale-of-tears dialogue, the visitor from far away filling up with the air of a new land. Hart and Cohle (not pronounced “soul” but we feel the blackened spirit) garden and enact their forensic partnership, sharing one woman, many cigarettes, and a mild fascination with each other, while remaining their own best advocates, a psychological project that seldom lets up. Hart clings to his hard-won normalcy—wife, kids, house, job—even if it bores him.

Cohle has left all that. He lost his only child and is now completely on his own in the world, having been raised by a Vietnam vet survivalist in Idaho to whom he no longer speaks. Cohle’s shoot-out with some biker drug runners is filmed and scored to resemble something from that war—so says the show’s writer and creator Nic Pizzolatto—so we are made to understand that the 1960s have forever hovered over the children who grew up in that decade. This idea continues in season two, when Rachel McAdams as the daughter of a haughty spiritual leader speaks derisively of having grown up on a “hippie” commune.

Cohle, the former DEA undercover agent, has been put on a murder case with Lake Charles cop Hart because the crime seems to be of a serial nature. A visitor from another world, which may only be Texas, where his previous work records have been redacted, Cohle takes notes in a large ledger and speaks as if he were the CEO of a nihilist fortune cookie company. He is reprimanded on his existentialism by the partially spellbound Marty. “I wouldn’t go around spouting that shit I was you. People around here don’t think that way.” Despite the region’s tent-top religiosity, Cohle’s oracular soliloquies will be deemed unhinged. In a gentler moment Marty says to Cohle, “For a guy who sees no point in existence you sure fret about it an awful lot.” Harrelson brings a nice comedic drawl to his line readings. His Marty Hart is trying to be a good family man but remains an ordinary hothead and philanderer who has married up in society and is of several minds about it.

As a result, he takes up a little torridly with a court stenographer, which gets him kicked out of the house, putting him in closer domestic proximity to his work partner, setting parts of the story in faster motion. The show’s languidness, however, is part of its charm, part of its cable medium, and the imitative fallacy notwithstanding, part of its portrait of the South.

Even to say that True Detective has a plot—that is, a story that proceeds as a set of human actions and their consequences—is to miss what there is to admire about the series’s ambling and rich narrative (not the story, which is alternately incoherent and trite). The narrative is really more an assemblage of characters and scenes. To summarize the plot would make it seem boring and absurd. In short, the detectives are trying to track down who or what is responsible for some ritualistic murders of women—either a cult or a lone sicko or both. They have to interrogate the local tough guys both in and out of jail and there is a lot of vague talk about the “Yellow King,” a term used to give a screenwriter’s loose idea a little mythic buttressing.

Although the writing may be the weakest link in the show (it is helped in season one by T. Bone Burnett’s music, which is steadily mindful of ambience, mood, roots), the first-season script has things to recommend it, primarily a useful time-straddling structure in which convincingly older incarnations of Hart and Cohle are under investigation by Internal Affairs and are allowed, in answer to the interrogators’ questions, to offer additional if laconic interpretations of each other throughout the eight episodes.

Pizzolatto also provides sharp, amusing dialogue custom-fitted to the actors, plus a deep knowledge of Louisiana, where he grew up. A scene shot in a Lake Charles strip club located directly across the street from a girl’s dancing school is something a fiction writer cannot make up persuasively, despite the facts, despite the serendipitous signage, so Pizzolatto doesn’t include it (but mentions it in the commentary). He knows when reality is interesting, when reality is irrelevant, and when reality is no excuse. This sense of what to leave out comes from sifting through one’s deep knowledge of a locale. Intelligently exploiting a terrain largely unfamiliar to the viewer works well here and has been effective in other off-kilter police procedurals, from Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo (which used the snow of the directors’ boyhood Minnesota to great advantage) to Top of the Lake, in which Jane Campion’s native New Zealand is filmed with intimacy and awe (by True Detective’s own season one cinematographer, Arkapaw).

Thus it is disappointing to see True Detective’s season two return to the belly of the beast of conventional cop dramas: Southern California. And a lot of what was sometimes disparaged about the first season of True Detective—its southern Gothic noir, its amusing faux philosophy, its virility—will be missed in the much limper second season. A motif of impotence pervades all the bedrooms in season two; the setting is an LA suburb named Vinci—Latin for overcome, spent. Teeth and teethlike objects spill out like the most Freudian of dreams. “What the fuck is Vinci?” one character asks. “A city. Supposedly,” is the reply.

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Jim Bridges/HBO
Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in the first season of True Detective

“We get the world we deserve,” says the new season’s poster. Alas: we don’t even get the second seasons we deserve. Season two has a different crew, different cast, different directors, and most unfortunately a different cinematographer. It doesn’t resemble the first season much at all. T. Bone Burnett still does the score but the music is heavy, unintegrated, full of dread: Leonard Cohen sounding gruff and demonic in the title sequence; a chanteuse in a nightclub called the Black Rose wailing “this is my least favorite life” only fifty minutes in; a baleful jazz trumpet accompanying pensive aerial shots of nighttime highways. All do little but subtract by attempting to underscore. Burnett goes for something gloomier and synthetic here—the music working largely as interior monologue for the new characters who now have an even lesser script to live in.

