Watching 'True Detective' and hitting the wall

Why 'I didn't want to ever have to look at anything like that again'

March 06, 2014|Dan Rodricks

Just for good measure — to make sure we understand how a homicide detective could become a tortured and isolated human being — viewers of the hottest current drama on HBO were presented with a dead baby in a microwave oven. Actually, the perspective was from inside the oven, from just above the bluish, charred remains of the infant. That way, we were able to see Detective Marty Hart's reaction when he opened the door to have a look.

As you might imagine — if "True Detective" can be said to leave anything to the imagination — Woody Harrelson's Hart was pretty upset, so much so that he decided to quit the Louisiana State Police. As he tells his former partner, Rust Cohle, (played by Matthew McConaughey): "I didn't want to ever have to look at anything like that again."

I know exactly how he feels.

"True Detective" is an excellent psychodrama about two mismatched cops investigating what they believe to be a series of grisly, cult-style murders of young women and children. It's a buddy-cop narrative from hell, with McConaughey and Harrelson playing troubled characters — in McConaughey's case, deeply troubled. These guys chafe, they push, they smash and crash, then crawl out of the wreckage of their personal lives and work the case together. The series has great dialogue, superb Deep South atmospherics, multiple timelines and, of course, a complex mystery that will take, in all, eight episodes to unravel. (The final episode is scheduled for Sunday.)

The series has won praise all over and nearly 11 million weekly viewers, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

And, if anything can be said to have an instant cult following — pun not quite intended — "True Detective" seems to. The Internet is full of chatter about the series, and a subset of "TD" interpreters formed after the first two episodes. The show bristles with symbolism, and insightful viewers see allegories all through the plot lines as Hart and Cohle make their way through Vermilion Parish and southern Louisiana.

A Baltimore-based writer and blogger, Michael Hughes, wrote an online essay for io9.com, a Gawker website, about the obscure literary reference he recognized at the center of the manhunt: The Yellow King, apparently taken from a collection of late-19th-century weird fiction, "The King in Yellow," by Robert W. Chambers. Hughes' essay has had hundreds of thousands of page-views and apparently has contributed to the sales of Chambers' book through Amazon.com.

Hughes is a fan of "True Detective."

I was, too.

But something happened. I left the "True Detective" train a couple of weeks ago. I lost my stomach for it somewhere during Episode 6. The story, with its many dark turns, suddenly seemed too dark and suffocating. It's like a 10-car pileup of depravity: trailer-park prostitutes and runaways, perverts and meth-bakers, lying cops, murderous cops, angry cops, a violent and alcoholic father, child molesters and child killers, drug-dealers and racist bikers, a homicidal (and suicidal) holdup man, and a onetime teen prostitute all grown up and asking Hart to perform a specific sex act on her.

I decided to step off.

Others obviously consider "TD" to be cutting-edge drama, so artistically creepy and arresting they can't get enough of it. But I just see it as another in a line of cop dramas that push the boundaries with extreme concepts of violence (against children, in this case), soft porn and flawed characters everywhere you look — all of it in the service of creating the buzz necessary for commercial success in a digital world drenched in over-the-top depravity.

It's a skewed, grotesque and depressing picture, and maybe I get enough of that stuff from following news about crime and violence. Maybe I don't need to be "entertained" with fictionalized human horror shows.

I told Hughes all this, adding quickly that I realized I probably sounded priggish and out of step with pop culture. I apologized for not sharing his enthusiasm for "True Detective." We sparred a little by email.

"Crime fiction, by necessity, requires a crime, and if you're fictionally exploring the darker side of the human experience, you need to show violence honestly," Hughes wrote. "I'd rather see violence depicted realistically than antiseptically. ... Real violence is ugly."

Agreed. And maybe by now there's been too much of the real thing — too many people experiencing real pain — for me to support its further exploitation. That's what almost all such "entertainment" looks like to me now, the cynical exploitation of the worst aspects of life in America.

So I guess I hit a wall. I need to spend more time with art that makes me feel better about the human race.

Just to be fair, I tuned into Episode 7 to see if, having met all its sex-and-blood requirements as an HBO show, "True Detective" had returned to its excellent start, with Marty and Rust toughing out their differences to solve the crime. I lasted until Marty opened the microwave.

Someone let me know who The Yellow King is.

drodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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