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Running Down a Dream: Have We Fallen Down the 'True Detective' Rabbit Hole to Nowhere?

By Cindy Davis | Think Pieces | March 6, 2014 | Comments ()


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So, it looks like* True Detective will turn out to be just another serial killer story. Before you start screaming about the acting and the writing, and slamming your browser shut, give me just a minute here. I’m not trying to diminish the show’s greatness. Recently I wrote about how we, as an audience, may be left unsatisfied by straight-forward stories because of shows like Lost and Twin Peaks; now I have another question: Just how many tales of serial killers and child abuse do we really want to watch, and how does such a series get around our jaded mindset? By driving people mad?

Nic Pizzolatto is clearly a talented writer with a gift for character and dialogue, and Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson have chewed his words right down to the bone. Had he stuck to that skeleton, we’d still have embraced True Detective, but would the series be receiving the same attention without its perceived theory breeding—what I hesitate to call—misdirection? I know how showrunners can be sensitive to that term, and having contributed to that Lost criticism myself, I can’t say as I blame them. But in the end, are we to believe Pizzolatto didn’t know what he was doing when he threw in certain references? He certainly cultivated Rust’s ambiguity, and the evolution of Marty’s character made Hart questionable as well. Is everyone really buying Pizzolatto’s oh pshaw! interviews? The closer we get to the end, the less I can accept claims we weren’t intentionally led on this philosophical goose chase. Setting aside the supernatural inferences some have made, we’re meant (at different points) to suspect Cohle and Hart—they’ve each been created as unreliable narrators, so it’s up to us (true detectives) to find the truth. The religious asides, sermonizing, the devil traps—an illustrated diary—Cohle’s visions and symbology were a little cookie crumb trail expertly laid and dutifully followed. Pizzolatto knew exactly what he was doing when he threw in Carcosa and the The King in Yellow. There are multiple layers that really go nowhere, but made us feel like we were headed somewhere new. True Detective wasn’t just another set of fantastic actors going over the same old ground, it was deeper than that. To acknowledge these things while the series was running might have been detrimental, so there’ve been statements like this one: “I’ve enjoyed reading people theorize 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. “ Why yes Mr. Pizzolatto, perhaps it is, and I guess we shouldn’t complain when someone exploits that “abuse,” maybe chuckling as so many of us trip and fall right down the rabbit hole.

I tip my hat to the writer, even if I sound slightly bitter. In the end, we’ll have gotten eight hours of an engaging, well-acted story we’ve by now seen many times over, but jazzed up as much as such things can be. The unique method of storytelling took us time-traveling (sans blue box, but with the police) over nearly two decades; we felt like we lived through everything Cohle and Hart did, coming out the other side just a little bit worse for the wear. These characters dug straight into our brain stems and took root. In the case of True Detective, we might have made it through without the repeating allusions that sent us off in search of…

After years of police procedurals—from Law & Order to Criminal Minds to Red Riding, Top of the Lake and Broadchurch—we’ve learned that the sexual abuse and murdering of children is that thing that makes us feel our absolute worst; in film and television, it’s the horrific occurrence du jour. And since there’s nowhere left to go from there (except maybe in multiple victims, via serial killer or the involvement of many bad people instead of one), writers have to find ways to draw in the audience. My hope for future True Detective seasons, and these type of series in general, would be for writers who embellish to lean toward more meaningful mythology; if you’re sending us on an egg hunt, we’d like the satisfaction of eventually finding a little surprise hidden in the grass (however distasteful it may be).

I don’t subscribe to the theory that there is no such thing as a new idea, but when it comes to the depiction of serial killers, everyone seems hunting down a new way to serve them up. The best answer may be in series like Hannibal, where Bryan Fuller has created an appreciated distance from reality and elevated fantasy crime scenes to the stuff of haughty galleries. Even though he’s working with well-known material, Fuller takes license—his own means—to get to the end.

As I discovered the other night while watching the debut of A & E’s Those Who Kill, even for a girl who considers herself a connoisseur of dark-hearted series, there can indeed be too much of a bad thing. Great actors don’t guarantee the story will be good and vice versa. Indeed, audiences appreciate new ways to tell some of the old stories, but if you purposely throw crumbs down a stray path, don’t play dumb when we follow them. Give us some credit, and gather them into a pie crust—a small cookie, at least.