The primary creative holdover from the first season is Pizzolatto, and so one may recognize the same random pacing, the nonconverging storylines, the villains in scary masks, strangers wearing angel wings, the gingerly skirting of the subject of race, the nonstop interest in sex workers, a weary sympathy for the devil, the damaged perpetrating their own damage, and the abundance of flat female characters who are “rounded out” by scenes that have them scold their men and show “agency”—as is said in craft discussions. These new detectives of season two—Antigone or “Ani” Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) rocking her family anger, Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) rolling his desperate family love, and Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) racing away from the Mideastern desert, Tikrit, and a guy he once slept with—are all psychically burned to a crisp. The dialogue is hard-boiled and tight—when not desperately working at exposition.

“Can I ask how much you drink in an average week?” a concerned doctor noting Ray’s red-lining liver asks him.

“All I can,” Ray replies.

Like the old TV show The Mod Squad, whom these cops seem to be referencing in their beauty, their backstories, their leather jackets, their inscrutability and recruit potential for undercover work, this is an impressive trio of California young people, though it is sometimes hard to notice when they are so dissolute, disgusted, or just weary and hidden from the sun in windowless interiors whose ochre lighting and general color scheme is something like Edward Hopper meets Dennis Hopper. (At least one scene is a direct visual quote from Nighthawks.) In the shadowy claustrophobic rooms the crew’s lights sometimes hit an actor’s face in the copperish air (a visual pun?) and eyes glint and glisten, catlike, often without motivation. When our true detectives first meet one another and form their accidental trio at the end of episode one, they have been summoned in the middle of the night: two of them are drunk, and the other has just tried to commit suicide; all of them are staring at a rest stop picnic bench on which sits the upright corpse of a missing city manager who has had his genitalia cut away and his eyes burned out.

This is our welcome to True Detective, season two. The funny sparks of life that lit things up between Hart and Cohle will be hard if not impossible to find here—bits of Chinatown, The Big Sleep, Twin Peaks, and other detective films will lumber in instead. Any humor will be in the hands of Vince Vaughn as a struggling casino owner named Frank and will probably be inadvertent. Vaughn, who like George Clooney radiates tidy, unsexy handsomeness—Vaughn’s delicately featured profile is similar to Julianne Moore’s—has difficulty melting into the fabric of this program, trouble blending with its look and tone and so stands out as very much himself, as in, what the heck is Vince Vaughn doing in this show? He has his mouth full spouting nonsense like “Sometimes your worst self is your best self.” Or, “It’s like blue balls but in the heart.” Or, “Never do anything out of hunger. Not even eating.” As well as other lines that, as The Atlantic has pointed out, sometimes sound as if they’d been Google-translated from Farsi.

Vaughn’s rushed delivery resembles that of the character he played in the romantic comedy Wedding Crashers. This same-in-every-film movie-star trait he also shares with George Clooney, though not with the utterly transformed Rachel McAdams (who was also in Wedding Crashers). In fact, party-crashing may be the real metaphor of this season of True Detective; the McAdams character, Ani, does in fact crash a party ostensibly for investigative purposes; she is there to rescue and be rescued, the meat of all cop dramas, as well as to recover an ugly childhood memory from dad’s dubious commune.

Early on may be too soon to say that Vaughn is miscast (though one wonders how the show might have been improved if Vaughn and Farrell each had the other’s role). Vaughn’s hypnotically askew performance grows on the viewer. Perhaps his performance will become legendary with time. (The city of Vinci is already practically named for him!) He plays Frank with inexpressive manipulativeness, a dapper low-level gangster who is also an outsider. His face has the stillness of a hit man’s but every once in a while fear darts across his empty eyes. Though the tallest in any room, Frank is in over his head, again a crasher, and at season’s end Vaughn begins to own the cartoonishness of his two-bit psychopath and bully, and his Proustian death trudge in the final episode could have been funny but strangely is what it’s supposed to be: a ghost story. We see him as perhaps the rivetingly rotted peg that has held the house together from the start. After all, this is the land of show business, of visions in the desert.

Still, one hears Vaughn’s own tedium in lines like “Osip, we talked this through in Paris, Caspere’s absence don’t mean a thing,” but when the Russian thugs with whom Frank is trying to do land deals speak better English than he does, it ends up eliciting some viewer pity, plus a smile, if a quick one. Frank lives literally in a glass house, and so we wait for the stones to come boomeranging. The incomprehensibility of the storyline—mine pollution! toxic dumping! the demise of the family farm! high-speed rail proposals! high-end hookers! spiritualists who size up auras like net worth! mysterious suicides!—can only be alleviated by a dash of predictability. But instead of remaining in all that glass (he later carves up a treacherous henchman’s face with some), Frank unexpectedly downsizes to a Glendale bungalow with wallpaper. And eventually to plane tickets to Venezuela. When the body count around him gets a little high—killing calms and tames him, as is said of hawks—he becomes a thrilling arsonist.

