Wednesday, April 9, 2014

True Detective (filmic, weird, character review)

Last time, I noted that True Detective gets a lot of adjectives applied to it, such as filmic and genius. One thing that I would like to note at the outset is that I understand both why people loved it and why people hated it. And, related, one thing that I think HBO is uniquely positioned to do is to produce this sort of mini-series that is the unique vision of a few people. That is, a typical tv show will have a bunch of writers and directors; True Detective is credited to just one writer and just one director. So the show has a real coherence in tone that not a lot of shows achieve. And if you don't like that tone/style/whatever, you won't find anything to keep you coming back, and vice versa.

In other words, it's the tv equivalent of Wes Anderson or someone like that: a writer-director with a particular vision. If you don't like a Wes Anderson film, it's more than likely that you won't like any of his films. (Note: "likely.") This is probably one reason why the adjective "filmic" or "cinematic" got attached to True Detective. Another reason is that the direction often lingers, especially on the landscape and panoramic scenes, which is definitely something that makes the tv show seem like it wants to be on the big screen. Honestly, if you can't tell, I think comparing this tv show to film doesn't quite hit the mark, while at the same time pointing to something real. Sure, this tv show loves this Louisiana bayou-world as much as a Western loves its Painted Desert and Monument Valley. Sure, the pace may at times be leisurely--but we can say that without falling back on some notion of "cinematicness" that is never really defined.

(Also, a moment of silence to honor the music choices of T-Bone Burnett.)

One reason why I want to emphasize the odd pacing is because the hurry-up-and-wait structure gives the scenes of action a shocking feeling, while also giving us time to watch these people in bog-standard life that isn't iconic. I mean, in a film or a tv show, we might see a happy family at dinner, which is such an iconic scene that the audience is meant to read this as "sign of happy family." But here, in between some shocking violence, we have a lot of awkward car rides and drunken discussions and family affairs of all sorts. It's enough space for the characters to breathe as characters, rather than as stereotypes and icons.

And it would be so easy for these characters to turn into stereotypes: the unhappy wife, the philandering husband, the faux-philosophical nihilist with the dark past. So how does the show prevent that? Well, first, I would argue that it doesn't entirely. As any good improv teacher will tell you, sometimes you use those stereotypes to set up the characters quickly and then complicate them. Here, we see the two detective at two different times in their lives, which gives us two different looks: Rust is a nihilist and a burn-out; Marty is a philandering husband and the comfortable PI. The show also gives us many different scenes and locations for bringing out these characters, with Rust's bizarre, penitential apartment contrasted with Marty's house--which is especially contrasted since we see them each crossing over to the other's world.

Which brings us to the notion of the world as a whole: what sort of world do we live in? Rust believes in nothing, eternal darkness, the end of all life--and possibly in the corruption of institutions by some extra-dimensional horror. (Carcosa, the Yellow King.) Marty believes in getting along to get on, in the innocence of children. Ultimately, unlike Lost or some other shows that give us no option other than the Weird, True Detective hovers on the edge: everything we see that's weird could be drug-induced or up to bizarre backwoods weirdness. But this is where the tv show really shines for me; because, in the very last moments, we're given a double view of the heavens: either the sky is all dark with only a few stars--or maybe the light is winning and banishing the dark. It's an interesting viewpoint and character switch--Rust is the one who offers the happy reading of the night sky and it's a transition into a qualified happy ending that feels earned by all the horror and weirdness that they slogged through earlier.

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