Is ‘True Detective’ Trolling Us? The Case For This Summer’s Campiest TV Show
How the HBO series evolved from a dark, bromantic potboiler into one of the most batshit crazy guilty pleasures on television.
I’ll admit it upfront: I was not a fan of the first season of HBO’s True Detective. Call me a feminazi if you please, but I can’t think of anything less appealing than watching eight hours of Matthew McConaughey waxing prophetic over the naked bodies of a gaggle of murdered prostitutes, and not even the magnificent direction of Cary Fukanaga could keep me watching past the first three episodes.Advanced word on the new season of True Detective was mixed at best, but I like the new cast enough on their own that I was willing to check out the new season and see if it could change my tune.I was expecting a more balanced range of perspectives. What I got was a complete bonanza, and I’m in love.I had been hopeful about this season, but who could have ever known just how hopeful I should have been? True Detective went from being the bro-iest show on TV to being the campiest in the span of one season. Has this ever happened before? Did the Supreme Court rule this too? “Gay marriage, and also Taylor Kitsch is going to play a closeted motorcycle gay with mommy issues on True Detective, now deal with it.” Rachel McAdams’s name is Antigone Bezzerides, and she delivers every line like she knows how annoying that is. Colin Farrell threatened to fuck a guy’s ass with the headless corpse of his wife. The murdered body had his dick shot off. What is happening? Who is responsible for this and how do I thank them?It helps that the plot is, as of now, incomprehensible. Someone’s been murdered, there’s a shooter who wears a giant crow’s head, Vince Vaughn is some kind of mob boss, and Colin Farrell is maybe a bad cop. Who knows how any of this goes together, the order of scenes feels completely arbitrary, and so everything unfolds in a state of mass confusion, adherent more to its nervously overserious tone than to any sense of plot.
With every line I try to imagine what the “good” version of this season would look like. Everyone is just so po-faced, so unnaturally grim, so invested in finding meaning in the most hilariously inane and obvious references that the series appears more like a farce than any show in HBO’s lineup this season. I think part of what makes it so funny is that most of the actors are known for comedy, and watching people like Vince Vaughn and Colin Farrell play such ridiculous material so straight only adds to the half-baked hilarity of the final product. But it’s not just the actors, it’s the objects—the hilarious skeleton wearing a shroud and gold crown at the murder scene, the cow head mounted on the shooter’s wall, and most of all that goddamn e-cigarette. Bit players don’t play hookers and gangsters, they play “hookers” and “gangsters”—the movie image of them, not the reality. Every accent sounds fake, every costume looks fake, every prop seems placed by a designer.The show is so anxiously aware of the expectations of its hard-boiled and manly detective genre and so desperate to fulfill those expectations while appearing natural that it becomes an ironically perfect expression of modern masculinity. The script even calls it out sometimes, making anxious, self-aware comments about the fakeness of the world we’re watching, pushing one fake character to call out another fake character’s fakeness—whether it’s McAdams questioning a suspect’s accent, Vaughn and Kitsch both confronted by their girlfriends for their inability to perform sexually, Farrell called out by his wife for being a bad dad. More than any television show I’ve ever seen, this season of True Detective feels like a sexual identity crisis in motion, and it’s magnificent.“This one fag, at the bank? Tried hitting on me.”Is this intentional comedy? Does it even matter when something is this fun? It’s funnier than The Brink, that’s for damn sure. I don’t know if I have ever enjoyed anything more than I enjoy watching Vince Vaughn visibly struggle to understand his lines.
Last season I was rolling my eyes with every word. Who talks like this? “Time is a flat circle.” What a bunch of bullshit. That Cary Fukanaga was visionary enough to see an unselfconscious way to execute Nic Pizzolatto’s faux-deep hypermasculine ridiculata only made the show feel more oppressively full of shit. His visual and tonal skill, his eye for unexpected images and juxtapositions, preserved a distance between the words being said and the images passing onscreen, giving the audience room to interpret—and in doing so Fukanaga bestowed a sense of mystery to Pizzolatto’s garbled words. But the richness of Fukanaga’s direction only gave credence to Pizzolatto’s toxic view of humanity, where flawed yet heroic men like Rust Cohle unspool their great wisdom to sweep in and save helpless victimized women. It was a seductive, beautifully executed vision of nothingness; a lie so magnificently aestheticized it passed as truth.The pleasure of this season is in watching a group of artists well-adjusted enough to also have no fucking clue why anyone would behave like this, talk like this, willingly occupy this world. Everyone—from director Justin Lin to the actors to the production designers—everyone is throwing up their hands. “Just give them more man shit, I guess. Bigger nipples in the porn paintings, why the hell not?”Rachel McAdams interrupts every man she speaks to, her face a silent and almost desperate “shut your stupid mouth before any more nonsense comes out.” It’s hard to tell if you’re watching Antigone Bezzerides (god, that name will never get old) do damage control as police, or McAdams do damage control as an actress. Every actor has their own way of managing Pizzolatto’s macho mad libs version of dialogue, and it’s tremendously endearing watching them try and mostly fail to deliver a convincing version of the bullshit that came to McConaughey and Harrelson so naturally last season. Kitsch is in it most earnestly, and is probably aided by the fact that his closeted cop plot is the most straightforward and deals the most directly with the show’s conflicted ideas about manhood. Farrell looks confused and self-conscious. Vaughn just flails.
Every scene and every line feels like a gift. You never know when the show is going to stumble across a gem like Colin Farrell describing e-cigarettes. “Maybe it’s just a little too close to sucking a robot’s dick.” Yes, Colin, maybe!“Do you know that saying about flies and honey?”“What the fuck do I want with a bunch of flies?”“Well, you don’t have flies, you can’t fly-fish.”I mean, I can’t make this stuff up. The only thing more mixed than the metaphors are the characters themselves. Every once in a while, one of the actors will find a line that seems potentially coherent and they inevitably hit it hard, giving the show the sensation of listening to someone speak another language as you try to cling to the couple of phrases you remember from your intro 101 class.“Well, just so you know, I support feminism. Mostly by having body image issues.”“I told you. I don’t talk about the desert.”“He looks half anaconda and half great white.”Oh wait, sorry, I don’t know what happened with that last one.I won’t do True Detective the dishonor of calling it so bad that it’s good. I mean, it is that, but if that was all there was it wouldn’t be quite as delicious. If the first season was an ode to masculine mystery and authority, whether intentionally or not, the second presents the view from inside the anxiety, awkwardness, and posturing that accompanies Pizzolatto’s ideal of masculinity. In other words, it’s a mess, and it’s the closest thing to must-see TV happening this summer. Congratulations, Mr. Pizzolatto. Against all odds, you have my attention.