“See, I don’t want to destroy that stuff by copping to it.” (Nic Pizzalotto)

*Of course if it turns out Rust and Marty are two halves of the same person, or there is something more than a vast child-murdering cult involving powerful people, I shall have to eat my proverbial hat.


Cindy Davis, (Twitter)




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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • Michelle

    To be fair, even though we DON'T know what's going to happen on Sunday (which: kind of awesome, right? usually I'm dodging spoilers left and right at this point, but for some reason that doesn't seem to be happening here), but Cindy's got a point. This is going to end up being a procedural/serial killer story, just like Pizzalotto always intended and always stated. The King in Yellow stuff is really just what the cult ascribed to and was giving us some insight into how deep they were into the crazy and what level of crazy Rust had to descend to in order to really bring it all together in the later years.

  • nobcarajo100

    I guess its to the credit of the writer that people can get such different expectations about this show. I mean, you DO know that all the Carcosa, Yellow King, etc. references are just things that the cult believes in, they're not something else beyond that...It will probably be explained in some way why the cult does this or that. That's what you're talking about right? Besides that are you expecting Cohle to fight with Cthulhu or whatever in the last episode?

  • manting

    Rust vs Cthulhu? That would be sweet.

  • John G.

    Here's a good article that talks about how crime fiction used to be, and how it is today mostly focused on serial killers.

    This is one reason why in so many films and TV shows featuring serial killers, the typical story line is about catching the killer before he kills again, but there is no indictment of the larger society that produced him.

    http://goo.gl/VIhpV9

  • Repo

    The idea that Lost would make me disappointed in True Detective is hilarious. Lost made me disappointed in you know, Lost.

  • Ben

    Paul Tassi over at Unreality basically summed up my feelings in this article.

    http://unrealitymag.com/index....

  • He kinda, er, lost me here...

    "Not that Lost didn’t have its plot twists, but it was mainly just a long series of mysteries that were eventually explained. "

  • Ben

    I bailed on Lost at some point in the second season. But from my understanding up until the final episode it was solid. The part that I most agreed with was his point of not needing a surprise at the end to shock us into thinking the show was good.

  • Jiffylush

    It was far from solid until the final episode, we just stayed because we had already invested so much time.

  • Agree with your last statement.

  • Laszlo

    I don't see any kind of misdirection here. It showed signs of some weird culty shit, and that's exactly what we got.

  • SpaceMonkeyX

    I've enjoyed TD since the first episode and have been entirely willing to follow wherever it takes me. I understand the Yellow King references have added a new level of mystery to some people, but for me it has always been window dressing - both on the show and in real-life. I don't believe it plays into some greater Lovecraftian scheme or is meant to make people sift through scenes with a fine-toothed comb. What has been presented to us is all we're meant to see and if others have taken a more investigative approach, that's on them. Like true detectives, they can also be misled by their own biases, and I have a feeling they're going to be sorely disappointed when the truth shakes out. Sure, there's a conspiracy to cover things up, maybe even to find the victims, but in the end, it's still going to be people doing horrible things to other people.

    After re-watching the second half of the first season of Hannibal as a refresher for season 2, I've gotten far more enjoyment out of that show despite it's more standard "case of the week" format. It's a shame that the people putting so much effort into figuring out True Detective aren't watching Hannibal unfold, too. The show needs the ratings and the buzz a lot more.

  • Ryan Ambrose

    Many people are going to be pissed if Cthulhu doesn't show up dressed in yellow on the last episode to snag Rust's beer.

    Methinks a lot of them are guilty of reading symbolism and allegory as some sort of literal manifestation of supernatural events at play.

  • nosio

    "...a lot of them are guilty of reading symbolism and allegory as some sort of literal manifestation of supernatural events at play."

    THIS. THIS SO HARD.

