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Watching The Detectives

HBO’s new series “True Detective” has a dripping backwoods bayou setting, spookily appropriate opening funeral dirge by The Handsome Family, and musical selections hand-picked by T Bone Burnett including Lucinda Williams, Dwight Yoakam and Wu-Tang Clan. Woody Harrelson, one half of a querulous detective team, brings a cocksure “No Country For Old Men” Texas mumble (despite going for Louisiana) and an age-adjusted swagger reminiscent of “White Men Can’t Jump.” Matthew McConaughey’s broody smoke suggests Matt Damon doing his McConaughey impression, talk-whispering “sure I dropped the thirty-eight pounds for ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ but I still look damn good with my shirt off.” There’s something for everyone – beautiful young women who get naked and say improper things, satanic ritual and symbolism, antler-donning murder victims, and dusty mid-afternoon roadside bars with sun peering through the cracks and Kris Kristofferson’s “Casey’s Last Ride” on the juke. They don’t miss a beat. McConaughey’s “time is a flat-circle” nihilism is paired with the two actors playing parts that cover a seventeen year span and they pull it off effectively. There’s little question that “True Detective” isn’t that bad, but is it all that good?

That may come down to taste and whether you prefer straight narratives or thematic horror mysteries requiring a bit of homework after the one hour weekly class adjourns. Topping this list of take-home work are the multiple references to a ‘yellow king’ in the series which is a nod to an 1895 book of macabre shorts by the American writer Robert W Chambers called “The King in Yellow.” The title references a fictional play used as a motif running through several of the stories and said to bring madness and despair to anyone who reads it. “Ah, well – that explains that” some will say, then busily continue their research before next Sunday night rolls around. Others – perhaps those preferring a good Hank Williams song that sums itself up nicely in the first verse – will say “fuck this.” Either way, the show serves useful purpose as a blowhard detector for anyone claiming complete understanding after the first go-round.

My one-man jury is still out and I’ll reserve final judgement for the last episode. If nothing else the show has been a reminder of the effectiveness of a well-scored soundtrack. Like “The Sopranos” which followed David Chase’s singular musical vision, “True Detective” features T Bone Burnett’s steady hand throughout. He uses Lucinda Williams “Are You Alright” beautifully in episode four and closes an epically spooky final scene with McConaughey in episode five with the intro to The Bosnian Rainbows’ “Eli” – disturbing enough to have me checking behind the couch as the titles rolled. But all of this stylized richness also runs the risk of swallowing the narrative whole. At its center “True Detective” has some compellingly solid stuff about the sometimes futile search for meaning. In the opener Woody Harrelson opines on McConaughey’s character, whose troubled past includes a collapsed marriage and stint in a psychiatric hospital after his three year-old daughter is hit and killed by a car. “Past a certain age a man without a family can be a bad thing.” The implicit irony is that Harrelson’s man with a family – a character who cheats on and neglects his wife and two daughters – is an even worse thing. But Harrelson’s cowboy philosophizing pales in comparison to McConaughey’s soliloquies on nothingness and the illusion of self, epitomized by his take on studying the faces of various female murder victims:

You know what you see? They welcomed it .. not at first, but right there in the last instant. It’s an unmistakable relief because they were afraid and now they saw for the very first time how easy it was to just let go. They saw, in that last nanosecond, what they were. That you, yourself, this whole big drama, it was never anything but a jerry-rig of presumption and dumb will and you could just let go. To realize that all your life –all you know, all you love, all you hate, all your memory, all your pain– it was all the same thing, all the same dream. A dream you had inside a locked room. A dream about being a person..”

Heady stuff and well-delivered by an actor on a particularly strong career streak. Where all of this nothingness, intersecting timelines and obscure literary references might lend an effective metaphor for life’s milieu, it also walks a tightrope when it comes to delivering the goods in episodic television. Most of the buzz among viewers has seemed to center on what the payoff is going to be, how it will all be tied together. But how do you lend meaning and definition to a narrative that emphasizes their absence? If “True Detective” wraps up neatly it will be a disappointment to those enjoying its rich ambiguity. If it persists with obscurity there will be others asking “what the fuck?” Either way it conjures the image of McConaughey, carving up sixteen ounce Lone Star beer cans in the shape of people and cooly asserting that it don’t mean a thing.

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