'True Detective,' Like Its Characters, Remains Trapped in the Past
The show's central plot and very hardboiled, very white characters feel lifted from a bygone era.
Warning: Light spoilers ahead.
The second episode of True Detective 's second season opens with Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) lying awake and gazing at a water stain on the ceiling. "Everything is papier-mâché," Frank says. Lest you think this means everything is a fun craft activity for kindergarteners, Frank launches into a meditation on the pointlessness of life and a history of his childhood traumas. When Frank was six, his alcoholic father accidentally trapped him in a room for five days until a rat started chewing on his fingers. Kiddie Frank took the rat and "just kept smashing it until it was nothing but goo in my hand!" If only he'd been able to combine that goo with some strips of newspaper, he could have made a papier-mâché mask to hide his pain.
True Detective barely advances this episode, at least until the final minutes. We learn that the state wants to use the case to probe Vinci's corrupt officials, but otherwise—barring the cliffhanger ending—we're left in same spot we were at the end of episode one: Frank's real estate deal is collapsing, the dead Casper was into weird sex stuff, and the three detectives have a mutilated body and not much else to go on. This episode instead focuses on the internal conflicts of the four leads.
If True Detective season two has a theme so far, it's the inability of the characters to escape their pasts. "We get the world we deserve," Colin Farrell's Ray Velcoro says in episode one, and that world is determined by the evils the characters have perpetuated as well as those their family has perpetuated on them. Frank can't get out of his father's basement or leave his criminal history behind. Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) can't separate herself from the hippie/cult upbringing her father foisted on her. Ray Velcoro's life has spiraled ever downward since he murdered his wife's rapist as an LA police officer. And Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) is haunted by his years as a mercenary with some organization called Black Mountain. It's clear these are characters can't move forward with their lives because of lingering and residual pain.
The problem for True Detective is that, not just the characters, but the entire show feels trapped in the past. Last Friday, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality to widespread celebration. Yesterday, Paul Woodrugh—who is hinted at being a self-loathing homosexual who takes Viagra before scowling through hetero sex—relates a story about "almost clocking" a "fag at the bank." In an era where the calls for diversity in entertainment are louder than ever , True Detective remains committed to the struggles of angry white men, doling out only the most minor roles to actors of color—a one-scene coroner or a corrupt cop with a handful of lines. Knife-loving detective Ani Bezzerides, in this context, feels less like a solution to the feminist critiques of last season than the most masculine caricature of a "Strong Female Character" that the show could muster. In this episode, she watches hardcore porn while sipping whiskey, but not masturbating or revealing any sexuality of her own.
Wealth inequality, climate change, #blacklivesmatter, high unemployment—basically no pressing issue that you can think of is touched upon by this season of True Detective. This isn't a problem by itself; the problem is that the dialogue, characters, and plot all feel recycled. The new season is 100 percent hardboiled noir, a genre whose literary form was perfected by Raymond Chandler in the 1940s and whose film version reached its apex in the 50s. There's very little in the show beyond the occasional e-cigarette that couldn't exist in a noir from over a half a century ago. Art doesn't always need to touch on politics, but there is something odd about a show whose central plot is about political and police corruption, yet feels lifted from an era that didn't even have color TV.
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Then again, perhaps the show's obsession with struggling white masculinity is what makes it relevant in an era when men issue death threats to women who critique video games and conservative politicians lament that the entire country is ruined because two men can now marry each other. True Detective's men—and, for that matter, women—are literally rendered impotent even as they project an aura of badassery. Frank struggles to produce a child. Velcoro is terrified that his "fat pussy" child was fathered by his wife's rapist. Woodrugh requires Viagra to get erect around his girlfriend. Even Bezzerides alternates between bad sex and joyless porn-watching. Moreover, the characters are threatened by modern life—Velcoro hates the aforementioned e-cigs because they feel "like sucking a robot's dick." True Detective is hardboiled where Philip Marlowe is a moping loser and Sam Spade has erectile dysfunction.
I'm not suggesting anything at all about creator Nic Pizzolatto's personal political positions, and the writing shows some signs of self-awareness about the glum nonsense of its male characters. This episode even features season two's first joke when Velcoro tells Bezzerides, "Just so you know, I support feminism. Mostly by having body-image issues." Just how much self-awareness there is remains to be revealed by following six episodes. Even though these characters are shown to have their masculinity in crises, the show wants to remind us that they are at their core tough guys: Frank beats rats into goo, Velcoro beats his child's bully's father to a pulp, Woodrugh is only happy riding a motorcycle at fatal speeds through the night.
Last season, Pizzolatto was upset by the claims that his protagonists were anti-heroes:
I think both of these men are straight-up heroes—they're flawed men, but they're not corrupt. They're kind of throwbacks, for better or worse, to a different kind of masculinity. They're real men.
Does Pizzolatto feel the same way about this season's characters? Is Velcoro—a man who defends the murder of his wife's alleged rapist against her wishes by saying, "By any natural law, I had a right"—merely a throwback "real man" who unfortunately exists in the wrong time? Are these violent losers characters we are supposed to root for?
I realize I'm inviting a swarm of comments about social-justice TV critics and #TrueDetectiveGate or some nonsense, but the problem with True Detective is not a lack of political correctness. Many of my favorite TV shows are equally lacking in representation and political relevance, and anyone who has seen Breaking Bad, Mad Men, or The Sopranos knows that violent, suffering white males can easily be the centerpiece of transcendent TV.
But a key difference between those shows and True Detective is that they gave us fleshed-out characters—often wives and children—with different values and outlooks to contrast and complicated the actions of the anti-heroes. In the first season of True Detective, contrast was provided by the seemingly supernatural horrors that the show ultimately ditched in the final episodes. So far in season two, True Detective has offered nothing new to a well-worn genre and has given us no relief from its smog of suffering white masculinity. True Detective is still a decent show that features the baseline quality of production, acting, and cinematography that you can expect from HBO, and perhaps last night's shotgun-shocker cliffhanger portends a more exciting plot for the rest of the season. But through two episodes, this hardboiled show feels a little undercooked.
True Detective airs on Sundays at 9 PM on HBO.
Lincoln Michel's writing appears in the Believer, American Short Fiction, Buzzfeed, and Oxford American. He is the online editor of Electric Literature and the coeditor of Gigantic magazine. His debut story collection, Upright Beasts, is forthcoming from Coffee House Press. Follow him on Twitter.