    I'd say watching TD has been akin to having a novel visualized for you as you read along. The way the story unfolds, the symbolism, heavy use of first-person narration, allusions to other authors/works - the vibe is far more "this is literature for your eyes and ears" than "this is another crime procedural". It's not misdirection, it's just good, moody, suspenseful storytelling. This made more sense when I found out Pizzolatto was a novelist and lit professor before getting into TV.

    So I've been sort of confused by the desire some have to have these elements mean *more*. Allegory, symbolism, multi-layered references - don't these things have enough merit on their own for the way they contribute to and enhance the story overall?

  • lowercase_ryan

    grrrrrrrrrr I love you Cindy, fer real, but how can you write this before we know what happens Sunday? We can't assess his actions until the credits roll, imo.

    Also, more than detective stories, these are mysteries. For my money the only mystery has been who was behind the killings and I never thought for one second that either of the two leads were the killer(s).

  • I have to wait for the end of the series, obviously, but as of the penultimate episode I am now pretty down on the series. It's not that the series isn't incredibly well made and thoughtfully produced. It's that at first the series really did seem to be going for a larger view than just a mystery. The last two episodes seem to have regressed in that respect, examining the characters in a fairly simplistic way and forcing them into a pretty generic adventure in Law & Order Land. I can already anticipate the arc of the final episode (though I hope I'm wrong) where Marty and Rust are on the road to solving things and getting redemption only to have the dark cold world win out in the end, time being a flat circle and all.

    The problem I have with this is that it says absolutely nothing new. It's nothing we haven't seen in old noirs, and certainly descended from the likes of Altman's The Long Goodbye. The style may have been unique throughout the series, but as it's gone on the style has seemed less and less unique, and more and more of a beautiful front dropped on a lame story.

    Hannibal, in some ways a more silly show, does wonders by making the style truly inform the themes of the show, and the more it goes the more we understand how the style informs the fractured realities of its characters and the way in which violence and its consequences rot the mind and the soul. That's new. That's unique.

    Or look at the shows Emily Nussbaum referenced, Top of the Lake and The Fall, each of which bring a new perspective via a female eye. Top of the Lake plays with temporal movement, entrenching itself into the world of the community while time seems to slip away, the fate of a young girl becoming almost inconsequential. The Fall uses the counterpoint of a handsome serial killer against a ruthlessly determined female detective. What it says about the psychology of each through that contrast is genuinely interesting, well beyond such trite ideas such as "Marty is a bad man because he wants to control women."

    True Detective has one episode left to convince me it was more than the some of its parts, but right now it's looking like it was only ever less.

  • Yossarian

    That's a pretty uncharitable summary of True Detective. "Marty is a bad man because he wants to control women"? Really?

    Marty wants to protect women. Marty wants to posses women. Marty wants to control female sexuality. Marty wants (and feels entitled to what he wants) without the self-awareness or empathy to acknowledge that other people want things to. Marty objectifies women. His hypocrisy and insecurity are his undoing but he's helpless to advance beyond it. The show criticizes Marty while letting him persist in his lack of awareness.

    The way his character is revealed in this story, the contrast of his obsessive, hypocritical attachments with his partner's nihilistic detachment, the juxtaposition of his treatment of the women in his life with the case they are perusing, the way it intertwines with the theme of women and children not just being victims but being lost, unseen, unnoticed, and quickly forgotten.

    The fundamental contradiction of Martin Hart is the same contradiction that underlies most conservative, patriarchal moral hypocrisy in our do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do society and the way it is explored and revealed by the investigation is one of the key themes to the series and one of the reasons it's so good (and, one of the reasons Emily Nussbaum's article was so bafflingly off the mark.)

    Plenty of shows give us sexism as a punchline or some hokey moralizing. And maybe if we're lucky we get empowered female characters to set the good example. But how many shows are this good at depicting the contradictions and insecurity and ugliness of the male mentality that perpetrates those things, really? Without just turning that character into a villain or a cad or buffoon. How many dare to make that character a protagonist?

    It's like comparing Raging Bull to Rocky. This isn't about a payoff or a twist ending or a neat serial killer gimmick or a deep mythology. It's about characters and exploring their humanity. And that statement doesn't need to be modified by the work "just".

