03/18/2014 10:16 am ET Updated May 18, 2014

True Detective : Dude, Where's My Carcosa


If you took Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, forced them Clockwork Orange-style to watch a thousand hours of child abuse videos, locked them in gen pop at Arkham Asylum for three years to mingle with the pure craziness of the Joker and Two-Face, then made them listen to an even crazier Dick Cheney smugly justify his political actions, you'd end up with Rust Cohle and Martin Hart, the emotionally damaged fallen angel cops in True Detective. Like its gritty heroes, the show is mesmerizing, good-hearted, occasionally brilliant -- and occasionally flawed.

The popularity of the show seems to have taken everyone by surprise. The finale attracted 4.9 million viewers, while the whole series arrested the attention of 11 million viewers. Certainly part of the initial interest can be credited to the big-name actors Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, both of whom deliver the best performances of their careers. Although McConaughey's "when you stare into the void, the void stares back" Cohle is the showier part, Harrelson's morally conflicted "my id is kicking my superego's ass" Hart is just as compelling.

From the internet chatter, a lot of the show's appeal also came from viewers enjoying playing with the obscure clues to construct elaborate conspiracy theories. As a huge mystery story nerd myself, I enjoyed trying to deconstruct and reverse engineer all the Yellow King, Carcosa, antler art, and stick figures to uncover the truth.

The True Appeal of True Detective

As much as I love a mystery, the real appeal of the show wasn't the whodunit aspect, which was fairly standard. Rather, it was the intense relationship between Cohle and Hart and their struggles with their personal demons against the backdrop of pursuing real "demons." Their names say it all. Rust Cohle's moral identity is rusting away from his years of soul-punishing undercover work, leaving him as black and hard as coal. Martin Hart is the emotional "heart" of the duo, fighting to maintain his humanity while justifying his surrendering to his inhumanity by betraying his wife. He bristles with outrage at the exploitation of children, yet exploits women himself.

The shows creator and only writer, Nic Pizzolatto, was a college literature professor. This is clear from the thematic depth of the work. The series systematically builds to reject religious notions of a universe guided by a god or moral truths and instead embraces an existential universe in which humanity must create its own moral truths to light its path in the darkness. Whether or not you agree with the show's premise, Pizzolatto does a hell of a job presenting this within a riveting and suspenseful story about two men we care deeply for, despite their flaws. The journey of these two once noble but now fallen men toward redemption is emotionally and intellectually satisfying.

The Women Are Whack. Or Naked. Or Both

One criticism of the show making the rounds is that the show is too male-centric, both exploiting the females it features and at the same time ignoring them. There is some truth to this, but not as much as detractors claim. In contrast to the layered, nuanced characterization of Cohle and Hart, the female characters seem much sketchier. The only major woman character is Hart's wife, Maggie (Michelle Monaghan), who for eight episodes (except for one bare-breasted sex scene and another quickie sex scene) plays the single note of "long-suffering." The other featured females are Hart's bare-breasted mistresses who either want handcuffed sex or anal sex. Not so much layered nuance as lively nipples.

Certainly there is no reason to show naked breasts except to thumb their noses at network TV ("Look what we can do that you can't!") and to promote their new slogan: "HBO: We give you hard dramas -- and hard-ons." (Nipples are practically a trademark of HBO series, their version of the MGM lion or Looney Toons' Bugs Bunny.) While I agree that the use of bare boobs is less about character development and more about gratuitous titillation, the raw sensuality otherwise portrayed is actually a legitimate part of the story. Yes, it's a male-centric buddy cop story, a more literary and darker version of popcorn fare like Lethal Weapon and Rush Hour. It's more in the serious vein of BBC's Sherlock and BBC's Life on Mars. Because the series is from the points of view of these two men, the females become more symbolic and less realistically complex. This is often a convention of serious literature. Jane Austen's male characters might keep their shirts and pants on, but they are no less symbolic shadow puppets of male types. The women appear as the men in the series see them, which is part of the reason they are unable to have meaningful relationships with women. So, rather than a flaw, the portrayal of women is a strength in that it reveals the weakness in the protagonists.

