On the list of True Detective‘s influences and inspirations, I’m guessing This Is Spinal Tap doesn’t even crack the top 200. I mean, the mother of all mockumentaries presents occultism and alcoholism as basically awesome instead of corrosive to the soul, and nobody dies a horrible untimely death. (Well, unless you count the drummers, and it’s not like the band does.) Yet in watching this second episode of HBO’s instant-hit crime drama, two quotes from Tap played on a constant loop in my head. (And no, despite Alexandra Daddario’s nude scene, neither was from “Sex Farm.”)
The first comes when the band is presented with the heavily censored album cover for their magnum opus Smell the Glove: “There’s something about this that’s so black,” says guitarist/philospher Nigel Tufnel, “it’s like, how much more black could this be? And the answer is none. None more black.” That sentiment is inescapable practically every time Matthew McConaughey’s depressive Detective Rust Cohle opens his mouth – never more so than when he explains to Gilbough and Papania, the detectives interviewing him about a mysterious copycat killing in the present day, the lessons he took from the death of his two-year-old daughter. “I think of the hubris it must take to yank a soul out of nonexistence into this…meat. To force a life into this thresher. As to my daughter, she spared me the sin of being a father.” This is the most profoundly nihilistic TV-drama dialogue since the starmaking debut of Richard Harrow on HBO’s frequently equally bleak Boardwalk Empire, during which he explained to his newfound friend Jimmy Darmody how the trenches of World War I cured him of his love of reading: “It occurred to me: the basis of fiction is that people have some sort of connection with each other. But they don’t.”
What’s more, Rust has just revealed that his history as a cop involves committing murder — the execution of a junkie who’d dosed his infant with crystal meth, a killing that doomed Rust to a lengthy deep-cover narco stint, a shooting, and the psych ward. It was only calling in the various favors owed him by Texas police – no doubt for other, undisclosed dirty deeds on their behalf – that enabled him to secure a supposedly sanity-preserving gig as a homicide detective here in Louisiana. Cohle even got some visually stunning acid flashbacks and hallucinations as a parting gift. Dude makes Vic Mackey look like Joe Friday.
Which is where the second quote comes in: “It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.” C’mon, True Detective, you’re laying it on a little thick here, aren’t you? Rust’s an alcoholic insomniac pill-popping flash-backing divorced institutionalized murderer with a dead daughter? Was there some kind of “sad backstory bingo” being played in the writers’ room? And was it played before or after the round involving cop-show clichés? If the angry captain, the disapproving father-in-law, and the hooker with a heart of gold had a single line of dialogue between them you couldn’t predict a split-second before they said it, like Bill Murray playing Jeopardy! in Groundhog Day, you may want to have some neurological testing done.
And it’s not like Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart fares a whole lot better. About the only thing saving his adultery storyline from the seen-it-all-before file is how berserk over-the-top it gets, from a nude scene that feels gloriously gratuitous even when Daddario’s character Lisa is still wearing her polo shirt to a locker-room confrontation in which Cohle threatens to break his hands during a dispute over the precise odor of the vaginal secretions on his face. Even the case itself, with its big, Hollywoodified crime scenes and Gothy defaced churches, comes across like something you’d see in a ho-hum Batman comic trying too hard to be creepy.
Yet in much the same way that Marty keeps telling his interrogators that Rust, for all his faults and quirks, was still a damn good detective, there’s something that seems solid under True Detective‘s bleak bluster. For one thing, its pacing is downright perverse, and I mean that in the best way. We don’t find out about Rust’s bloody record as some big last-minute reveal – he just drops it in casually about halfway through the episode, in an interrogation scene we’re witnessing through a videocamera. Similarly, we know all sorts of things about how the 1995 case plays out – they rescue a bunch of girls in the woods, they catch the killer, they work happily as partners for another seven years – that your average show would treat like season-ending payoffs. By continuously telling us where it’s going, way way before we’d expect to find out, True Detective ironically makes itself much tougher to predict.
Then there are the character dynamics around which you’d expect a show with the star power of McConaughey and Harrelson to revolve – subtle, sharp, and engaging. One moment, Marty can shake his head in disbelief and disgust over Rust saying he has no idea whether his own mother is alive; the next, he can react with genuine sympathy and sadness when he finds out Rust lost his daughter in a car accident, a trauma he triggered by obliviously inviting the guy over for a family dinner. You can see the roots of their solid partnership and its eventual dissolution.
Writer Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Joji Fukunaga are also quietly telegraphing the team’s relative effectiveness as cops. Today, Marty seems much more together than Rust – he’s a blowhard, yeah, but he stuck with the system and rode it into a successful retirement, and he’s being given star treatment as a witness while Rust’s relegated to some wood-paneled file room. But take note: Marty’s a full episode behind his former partner in figuring out that the detectives interrogating them are trying to “jam someone up.” He also seems not to be fully aware some of Rust’s dark spots: “Rust had about as sharp an eye for weakness as I’ve ever seen,” Marty relates, which is true as far as it goes, but a funny thing to say about a guy who’ll get information out of people by beating them with toolboxes. That’s a weakness, I guess, sure!
Of course, it’s also possible Marty’s covering up for Rust, trying to pull one over on Gilbough and Papania – which leads to a mystery I’m more intrigued by than the Yellow King and his antler-wearing victims. In a series called True Detective, which is so far delving hella deep into the foibles of the two cops who could conceivably be its title character, is a similar dynamic going to play out between the two detectives who are working their case in the here and now? Do either of these guys carry with them secrets like Rust’s, resentments like Marty’s? Do any of the four have anything to do with the killings they’re all ostensibly trying to solve? Throw in a slight but palpable sense of the hurricanes that have haunted the region (Rita destroyed the original casefiles; Andrew shut down the school where a missing girl once went), and a series of striking visuals (a night drive that wouldn’t look out of place in a Ryan Gosling movie; a contrast between the burned-out church and the birds, trains, and clouds that keep on gliding past it, leaving its sins hidden) and the blend’s still a heady one. Maybe that angry captain had it right: I’ll give True Detective a few more weeks, but goddammit, they’d better deliever.