  • lowercase_ryan

    I need to choose my words carefully because I can feel myself getting defensive about the show. I have to ask, why does something have to be new to be good? I think you and Cindy are both a little guilty of projecting your hopes onto the show. Facing these kind of expectations I can see why Pizzolato is apprehensive about the speculation. I have more thoughts but I'm distracted so I'm just posting.

  • The market is saturated with serial killer and cop shows, and there are only so many ways to make them interesting. Could TD have been just as good without all the extra bells and whistles--absolutely. But because there are so many, not as big an audience might have been drawn in--case and point Those Who Kill. People might have been inclined to watch TD because of Matt and Woody, but would the series have gotten the same kind of attention without all the extra bells and whistles that caused people to theorize to the extent they are? Maybe not. People are getting tired of the serial killer thing. And did Pizzolatto know what he was doing by throwing in those things? I think so.

  • I seriously hope the second season goes in a completely different direction. I remember reading that the intent is "True Detective" can be broad enough to incorporate even stuff like spy genres. How great would it be if the second season was a spy show set in the 40s? Even if that's been done a million times, it's rare enough these days that it'd feel somewhat fresh on TV.

  • lowercase_ryan

    But we don't even know how it ends. And what do you mean by bells and whistles?

  • The mythology.

    And, as I've said, I'll eat my hat if this doesn't turn out to be pretty straight-forward in its conclusion.

  • lowercase_ryan

    So you don't think the show has explored the mystic/cult stuff enough or it should never have been added? I don't follow.

  • If it led nowhere--was just a distraction--it shouldn't have been there.

  • manting

    Then why do these people ritually molest and sacrifice these women? There needs to be MOTIVATION. That is where the supernatural element comes in. How do the Tuttles and others benefit from their worship? Clearly they believe they are receiving some kind of benefit from the entity the sacrifices are made to. That is the question I want answered in the final episode, not "who is the killer/killers, but why are they doing it.

  • Why does anyone murder or abuse anyone? I mean, we could be here all night.

  • manting

    This is generational murder, rape and sacrifice. I would guess their motivation is different then money, revenge or anger like 99% of all murders. Also did you see Rust's map? The victims potentially number in the hundreds.

  • I don't think sexual abuse or the killing of a child is because of revenge or anger. It's because there are sick people in this world. And some of them may convince themselves they're doing things for some higher or lower purpose--a religion or cult--but in the end, it comes down to each individual who either participated or looked the other way.

  • manting

    I certainly agree with all the above - my point is that I want some explanation for their actions within the universe of the show. Why are they doing this? Why the Yellow King, Carcosa, and the Yellow Sign? Im a big Cthulhu fan so the inclusion these things intrigues me.

  • Yossarian

    And if that's what you're looking for you may very well be disappointed. But that's because you're looking for the wrong thing.

    There really doesn't need to be a motivation. The show isn't about the killer(s), what they do, or why. The show is about the Detectives. Their motivations. Their experiences. Their flaws. How they change.

    Pizzolatto's comments and Cindy's piece and the general direction the show has taken in the last couple episodes all seem to be setting us up for a conclusion in which the Whodunnit? and why? aspects are not important. The case is just the McGuffin that sets the plot in motion and lets these characters unfold.

  • manting

    The wrong thing? Have you seen the final episode? Yes I have enjoyed the dynamic between Marty and Rust very much, but what really makes the show compelling (aside from the excellent cinematography, writing, and acting) to me is the Cthulhu element, and that is what I want to see explored.
    According to you the murderous sacrificial molesting cult that in some way worships something from the Cthulhu mythos is simply an unimportant element to the story.

  • lowercase_ryan

    Except that there's someone or some people ritually killing girls...so does't the cult have to be present? How in the world could the cult aspect not be relevant? It is the reason for the whole show, namely the Dora Lang killing and the most recent killing.

  • MrONegative

    The cult wasn't present at all.

  • The cult isn't mythology. The Yellow King, Carcosa, setting up Rust and Marty as suspect, etc. The stuff that has reddit afire.

