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

(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.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser