Friday, August 10, 2018

True Detective, Seasons 1-2

My latest TV-on-DVD binge was a six-disc set of the first two seasons of HBO's series True Detective. Each season is eight episodes. Season One was actually all written by one writer (Nic Pizzolatto) and directed by one guy (Cary Joji Fukunaga), so in a lot of ways it was like an eight-hour movie serialized in one-hour installments. Season Two manages a similar sense of creative unity in spite of having multiple writers and directors working on it.

Other than that, and expansive dialogue, and rich characterization, and beautiful landscape photography that establishes a powerful sense of place, and a certain dark, gritty sensibility running through and under everything, the two seasons don't have much in common. They have different settings, different characters, different themes, and ultimately a different story structure - although each season is split down the middle by a stupendous action sequence that sends the mystery the detectives are investigating off on a completely new trajectory. In fact, apart from both being detective stories, I'm not even sure both seasons represent the same genre. So if one of these two miniseries, or mega-movies, seems to suffer in comparison to the other, that may have something to do with it. I think Season 2 is a superb present-day example of the hardboiled genre, a neo-noir masterpiece that would have made Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett proud. I love me a good potboiler, and the L.A.-area story arc hits all of the marks perfectly. It isn't fair, in my opinion, to judge it in comparison with Season 1, which is something else - something that I don't think I have ever seen before, for which I can think of no pigeonhole to stick it in. A genre unto itself.

Season 1 features Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as a partnered pair of Louisiana State CID detectives who don't particularly like each other, solving a young woman's murder that has deviant religious features - solving it together, in spite of their personal differences, in a story that hops between three time periods (1995, 2002 and 2012) - solving it, also, in spite of powerful forces that seem to be dead set against the truth coming out. Harrelson is a by-the-book cop who cheats on his wife, played by Michelle Monaghan. McConaughey is a nihilist with a dark past, both professionally and personally - but he is also an unconventional thinker in a way that makes him a brilliant sleuth. In spite of a relationship meltdown that nukes the one's marriage and the other's career, to say nothing of a pair of present-day detectives (Michael Potts and Tory Kittles, filling out the opening-titles cast) who suspect McConaughey of being the actual killer, the two guys patch things up enough to finish what they started.

On a certain level, the mystery is just window-dressing, while the view through the window focuses on this antagonistic relationship between two men who finally prove to be each other's best friend - two guys who at one point are ready to kill each other, and who end up saving each other's lives. The fight between them, in the 2002 segment, is (pun intended) a knockout, as is the way McConaughey convinces Harrelson, 10 years later, to help him solve the case that everybody else considers already solved. What comes between them is heartbreaking. What brings them back together is amazing. Parts of this eight-hour film are painful to watch, but taken as a whole, it is astoundingly good.

Three Scenes That Made Season 1 For Me: This is really hard, because there are so many scenes that work like gangbusters, but here goes: (1) That insane drug heist/urban riot, shot in one incredible take, when 1995 McConaughey follows a white supremacist biker/drug dealer into a gnarly situation and then drags him out of it, all in the hope of catching up to a known associate of the suspected murderer. (2) McConaughey calmly telling a woman who has just confessed to smothering her three babies that prison and the press are going to be really hard on her, so she should probably kill herself while she has the opportunity. (3) The whole sequence inside the abandoned fort, which is decorated as if the detectives are walking through the killer's diseased brain - a truly hair-raising passage.

Season 2 moves the setting to L.A., where a small industrialized suburb called Vinci proves to be a hotbed of deadly secrets. Headlining the cast are Vince Vaughn as a gangster whose efforts to become a legitimate businessman are derailed by the murder of his sleazy business partner; Taylor Kitsch as a deeply tormented California Highway Patrol officer who is moments away from killing himself when he stumbles on the victim's body; Rachel McAdams as an L.A. County Sheriff's detective, scarred by childhood trauma, whose assignment is as much about investigating corruption in Vinci as about solving the murder; and Colin Farrell as a Vinci cop with anger and substance abuse issues, who is halfway in Vaughn's pocket while the other half is under orders from the crooks who run the town to keep an eye on Kitsch and McAdams. The fifth member of the opening-titles cast is Kelly Reilly as Vaughn's wife, although his character isn't the only one with a romantic partner.

Your first clue that things may not work out as well for these protagonists as for the Season 1 guys comes at the end of Episode 2, when Farrell - who, mind you, leads the billing in the opening credits - gets blasted with a shotgun at point-blank range. You go into the closing credits in disbelief: "You what?! Did you just kill your leading man one quarter of the way in?" Spoiler: He recovers. I say "he recovers," not "he lives," because I wouldn't want to give away what happens to any of these main characters, but consider yourself warned: only two of the five survive to the end of the season. What they survive, and what they don't survive, bear disturbing testimony toward the theme "You get the world that you deserve." Some of them - perhaps all of them, one would think after seeing their characters struggle and grow during these eight episodes - deserve better. But even more than the detectives in Season 1, these characters have been dealt into a game that has been rigged against them. The people who don't want them to solve the case have plenty of power to make sure that they don't, and the more determined they are to find the truth, the less their chances of living to tell it.

Three Scenes That Made Season 2 For Me: (1) Obviously, the "Vinci Massacre" scene, which (according to DVD extras) took five days to shoot, and every minute worth it. It's a devastating turning point at the center of the story that brings three of the main characters (Kitsch, McAdams and Farrell) closer together, unlocks their best selves and, at the same time, makes the doom of their enterprise utterly inevitable. (2) Everything that happens to Kitsch's character after he realizes that the old army buddy with whom he had a gay fling (a big part of why he's so tormented) has betrayed him to the enemy. Your heart breaks for him, especially because his heart will never get a chance to heal. (3) Everything to do with the season's denouement, which subverts murder mystery convention by leaving at least some of the bad guys unpunished while the good guys struggle, all but hopelessly, to get away. If I've ever seen an hour of television that left me with a bitter, disillusioned view of the world, this is it. And yet it's not without a hint of justice at the end.

I wouldn't recommend this series to everybody. It's extremely dark, graphically violent and sexual, full of R-rated language and characters (like McConaughey's, for instance) spouting a vile worldview. But the story earns these things; they aren't just thrown out there gratuitously. And though one of these super-films is a tragedy and the other isn't, they are powerful works blurring the boundary between art and entertainment, displaying lives that feel lived in and problems into which the viewer enters personally. Season 1 leaves you satisfied that the story is complete, even if it might be fun to imagine what Woody and Matthew (or rather, Marty and Rust) get up to next. Season 2 leaves little or nothing standing that a subsequent story could build on, yet somehow it seems worthwhile. At a certain point in each season, I wavered as to whether I really wanted to keep watching them, but I did and at the end, I doubted no longer. This is TV the likes of which have hardly ever been made before. If it influences the way TV will be made in the future, I believe that would be a change I could get behind.

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