Long before it was a television series, True Detective was the name of an American magazine that specialised in lurid, sensationalised stories of real-life crimes, often told from the point-of-view of the grizzled police veterans who investigated them.
This reference point is important when discussing the television incarnation of True Detective. The central thread and internal mythology of the show – two tough, damaged police detectives, hell-bent on avenging the murder of innocent women and children in the face of considerable official complacency – owes much to the true-crime magazine genre. It’s also been a standard trope in crime fiction since the 1930s.
The eight-part series (and careful, some spoilers follow) begins in Louisiana in the mid-90s. Two police detectives, Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and his new partner Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) are assigned to investigate the murder of a young woman. Particularly shocking are the presence of strange occult symbols on the woman’s body and surrounding crime scene. All we know about the woman is that she was a drifter and a prostitute. With the exception of Marty and Rust, no-one wants to spend too much time and energy finding out what happened to her.
As the investigation proceeds, the detectives begin to link her killing to a string of apparently unrelated disappearances across the huge expanse of rural Louisiana. A lone serial killer with occult tendencies or the head of a fundamentalist Christian church that funds schools in poor rural areas are two possible culprits.
Interspersed with these events are flash-forwards of Marty and Rust, older and much worse for wear, being interviewed separately by police about their recollection of the case. Why is not made clear until the halfway mark of the series. The two detectives thought they had solved the case back in the 90s, but killings with the same occult signs are still occurring.
Some have compared True Detective unfavourably with Jane Campion’s 2013 series set in New Zealand, Top of the Lake. I find this strange because apart from Campion’s lead character being a woman (played by Elizabeth Moss from Mad Men), the two shows are remarkably similar. Top of the Lake is based on another well-worn trope: the driven, personally dysfunctional but professionally hard-hitting female police detective, determined to solve a case others want hushed up. The crime in question, the disappearance of a pregnant young woman, even takes place in a similar rural setting.
Others have drawn parallels with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. But a more accurate comparison is Red Riding, a harrowing three-part UK crime show. Red Riding was adapted from a quartet of novels by David Peace set in northern England in the 70s and early 80s, when the area was terrorised first by the Yorkshire Ripper, then Margaret Thatcher. The interlinked stories focus on the sexual abuse and murder of a string of young children by powerful members of the local police and business community.
One factor muddying the waters of attempts to discuss True Detective is the way words like ‘noir’, ‘hard-boiled’ and ‘gothic’ have been bandied around to describe the show. Further complicating matters is the story’s supposed references to the work of obscure writers and the supernatural folklore of writer Nic Pizzolatto’s home state of Louisiana.
While the show brought out the armchair detective in many viewers, social media gave them a platform to air their views, observations and theories about the smallest of clues or most esoteric of references. It’s interesting to speculate whether this is part of a broader change in how we watch television. The obsessive online theorising about the show and intense disappointment expressed by many in response to the conclusion, particularly the fact that some story threads were left unresolved, highlights many viewers now treat television more as a interactive social media experience than the appreciation of a narrative storytelling process.
I found the messiness of True Detective, the fact that not everything was resolved and not all the criminals (however you define them) caught, one of the show’s strengths. Another is the way it played with notions of time and memory. The constant shifting between the past and future, the way we are led to adopt a set of assumptions that turn out to be totally false are brilliantly done.
True Detective may appear to be just another of a long line of grim, albeit high-quality television crime shows (especially compared with tepid fare on offer locally). While it is not without problems, I’d argue it’s an incredibly innovative effort, which will substantially change expectations about the way television crime is written and filmed.
True Detective completely trashes the structure, still dominant in the majority of private-investigator and police-procedural television, of a first-person narrative, a clear linear timeline, and strong story delineation between personal life, the culture and methods of the investigation, and the crime.
Marty is a middle-class white man, full of hypocrisy and rage, unfaithful to his long suffering and intelligent wife, Maggie (Michelle Monajhan). Rust is a pop-psychology-spouting nihilist with a tragic past. The job has sucked them dry. Cohle is particularly damaged and still has hallucinations as a result the drugs he consumed during a previous stint as an undercover narcotics agent. Their relationship, like their lives, is messy, blurred and chaotic. They are emotionally unsophisticated, Marty particularly so. They do bad things, to each other, the people they love and criminals they dealt with.
‘Hard-boiled’ and ‘noir’ are terms that defy easy definition but as a general rule of thumb, hard-boiled pertains to films having a tough, cynical nature. Noir, to me, is deeper, and fundamentally about weakness and lack of control. Marty and Rust lack control over every aspect of their moral and physical world, including their own masculinity.
Certainly, there are problematic aspects with True Detective’s depiction of gender, apparent from the very first episode, when Rust looks upon the body of murder victim and the strange symbols on her body and says, ‘His vision. Her body.’ Much of the show deals with the way men deal with and impact on woman’s bodies, emotionally and physically.
The only female role of substance, indeed, the only other detailed character in the entire series, is Marty’s wife, Maggie. While her role is nowhere near as fleshed out as the two detectives, there are definite shades of Carmela Soprano, Skyler White, Margaret Thompson, even detective Robin Griffin in Top of the Lake: women torn over the compromises they have to make to keep their relationships together.
That said it’s worth noting that True Detective eschews the graphic onscreen violence characteristic of so many of the current crop of television crime shows. With the exception of the opening and one or two other scenes, violence occurs off-screen. We the viewers see it only through the reactions on the faces of the two detectives.
As Woody Haut wrote in his 1999 history of American crime film, Neon Noir, ‘To examine a culture, one need only investigate its crimes.’ We could add, where the crime happens and how it is solved.
Haut argues that, after several decades of lack of innovation in a lot of crime fiction and film, Vietnam and Watergate gave fictional American detectives a new lease of life by allowing writers to blur the lines between the person investigating the crime and the criminal responsible for it. As a consequence, official police and state structures started to be depicted as a hindrance as much as help.
Crime fiction and film was also influenced by the massive privatisation of economic life under the Reagan and Bush presidencies in the 1980s, which included privatising the space and methods of investigated crime.
One of True Detective’s fascinating aspects is its portrayal of detective work: Marty and Rust are as much archivists and historians as cops, painstakingly piecing together evidence, physical records, landmarks, personal history destroyed through bureaucratic incompetence, political cover-up, economic upheaval or natural disaster.
Related to this, it is interesting to note they only become effective in solving the real crime after both have left the police force. This either plays into the analysis that any kind of meaningful investigation is impossible within official state structures, or it glorifies vigilantism. Take your pick.
Rural noir, for want of a better way of describing it, is popular in the American crime-fiction scene at the moment, a response to the industrial hollowing out of much of America, which has left large pockets of the country, particularly rural areas, to fend for itself.
The crimes in True Detective, as in Campion’s Top of the Lake, occur far from the bureaucratised, highly policed and media-literate centre. The two detectives comment at one stage that the reason no-one has connected the crimes they’re investigating is because they have taken place off the grid. These crimes involve the poor and marginalised; the police and the media don’t have the resources or, it would appear, the desire to examine them.