  • lowercase_ryan

    1) I never bought them as suspects, and no offense but the only people I know that did were people looking for Kaizer Soze.
    2) So you think the M theory is all misdirect? that the time is a flat circle thing isn't related? If you're thinking of the mythology as the Cthlulu references, I never thought of it that way. I thought he just borrowed stuff from places in creating the story of the cult in the show. Does that make sense?

  • cruzzercruz

    You mean the show wasn't wholly unique and innovative?!

    Maybe being spectacularly well acted and shot, genuinely thrilling, and keeping people wondering for seven weeks wasn't enough. We don't always have to reinvent the wheel, but if we can make it work better, that should something to be proud of.

  • lowercase_ryan

    yeah, my take on it is that I've been watching art in a way. The story may be a retread, but they put the tire on one hell of a beautiful car. I have enjoyed every second of the ride.

  • You're right about projecting, I'm sure. Though I'll just say I never got caught up in the speculation and all the mystical theorizing nonsense. It's more that where at first I assumed the style was in dialogue with the content of the series, elevating it, the last couple episodes have totally deflated that impression for me, making it feel like the style is just there to superficially elevate a pretty tired narrative.

  • nosio

    I'll agree with you that the style/dialogue has gotten a bit less enchanting in the past few episodes, but I think that's because they really utilized the interview/driving scenes in the earlier episodes to their advantage. Having Rust look back and reflect on his past experiences, whether to Marty (in the car) or to the detectives (during their questioning) enabled him to expound on his ideas and philosophies. It allowed for some of those sharp, stylistic monologues that immediately set the show apart. Now that the interviews are over, and he and Marty are set on wrapping up the case, I think the show a more action-driven plot, rather than the meta-commentary it nailed early on.

    I also think that the Rust of 1995-2002, as a younger, not-quite-as-bitter guy, was more prone to voicing his thoughts than his counterpart in 2012, who is a functioning alcoholic determined to silence his inner demons a majority of the time. The interviews allowed him to delve into his previous mindset, but apart from that, the 2012 Rust is a flat, blunt version of his former self who is alternately all about taking care of business /drinking to forget. The poetic nihilist is gone.

  • cruzzercruz

    I do believe that the adage, "it's the journey, not the destination," applies to this show. It may have been another detective story with a fairly straight forward case, but it really captured our attention and intrigued us, didn't it?

  • lowercase_ryan

    agree to disagree, but I'm ok with that explanation.

  • And mind you, I so much want to love this series, especially considering how into it I was for the first half. Hopefully my impression is proven wrong in the finale and the series as a whole holds together and something special.

    Of course, even if it doesn't it will have been wroth it for the incredible performances and bits of brilliant writing and directing.

  • cruzzercruz

    Another day, another trivial piece about True Detective. Are we disappointed? Are we confused? Were we led astray!?

    Everyone's writing themselves in circles out of some desperate need to write something -- anything -- about it. Not here, but everywhere.

  • Tom Raskopf

    The power is in the mystery, the wanting to know, the truth that is just beyond our reach. It's the EXACT SAME REASON that mystery stories were published serially in the early 20th century. It has hooks in you by tantalizing and "revealing" snippets of the truth. It can become addicting and writers know this. Talented writers draw you in, spin you around and when they come to the final conclusion it is satisfying, usually because it makes sense within the larger narrative but leaves enough mystery left. Weak writers use mystery as a cheap parlor trick. The conclusions of their stories (LOST!!!) are deeply unsatisfying. You realize in the end that all they ever had was an ability to create confusion, misdirection, false clues and the answers to all their questions were mere afterthoughts.

  • tippoo1782

    I agree, overall. What hooked me—beyond the stellar acting, dialogue, directing, cinematography—was the narrative complexity that results from the interplay between three different time-frames. But Episode 5 closes out 1995, and Episode 6 closes out 2002. To be honest, I've been a little bored the last couple of episodes. It's still high-quality, engaging television, but once the action shifts to 2012, it's just not the same. TD reveals itself to be a straightforward serial killer procedural, made more interesting by a non-traditional narrative structure.

  • space_oddity

    While I'm still totally digging the show, I'll admit what had me hooked was the narrative interplay of the three time periods, and it seems to have flattened out (pun intended?) as action moves wholly to 2012.

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