It’s OK to Call ‘True Detective’ Season 3 Pretentious

The new HBO season is trying hard to hang onto former glory at the risk of sacrificing substance.
January 14, 2019, 8:08pm
Mahershala Ali
Image courtesy of HBO 

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

It’s early 2017. I’m sitting in a film studies class, low on rest, with some old professor ranting on about Collateralthe one with the “coolest” version of Tom Cruise, and uncoolest version of Jamie Foxx. Anyway, he’s talking about lighting, and Michael Mann’s “masterful” use of grain to imply the gritty dynamics between good (Foxx) and evil (Cruise). Maybe it was my lack of sleep, maybe it was the fact that I didn’t care too much of a toupéed fuck for this professor’s look. Or maybe it was the idea that the “theory humping” was burning a hole in my wallet. But I interrupted with a (rare) question.


“How would you know all that?”

Once I asked, it was like I pulled something from the insides of a millennial fortune cookie. And while I still recall bits and pieces of the film theory he taught, I mostly remember being done with the bullshit.

There’s a reason why I impart you with this story. Because you have to get where my indifference for True Detective season 3 comes from. At the time, I thought my professor was a pretentious prick (yes, that word), and I feel the same about this TV show (minus the prick). I spent a whole weekend recovering from the flu, watching and rewatching the five episodes (out of eight) to understand critics who saw some former greatness. Hell, I'll be the first to say that Mahershala Ali is easily one of my favorite talents, and my guy shines with what he’s given. It felt good to jump back into the routine of creepy ass dolls, filthy imagery, and the rural buddy cop happenings of a David Fincher flick. But a TV show playing dress up with a celebrated past is a lie being told—as if a return to the “appearance” of greatness can be on the equivalence of greatness. While familiar techniques, visuals, and styles are all well and good, that’s not enough for me to shy away from calling it for what it is. Pretentious.

I normally avoid the word, defined by art attempting to impress with more shape and style than it actually possesses. Most of my career can be defined by my running away from the word just a series of efforts to do the “deep” thing without becoming hollow in the process. So I don’t dish it out lightly.

When I watched True Detective (2014) during my cable watching years, I was tempted to using the p-word. Every week, I’d sit in front of this 87 percent certified fresh HBO series and follow detectives Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson), and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) in the hunt after a cultish sicko who threw antler’s on heads for kicks. Every episode brought a weirder McConaughey spewing pseudo-intellectual foolery, as adjusted partner Harrelson rolled his eyes like a sitcom dad deep in his “oh Cohle!”-isms. And even when that anti-climatic ending happened (nothing far out), I gave it brownie points for being new and fresh. A fucking beauty of televised drama.


Enter season 3, which feels like writer Nic Pizzolatto pulling his best Pizzolatto impression. I mean I get it. Critics tried to split his wig for going in a different direction with season 2 because he traded the swamp for some California noir shit, and acted like a discombobulated former great throwing punches in the wind. Season 3 is just Pizzolatto falling back, and giving in to the criticisms. Because again, we’re back in a fictional Southern town (West Finger, northwest Arkansas). Again, we’ve got two super serious alpha males—a back-talking company man, Ronald West (Stephen Dorff), and an introspective, anti-company partner, Wayne “Purple” Hays (Ali). And again, we have a missing children mystery splintered across different timelines (1980, 1990, and 2015) that artificially prolong a mystery—creepy straw dolls withstanding.

For a good bit, I could still get with this. But along the way, the scene-for-scene appropriation begins to hang on self-parody. Remember the police depositions with theatrical back-and-forths meant to give you the newbie-to-mystery basics? That’s back; the same rebel detective vs. company men showdown thing. Oh, and the car rides are back too, where two men shoot the shit in patrol cars, puffing dramatically on cigs, as they test the allegiances of the other man. And of course, we can’t forget the probing facial concentration battles between detectives questioning obscure witnesses without a clue. If Amelia (wife of Hays, Carmen Ejogo) quoting Einstein is any indication, there’s still a decent bit of self-serious philosophical mumbo jumbo to go around. What’s new conceptually? Not much, but there’s some interesting reference to race—Hays mentions a glass ceiling occasionally—even if it isn’t expanded upon.

Episode by episode, my plotty thoughts went something like this (spoiler free): …oh, that one person is still alive? Well, that’s strange. Wow, that one victim said something that didn’t make any sense. Strange again. Oh, they really wanted me to believe that another person was the killer. Waste of time. Why do they keep mentioning this “daughter” who never shows up and is forgotten an episode later? I’m five damn episodes in and I feel like I’ve been moving in a flat circle.

Methods of storytelling like this often move in this way. Overcompensating with visual style and out-stretched philosophical dialogue to imitate actual narrative movement. They introduce layers on layers of questions with answers that end up being rudimentary when pressed. I mean, was the concept of the “afterlife” not the simplest answer when it came down to the island based mindfuck that was Lost? Did uber self-reflective Dexter not disappoint in the most basic way turning our killer into a damn Bushwacker? Has every single Lars von Trier film with its dance with cruelty (The House That Jack Built) and beauty ( Melancholia) not been a bad narrative excuse for the man to visualize his sick fantasies? And did the ending of True Detective not feel rushed? Yes to all.

What I’m basically saying is that True Detective would have fared better with me if it was giving me something with substance without yanking my chain. It would fare better if it attempted an identity separate from its past. And it would go down easier if it wasn’t all so damn blatant. And it’s exactly what happens when pressure and art don’t mix well together. And until I’m convinced otherwise, I’ll call it for what it is. Pretentious.

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