Content warning: Contains in-depth discussion of True Detective and the various acts of violence, sex that occur therein. So avoid if you’re not into that.
There’s a lot about the first season of True Detective which would fall into the latter category outlined in the title, in my opinion. I’ll be speaking mostly in a thematic sense here, the technics of the show (cinematography, colour palette, music, etc.) are all pretty solid. But I’m a negative soul with more of an eye for theme than formal characteristics, so I’m staying focused on what I’m good at talking about. In approximate order, the top three uninteresting things about the first season of True Detective follow.
I. The Case
The case is completely uninteresting. The engagement with urban myth and various episodes of moral panics which afflicted the U.S. in the 80’s and 90’s (satanically inflected murder, child sex abuse scandals (obviously I, in this case, am speaking about the ones that didn’t happen rather than the ones in which the Catholic church was involved)) seemed promising, and likely to provide an way into examining ‘the American underbelly,’ which the opening credits, in tandem with the musical stylings of The Handsome Family, of course, do a stellar job of suggesting. Its execution however, is far more mundane. How many times have we seen a unerringly correct investigative genius, be doubted time and time again, each time merely postponing the moment of his coronation? These scenes are played out, and it’s a shame that so much of the show is taken up by them.
II. The Philosophy
The most identifiable stylistic characteristic of the show, is the extended car ride scenes, in which Rust and Hart (Woody Harrelson) discuss man, man’s place in the universe, their deeply held values, etc. There’s something very staged and undergraduate-y about these Deep Meaningful Conversations, in which Harrelson has the unenviable position of having to defend good ol’ small-town America values, of which he is hardly the embodiment (he has affairs with younger women, he’s beaten up young men in jail cells with knuckle dusters) while being aware of how destructive these values can be, having been exposed to the boy’s club groupthink of the police department.
These popular representations of philosophical discourse are the reason why people think studying philosophy in university are like the conversations you get into at gaff parties where you take turns posing the other the question, ‘Yeah, but what is life maaan?’, while it’s really about people discussing, endlessly discussing, for the length of books discussing, the difference between existence and ex-istence. Frederich Nietzsche is the only Frederich Nietzsche. Rust’s bro-nihilism, references to people as ‘sentient meat,’ and castigating them for being easily led into evangelical Christianity is very new atheist blogger-y, and could have been woven more subtly into the show, rather than having Rust and Hart embody these opposed positions. Which brings me to the last least good thing about the first season of True Detective.
III. Moral Binarism
The show extends the car’s moral universe outwards, and in this schema we see the difference between the bad (the killer) and the good, which is everything and everyone else. This isn’t to say that our heroes aren’t flawed, of course, but to have a hero that is anything other than anti in some way wouldn’t make sense in today’s milieu. tis standard. But even though Rust and Hart are conceptualised in shades of grey, the show aims homogenises them back vanilla when the murderer is confronted in the final episode’s showdown. This is achieved by making the killer
1. a redneck (meaning also, poor, uneducated, stupid, fat, creepy, etc)
2. a paedophile.
4. a practitioner of a voodoo/santería composite.
5. a practitioner of incest (non-penetrative it should be noted, in contrast to our heroes)
6. a dog abuser
I could go on and on. Everything about the guy, his tattoos, the illegible writings on his walls, when this character is onscreen, signifiers of evil proliferate endlessly. Rust may be a prickly outsider, but he is good. Hart may be an insensitive serial adulterer, but he is good.
This mystifying banal equivalency is underlined in Rust and Hart’s last conversation. Rust outlines his belief in the show’s final scene that the world is reducible to one essential narrative, a notion that he has come due during a near-death experience:
Rust: It’s just one story. The oldest.
Hart: What’s that?
Rust: Light versus dark.
Hardly needs to be said that this wouldn’t have been a belief of his earlier in the season, wherein he would have been more likely to say that if the world even had a story in the first place, it would be one of the same undifferentiated mass of dark against dark. He has come to a kind of philosophical nuance, albeit a True Detective version of nuance. Hart answers that it seems as though the darkness has a lot more territory, continuing the trend of both men taking on the other’s characteristics as the series continues. It is Hart who notices the new paint job on the house and essentially leads to our heroes finding the killer. Hart has ingested Rust’s bro-nihilism, and his eye for investigative detail, which he ostentatiously lacked in the show’s earlier episodes. It also Rust who provides a re-joinder to Hart’s newfound taste for pessimistic analysis.
Rust: You’re lookin’ at it wrong, the sky thing.
Hart: How’s that.
Rust: Well once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winnin’.
This ‘things are getting so much better all the time’ note on which the series concludes brings together the success of our heroes and the show’s essential thesis, two killers down, the battle for good continues.
But is that the case? As Rust says himself, ‘we didn’t get ’em all.’ The show aspires towards a frank scepticism regarding the élite, another fundamental in any given popular artefact today, and it is suggested by the unerringly correct Rust that ritual murders have been carried out by governors, senators, and covered up by sheriffs who were rewarded with cushy jobs and promotions, a class of which Sheriff Steve Geraci is the representative. These guys never face any repercussions, but fat, all-round weirdos LeDoux and Errol Childress have their brains blown out without any due process. The men seem to have been publicly feted for doing both. This is the conventional set-up for anti-heroes, they break the small rules, right to an attorney, etc. in order to enforce the more important ones. But in doing so, the wider societal indictment of True Detective is stymied. With the killers dead, there’s no scope for prosecuting the golden circle who benefitted from turning a blind eye, let alone the 1% who actually committed child sacrifice on film. Rather than following through, the starched-shirt class escape, and we have two broadly similar scapegoats for the crimes of a wider community.
I’ll include two bonus things that are not interesting about the show.
IV. The absurd action sequence, and the fact that Rust couldn’t think of a better deep cover disguise for Hart than a Pink Floyd t-shirt.
V. Anything that isn’t Matthew McConaghey really