Hey, It's the South! Where Are All the Black People?

Another criticism of the show is that there aren't many black people, especially considering it takes place in Louisiana, 32 percent of which is black. In general, I agree that our media has a responsibility to paint a realistic portrait of America, not only in populating its films and TV shows with people of all races, religions, genders, and sexual preferences, but also portraying them in realistic ways: some are good, some are bad, some are successful, some are not. They shouldn't be idealized or romanticized because that's patronizing. However, not every show should be required to create a population rainbow just for the sake of it.

True Detective got the racial mix right. The only major African-American characters are the two detectives, Thomas Papania (Tory Kittles) and Maynard Gilbough (Michael Potts), interviewing Cohle and Hart seventeen years after the Dora Lange case is closed. The fact that the landscape in the 1995 part of the story is Alaskan white is meant to portray the dark good-ole-boys Old South history, in which the degenerate, perverse way of thinking led to unspeakable crimes, as manifested in the cult of child molesters and murderers. The black detectives looking to uncover the truth of what really happened represent a New Millennium South that may be flawed from their horrific past, but is on the mend. That is why it is the two black detectives who, in the end, save the lives of Cohle and Hart. So, in this case, it's not the quantity of blacks in the series, it's the quality of character that they represent.

All's Well That Ends. Well?

Some fans are upset that the final episode wasn't dark enough. Given the bleak despair expressed in many of Cohle's nihilistic rants, the ending that lets both detectives live to hobble off together in a "beautiful friendship" like Bogart and Rains at the end of Casablanca is too damn cheerful. They feel betrayed.

They are wrong. Children want happy endings because it reflects their protected world. Adolescents want dark endings because it reflects their new-found disillusionment based on the realization that the world isn't always fair or just or kind. Adults accept the randomness of the world, accept its injustices but fight to bring some semblance of compassion to such a world. And that's just what the ending of True Detective does.

The series embraces universal injustice by accepting that Cohle and Hart have not caught all the bad guys (a la "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."). The mysteries of the uncaring universe are expressed by not explaining all the "clues" about the Yellow King and the rest, allowing them to be more symbolic. Instead of giving in to the simplistic and predictable dead-detectives ending, the ending reveals a greater truth: We all struggle against the dark -- the world's and our own -- to bring just a little more light to the universe.

It's important that the men survive and shuffle off together at the end. Although they are physically wounded -- Cohle from being stabbed and Hart from a hatchet in his chest -- they are spiritually healed because of their willingness to risk their mortal lives to battle evil and to save each other.

A Few Hatchets to the Chest of My Own

As much as I love and admire this series, I do have a few nit-picky complaints.

-- Antlers stuff. I'm sure this series was written before the TV series Hannibal appeared. Nevertheless, Hannibal features an antler motif that is much more visually powerful and creepy.

-- Religious symbolism. There's a lot more than necessary, and what they do have is sometimes so blatant that it pulls you out of the show. Instead, you can see the writer gleefully inserting symbols. For example, Cohle in the hospital looking like Jesus just after he's vanquished Satan (complete with facial burns -- from the fires of hell?). There are too many to go into here. Some are awesome; some are awful.

-- Killer too obvious. Maybe it's because I read a lot of mysteries, but in the scene in which they first introduce the killer, I thought, "That him." Why? Because they spend too much time with such a peripheral character. They go out of their way to make him seem gentle and non-threatening.

-- Plot is too convoluted. There are a lot of characters, names, time jumps, clues, and driving around. Sometimes keeping it all straight was very difficult. And sometimes the explanations slowed the momentum. Streamlining the plot and editing would have helped.

My Takeaway Points

If you skipped to the end of this article because you thought it needed streamlining and editing, here's all you need to know: True Detective is a brilliant series that elevates the mystery genre to serious literature. If this were a movie, I would campaign for Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson to receive Oscars. Complaints about the portrayal of women and not enough blacks are wrong. I had a few minor issues, none of which interfered with my enjoyment of or admiration for the series. I'm a genius at figuring out who the killer is in a mystery.

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