I’ll get right down to disagreeing with the general critical community at large: True Detective—which debuted on HBO in January—sucks. In it, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson star as two very serious men (playing against type—the party trick of the whole thing) investigating a series of gruesome killings with a strange religious component in the deep South. Meanwhile, a Moral-Majority-type pastor with political ties and possibly sinister motives is pressuring them to solve the case quickly. (Also: drugs, alcohol, and boobies! Just what puts the "premium" in cable television.)
It critiques religion and Western myths of progress, but it does so in a ponderous, self-satisfied, heavy-handed sort of way. The show stretches out over long, slow scenes of plot-less dialogue. And whenever we are treated to some action, the ominous tenor of the show shoots straight into melodrama. The show is trying to do a lot--too much. In consequence, it becomes quite tedious to watch.
Considering how seriously the show takes itself, it is disappointing that it’s so inept in its portrayal of religious life. It confuses the language, iconography, and general practices of Catholic and Pentecostal traditions, throwing together elements of one or the other wherever it serves the show’s argument that religious folks are hypocritical, delusional, and even mentally-disabled, criminal deviants (as McConaughey’s Detective Cohle suggests regarding a particular suspect—chew on the problematic insinuation of that claim, will you).
In one critical scene, a young girl describes a man (presumably the deranged murderer sought by our true detectives) who looked like a "spaghetti monster," an allusion to an infamous parody of creationism. The show is setting up religion as the villain, and its critique is neither nuanced nor inspired. We've seen this a hundred times before, and I'm just kind of over it.
But this isn’t even my biggest problem with the show. I can handle critiques of Christianity. I applaud them, actually (and all the more if they are in any way thoughtful). What I really can’t handle about True Detective is its utter lack of humor. When I think of other shows that have successfully explored the dark tendencies of human nature and society—and have done so in a way that I found enjoyable to watch—I think of commonly-regarded masterpieces such as Game of Thrones, Dexter, and The Wire. (Honorable mentions: The Killing--certainly doesn't deserve its bad rap--and Call the Midwife. Does that ruin my badass list? Crap.) These programs feature characters whose “types” are distinct enough to be played against for the sake of humor, yet are also complex enough to be interesting.
There is something almost too wonderful about stories that manage to be honest about the bleak state of human existence while at the same time moving us to delight in the people who inhabit the stories’ worlds. The levity we enjoy in the midst of these dark worlds isn’t just about lightened tension or added entertainment value; it’s about the deep sense of relief in experiencing and knowing that in a grim reality, joy is possible. This confirms our deepest hopes, and it rings so true that it aches. One may experience the world as bleak and without joy, but we want—we need—to believe this isn’t a permanent situation. Light can eventually break through, even when only through the narrowest of cracks.
A story that presents a bleak world without joy is just as false as the saccharin clichés of a Lifetime holiday movie. The dark and the light need each other in order for us to see each for what it truly is; and even a small, faint light can relieve a great darkness.
So, this is why True Detective sucks.
Post-Script: As I was ranting on this topic to a friend, he looked down and was clearly distraught. He looked up and said, “I am so sad you don’t watch Breaking Bad.” Apparently, if one can get just a few episodes past the dissolving bathtub and whatnot, it gets…funny? Perhaps we shall see. Stay tuned, friends.
Charity Erickson and her husband live and work together in the north woods of Minnesota. Check out her blog for more of her writing and follow her on Twitter @CharityJill.
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Image #1 via Wikipedia
Image #2 via Wikipedia
Image #3 via George Bremer