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Swamp-noir True Detective is the best show of 2014 (so far)

It may not have the best writing, but True Detective's production and acting quality mark it out as the standout show of 2014.

Matthew McConnaughey as Rust Cohle in True Detective. (Image: HBO)
Matthew McConnaughey as Rust Cohle in True Detective. (Image: HBO)

(Note: mild spoilers below)

Scandinava and Louisiana have little in common in terms of culture or humidity, but True Detective - the latest hit from HBO, and up to its sixth episode on the UK on Sky Atlantic tonight - is very much a cousin of the noir from across the North Sea. As much as concrete, snow and parliamentary politics lends, say, the Killing its tone, the bayou, and the heat, reflect the world created by author Nic Pizzolatto, in this tale of two detectives tracking down a serial killer with a fetish for satanic sacrifice.

It constructs itself in flashback. In 1995, Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) are assigned to each other as partners in the state police, despatched together to a murder: Dora Lange, a local sex worker, tied-up, mutilated, and posed naked with a crown of thorns in a field. In 2012, the two detectives (now retired) are interviewed separately by two younger cops about the case, asking them to run through how they solved it (and there’s even a further third layer of memory, as they remember falling out in 2002 over “a personal matter”).

True Detective is obsessed with layering things like this. The most infamous example comes when, in the original investigation, Rust and Marty interview suspects (and find a diary) that fleetingly refer to someone called the “Yellow King”, living in “Carcosa”. This is a pretty explicit reference to The King in Yellow, a collection of fantasy short stories by Robert Chambers written in 1895, and which are all concerned with a fictional play by the same name. In the stories, everyone who has ever read the play has lost their mind.

In any other show, this would be the basis for an extensive mythology, but True Detective isn’t that kind of show. In part, this is why the popular and critical reaction to the end of the first season in the US has been downbeat, as much of the first few episodes sets up the kind of meta-referencing that audiences have come to expect from their high-brow TV - a trend we can blame Lost for, but which everything from Heroes to Breaking Bad has also taken advantage of to stir interest, with fans conditioned to expect the rug being pulled out from under them with some cryptically-foreshadowed twist. 

Instead, as hinted by the name - which is the same as an American true crime magazine first published in the 1920s - True Detective is straightforward pulp. This is not an insult, though. As Pizzolatto told the Daily Beast:

I’ve enjoyed reading people theorise about what’s going to happen because it’s a sign that you’re connecting. But I’m also sort of surprised by how far afield they’re getting. Like, why do you think we’re tricking you? It’s because you’ve been abused as an audience for more than 20 years. I cannot think of anything more insulting as an audience than to go through eight weeks, eight hours with these people, and then to be told it was a lie - that what you were seeing wasn’t really what was happening. The show’s not trying to outsmart you.”

Louisiana is a place where the coastline is eroding so quickly that cartographers cannot keep up, where dampness, decay and mould make it hard to distinguish between a living building and a dead one. This is a land of Voodoo, Santería, Mardi Gras - traditions and cultures which are themselves hybrids of other traditions and cultures. The use of devices like The King in Yellow is not to establish a mythology, but to emphasise how tenuous and undefined existence in this place can be. Repeatedly, Rust and Marty find themselves bumping up against poor record-keeping, undocumented family ties and a patronage system that dismisses runaway children as found based on a rumour a sheriff heard from a friend.

But, at every point where it seems like the detectives are about to move through to a wider conspiracy - like Hart’s daughter coming home from school with drawings eerily similar to those found at a crime scene, or the nervous insistence by the governor’s pastor brother that the Lange case be handed over to a dedicated “anti-Christian” crimes unit - the show pulls back, emphasising the limitations of the two men to only be capable of a realistic level of justice. It’s much more concerned with showing the growth in both Rust and Marty from their 1995 selves, through to the 2012 versions which appear on camera in the police station.

It’s this writing which may be True Detective’s weakness, as for a show which is apparently about subverting the stereotypes of crime procedurals there are a hell of a lot of cliches. Marty’s an angry misogynist, violent towards women, unfaithful to his wife yet furious with lovers who dare to betray him. “I’m just a regular ass guy… with a big ass dick,” he smirks in one episode, while being interviewed in 2012, before then rueing the collapse of his marriage for reasons that are entirely his own dumb jock fault.

Rust, on the other hand, is a withdrawn former drug addict, and essentially a nihilist. In 1995, he talks with a philosophical faux-profundity - example: why the human race is wrong to assume that it has a right to exist - that causes Marty to roll his eyes, and by 2012 he’s a truck-driving, long-haired alcoholic who talks in riddles about how “time is a flat circle” (something which he sort of has in common with that other Louisiana native, Ignatious J Reilly).

It’s impossible, actually, not to see True Detective as just another show about two white guys saving the day, and by extension themselves - it says something when one of the female characters with the most agency, and the most interesting personality, is a brothel madam with maybe 30 seconds of screen time. As Emily Nussbaum argued in the New Yorker:

[Y]ou might take a close look at the show’s opening credits, which suggest a simpler tale: one about heroic male outlines and closeups of female asses. The more episodes that go by, the more I’m starting to suspect that those asses tell the real story.

It’s this kind of failing that holds True Detective back from being in the same category as The Wire, or even the show that it shares the most fundamental similarities with, the Red Riding trilogy. Judged on the basis of how compelling it is to viewers, though - including myself, who devoured all eight episodes in only a couple of days - it’s the standout television show of 2014. Just ignore anyone who tells you it’s the best show since Breaking Bad.