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Sunday, 6 April 2014

TRUE DETECTIVE, THE UNCANNY MASTERWORK OF AMERICAN TELEVISION

We live in the Renaissance of the Dramatic Television Series - everyone knows the list to trot out: The Sopranos, The West Wing, The Wire, Damages, even Game of Thrones, Homeland, House of Cards (American version), The Killing, The Bridge, and, of course, the badass Shakespeare of our time, Breaking Bad. This is not news. This is the given world of our time - television drama is as good or better than any novel or play a contemporary master can throw at us.

There is no book by Philip Roth, or Martin Amis, or Atwood, or play by Stoppard, or Wilson, any better than The Wire or Breaking Bad.  Maybe as good.  Not better. I therefore did not expect the crowning achievement of this whole excess of excellence to be an 8-part series starring two actors who I rather disliked until a year ago - Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. Then came True Detective.

There will be no spoilers here.  I am not going to say much - it has all been said.  But let me say it again, because I love this show, and at the end of it, feel as strangely shaken as only the greatest cultural events have left me.  This is a masterwork of intertextuality and genre artistry - on the one hand, as its title suggests, it draws on the rich vein of American pulp detective fiction from the 20s to the 60s, which emerged into film as noir; and there are nods to early Kubrick, Welles and Lang, in the style, as well as the post-modern noir expert, David Lynch.  Lynch introduced onto TV with Twin Peaks the idea of metaphysical detection, as it were - the uncanny meeting the banality of police work.

This was not a new idea, per se, mystery and horror meeting.  Sherlock Holmes had faced evil, or potential evil, in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Chandler had all along seen Marlowe as a knight errant, and the knights, of course, came up against supernatural antagonists, from The Green Knight, to the monsters and magicians of The Quest of the Holy Grail. The Wicker Man, too, had seen a policeman up against devil worship; and The Kill-List more recently updated that idea to include hit men hunting Satanists. And, then, again, the X-Files suggested the idea of an investigative pair searching out horror; and that was partly based on the Silence of the Lambs world. And let us not forget Angel Heart.

So, the elements involving a partnership of differing tormented cops, hunting a serial killer associated with evil, in a wasted land setting (here Louisiana after Katrina) are not original to the writer; nor is the Southern Gothic overlay of Bible Belt fire and brimstone tent preaching, or titty bar cheap sex and cornpone Southern detectives and deputies.  All this is a given imaginative landscape.

We have read Tradition and the Individual Talent.  This grail myth moves the canonical works around to make way for its advance on what has come before.  No TV show I have ever seen has introduced so many unusual, cutting-edge, and startlingly disturbing philosophical ideas into a cop show, even one facing evil as the enemy.

For instance, - and I am an educated man - I was unfamiliar with anti-natalism. I did not know of Thacker's ideas of the Horror of Philosophy; or Benatar's idea of "the harm of coming into existence" or indeed the ultra-nihilism of Brassier.  The author of True Detective, Nic Pizzolatto, did more than replay the tired existential tropes of the original noir shows. Instead he plotted a terrifying narrative discourse, which allows the viewer to see and feel and test these variously chilling arguments for the futility of human experience; while exploring moral challenges, and themes, mainly of love, friendship, fidelity, honour, and duty.

The confrontation between light and dark is as old as Greek legend and thought - it is of course the pagan classical backdrop to all Western culture. But enfolding this is reference, as well, to the weird tales and mythologies of Bierce, Lovecraft and Chambers, whose work the King in Yellow from 1895, is a sort of gloss for the whole series., which starts, tellingly, in 1995.  Horror, philosophy, and narrative dramatic TV, had not been put together this well, I think, until True Detective, whose shocks, reversals, and ultimately weird and potent ending, take us as far into Grendel's dark lair as any hero has gone before.

None of this quite explains the devil's brew aspect, how it has all come together so magisterially, leaving a real metallic taste on my tongue, a sulphuric frisson.  The world looks much more rich and strange after this series. You must see it, despite the trigger-points lurking within. As a Catholic, I enjoyed having my theology tested against the extreme mood of nihilism haunting the bayous and the stinking burn-out churches.
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