Giving it lip: Matthew McConaughy and Woody Harrelson as Detectives Marty Hart and Rust Cohle
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Sky Atlantic’s True Detective: not as much cop as it thinks it is

Despite the laborious chronology, Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughy, as the two detectives, will keep you watching.

True Detective
Sky Atlantic HD

The HBO series True Detective (Saturdays, 9pm), now screening on Sky Atlantic HD, is not half as clever as it thinks it is – though why it should care, I don’t know. After all, it seems to have duped the critics, who have declared it – and I’m not even paraphrasing – “the best television ever”.

Apparently these guys haven’t spotted the close attention the show pays to the dreary and misogynistic second law of American television, which states that any cop series in which the action takes place in Louisiana or elsewhere in the south must contain at least one sequence in which a cop visits a strip joint; duffs up an investigation-impeding redneck; accuses his wife of being a “ball-breaker” when she tentatively nags him about his hours; drinks too much because he is troubled by his “dark” past. (The first law of American television, by the way, has to do with New York, pretzels, New Balance trainers and a gloomy Central Park underpass – but let’s save that for another day.)

True Detective is an anthology series. There are eight parts and then it will end; any second season will involve new actors and a new storyline. It’s directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, who gave us the film of Jane Eyre starring Michael Fassbender, and it’s written by the novelist Nic Pizzolatto (Galveston). It looks excellent – several episodes down the line, I gather, we will get to see a tracking shot that lasts for six minutes – and it sounds . . . That’s the thing. It sounds complicated.

Pizzolatto has employed one of the most laborious time structures ever seen on television. The action takes place in 1995, in the days after the ritual murder of a young woman in a sugar cane field, but this is all in flashback. The story is, therefore, weirdly and sometimes confoundingly punctuated by police interviews that are being conducted in 2012 with the two detectives who led the original investigation. Combine this with the riddle-me-ree dialogue – when one character says to another, “I want you to stop talking this weird shit,” it’s hard not to sympathise – and what the viewer feels mostly is not terror, or even pity. It’s irritation.

What might keep you watching is Woody Harrelson’s performance as Detective Marty Hart and Matthew McConaughey’s as Detective Rust Cohle. Harrelson acts mostly with his lower lip, a ledge so pronounced that he could rest his badge on it if he wanted to. He’s self-deceiving and self-justifying and the lip comes into play, like a gun, whenever he is thwarted. McConaughey’s 1995 version of Cohle is waxy of complexion and stringy of neck and moves pedantically about the crime scene in the manner of an insurance clerk inspecting window locks (his nickname is “Taxman”, on account of the ledger he carries wherever he goes).

The 2012 version of Taxman comes with a ponytail, a drooping moustache and a drinking problem. This performance – the job, you gather, has ruined him – is horribly clichéd: the way he holds his cigarette between thumb and index finger; the way he sucks down his beer, eyes closed, as if it were a lake and he had been walking for five days through a dusty canyon to find it. But it’s mesmerising, too. Something about McConaughey’s bone structure speaks to this part: at times he looks half-dead. No wonder he has such a feeling for the corpse.

Ah, yes. The corpse. The (troublingly curvy) victim was posed naked with a set of antlers on her head, some satanic nonsense made of twigs nearby – which brings me to what might stop you watching. Given that we’re in good ol’ Louisiana, I was hardly expecting a fully Susan Faludi-approved character to burst through my screen (though True Blood has a strong woman at its heart). Even so, this is pitiful. These women! Marty’s wife is a martyr to his womanising and every other female is a prostitute, an obliging good-time girl, or both. The thought occurs that the victim is the quietest woman in this show only by a very small margin – at which point, the next episode starts to seem about as enticing as a solo visit to a Louisiana dive bar.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times