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
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…

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