Meanwhile the mod squad—Ani, Ray, and Paul—is having its private adventures. With righteous indignation Ani/Antigone, sporting a nonstop fume and seethe, plus ombré hair that is cleverly used by season’s end to indicate the passage of time, takes on her bogus guru of a dad, who in his—or the writer’s—sloppy neoclassicism has named his other daughter Athena after the “goddess of love.” Really! Also, like her older counterparts in The Fall and Prime Suspect, as well as the French police procedural Spiral, Ani will have to endure reprimand and suspension for sexual misconduct with a subordinate. Women! In her required group therapy, where she is the only female participant and the scene struggles unsuccessfully toward a humorous moment or two, there is too much vacant glowering for things to lighten; there is no tension or shared secret that might produce the release of energy humor requires. Comedy has to have its finger on the pulse of irreverence, something season one understood, but season two is too full of its own earnest regard for Ani’s contemptuousness, despite McAdams’s often admirable performance. Audience anticipation cannot be comedically disrupted because the entire movement of the story is desultory, without suspense, and the characters are too often defeated by it, despite a handful of well-directed set pieces: the shoot-out at the end of episode four; Ray and Frank with their guns drawn under a breakfast table in episode six; the entirety of episode seven, shot with close-ups and crane shots and some real emotion.

Ray—who as he says isn’t good at being muscle and yet Frank hires him as such twice—on very little evidence (a bad tip) has avenged a long-ago rape of his long-ago wife. In a gaping hole in the storyline the possibility that Ray is not the biological father of his son is going to be used against him in a custody battle. A legal consultant might have informed the scriptwriter that regardless of biological parentage, California, like most states, makes the man who is married to the mother at the time of a child’s birth the father of that child and also provides for “marriage by estoppel.” Ray is his son’s legal father regardless of the child’s flaming red hair. DNA tests are irrelevant in this custody contest.

That this forensic error continues into judicial hearings and right on through the finale, as if it were suspense, is unfortunate. Getting ready for his day in court (or his interview with Internal Affairs, who knows for sure?), Ray starts chewing gum and drinking water and in general cleans up nicely. He casts an alert sidelong glance at Ani—a bit of foreshadowing. Watching the gifted Colin Farrell work hard—with complicated feeling and no Dublin accent whatever—in scenes that often add up to nothing is, unfortunately, a little like watching his career itself.

“I’m enjoying this soberish you,” Frank tells him, “where your head doesn’t dip and fall when I talk.”

All this while Paul is resisting the claims that his sexual past and his days in black ops keep making on him (one of the plot’s many improbabilities is that it suggests a gay affair would be grounds for blackmail even when one is no longer in the military). It is satisfying to see Taylor Kitsch shake off his defining role as Friday Night Lights’s Tim Riggins. Nonetheless, Kitsch may be the only one here who is better when speaking and moving than gazing off pensively, which the directors have him do too much of, even into mirrors, and often when he is simply fixing his expression he sometimes seems lost as an actor, as if he doesn’t know the camera’s still rolling. (Esquire, in a piece called “What Is Taylor Kitsch Doing With His Face?,” had some fun with Kitsch’s dazed gaze during a sex scene.)

Mid-season, at the end of an astonishing shoot-out filmed like a battle in Fallujah, an episode concludes with Ray and Ani stooped in anguish but leaves Paul unbent, surrounded by carnage and looking guiltily triumphant if also unclear about what has just happened. Paul is a “god warrior” and perhaps confusion goes with being such a deity. One wants to shout “Cut” before the camera does cut, though when the camera does, it freezes to an eloquently composed frame of dubious victory, pulled back to view a devastating scene, which makes one suddenly optimistic about the rest of this wild show’s second season, as if it finally had got its legs beneath it.

But things grow random again. The timeline lurches. The music becomes even stranger, often playing against what is on the screen: incongruous 1940s orchestral strings accompany a drugged-out orgy, for example. Just as early on we see Ray’s father watching Kirk Douglas in Detective Story, in the finale a poster of Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is shown long enough to let you know Pizzolatto’s narrative aspirations, though a PowerPoint presentation might have been more clarifying. The mod squad, despite being taken off the streets after their huge shoot-out, are all working from their new posts in evidence, insurance fraud, and gangster consultation to get back out in the field again and to locate some missing persons (a script doctor!) and to solve some not very interesting crimes (misuse of a good cast!).

Along with cadmium and uranium (and more than a nickel or two), talent has been carelessly disposed of, devaluing some good ground. “Mine runoff,” party-crashing, the recessive gene of the red hair of Satan, plus waste management generally are the leitmotifs of True Detective’s second season. Though not everything amounts to a hopeless wreck: when we lose Kitsch’s Paul in a scene that is pretty much a steal from Martin Scorsese’s The Departed it has the same devastating effect as losing Leonardo DiCaprio. And when there is finally some eros in the room between the remaining two detectives it too is emotionally convincing: they kiss like they mean it. Consequences ensue and haunt. Colin Farrell enacts the gypsy husband that memoirist Emma Forrest (Your Voice in My Head) claimed him to be. He is the Heathcliff in the house, and despite the sentimental gestures toward the innocence of children and the strength of women, which the script nods at hurriedly as it rushes headlong to its close, his true detective proves Hardy right: love of work is love indeed.