“True Detective” thoughts, Season One, Episode Three: “The Locked Room”

You know, gang, the dialogue on this show is…less than good. A lot of it is just lame hardboiled cop-show clichés: “Nothin’ is ever over,” “The world needs bad men — we keep the other bad men from the door,” I mean, jesus. The interpersonal stuff is weak too: “Why is there all this space between us, Marty?” Ohhhhh, brother. (That was almost made up for by Marty’s Oscar-worthy performance with his Wile E. Coyote metaphor, but then rapidly undone by a deeply unimaginative sex scene.) It feels like the role of dialogue on formative Great-TV shows The Wire and Deadwood — the way David Simon and David Milch developed their own rhythm and syntax and idioms to have their characters communicate their complicated ideas about and reactions to the dissolution and formation of communities respectively, Simon with simplicity and Milch with filigrees — has been forgotten. Shows that do self-consciously formal, even purple dialogue well, like Boardwalk Empire and Downton Abbey…that just doesn’t get acknowledged as best I can tell. But this thing, with lines like “I don’t think a man can love” or the college-dorm-room exchange about the impact of religious faith on morality or that whole let’s-repeat-the-double-entendre-twelve-times-just-in-case “I just don’t ever want you mowin’ my lawn” argument, is some weird critical cause célèbre. I have nothing but contempt for writing wherein I set myself up in opposition to other critics, but, like…what the heck, man.

That softness seeps into other aspects of the writing, too. When Marty revealed that Rust, on top of his entire library card-catalog of baleful backstory and character traits, also has synesthesia, I actually laughed out loud. Perhaps it’s supposed to feel ridiculous? And when Rust outlined his findings about their killer’s past crime to Marty, why would he save “the victims had the same spiral mark on their back” for last? Wouldn’t that be the first thing you showed, if you weren’t a character in a cop show building to a dramatic reveal? Even Rust’s nihilism, which is so extravagant it retains a certain vim and vigor even at its silliest, is undercut in this episode by the heavy-handed and shopworn decision to juxtapose his grim proclamations about how murder victims are ultimately happy to die with line-dancing flashbacks. (Which is a damn shame, because the idea of a person becoming a homicide detective out of curiosity as to the precise nature of the cessation of consciousness’ link to the physical body is novel and compelling.)

So how best to enjoy this thing? The final shot — that genuinely frightening slow-motion monstrosity — is the answer. True Detective is best approached and appreciated as a creepy potboiler, with some fun performances. (Give it up for Eli from Boardwalk Empire! Remus, too, by the way — he was the guy on the riding mower.) It’s got a fancier pedigree, but in this regard it’s not a world away from another not-quite-sure-I-get-the-buzz show, The Americans. A great show? Don’t get it twisted. A fun show, if you don’t mind staring at it in wry bemusement, Marty-to-Rust-style? Sure, why not.

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7 Responses to “True Detective” thoughts, Season One, Episode Three: “The Locked Room”

  1. Rev'd '76 says:

    I take your point re: dialogue, however, the majority of “real world” dialogue is laden with sleepwalking-with-eyes-open cliche. Take the opening philosophical debate. Neither party is making a novel point nor expressing their positions particularly poetically: what I’m watching is the ways in which they spar, the gaps between lines.

    For me, that’s where the writing is going. When Marty nails Cole on his own insecurity. When Cole chooses against engaging an amped & panting Marty. (Have you ever met anyone spoiling for a fight that doesn’t repeat his inane motivations ad nauseam?) When Marty opens up just a deceitful fraction to Maggie. When Cole actually expresses a human-level, personal disgust about a suspect shitting himself. When Thomas, the cleanshaven detective with the laser gaze, finally addresses Cole. (Or Marty!) Marty watching Cole’s performance, not considering that everything Cole *does* is a performance. When Marty reels back from the carnage he’s created and says, more to himself than Lisa or her dance partner, “I’m not a monster.”

    Everyone in this episode was under interrogation, and they all did a little dance to convince somebody. The series itself is framed as an inquest. So I’m okay with cliche and even a little repetition: liars trot out obvious alibis first, with variations of increasing uncertainty as to their own faith in the tale. Like you say, it’s a pulp tale. I’m expecting Mickey Spillane, not Raymond Chandler. Who cares what critics think?

  2. JT says:

    I appreciate the critical look at this show, but yeah, insofar as it’s pulp I am not overly concerned with cliches. Pulp is nothing if not hoary tropes, right?

    The thing that pulls me into this show is the players’ investment in the characters and the visual elements: the physical environments the cops traverse and especially the leads’ body language. Cole clutching the “tax man” book, perched on the edge of a bridge. Marty seemingly chewing constantly on the inside of his cheek.

    I don’t think that means it merits Great Show TM status, but it makes for some compelling crime TV.

  3. Rev'd '76 says:

    JT: the visual element, ye gods. You cannot imagine how happy I was that there was an enormous owl perched in the rafters of the church when they first came upon it, how ecstatic it made me that the camera chose not to focus on it. It’s the incidental atmosphere that makes this thing Great in terms of pulp-candy. The strings caught on the fence by the old feller who tipped them off to the Fontenot girl… That tiny circular mirror on the wall in Cole’s apartment… The strange idle elements make me want to wander through the streets of this show, sketching ’til the sun sets.

  4. Nigel says:

    Rust’s dialogue seems like a cross between Apocalypse Now and a Grant Morrison comic – psychosphere, paraphylic love map? Sitting there in the interrogation room making beer-can people and spouting nonsense like he’s the Joker or Colonel Kurtz.

    Leaving the spiral symbol for last made sense to me in that Rust was trying to persuade Marty. Saving the strongest point for last works as long as the bits that lead up to it are enough to catch and keep the attention of your subject person.

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