Moving Pictures
Feb 26, 2024, 06:24AM

The Predictable Collapse of the True Detective Franchise

Boredom under the ice.

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Like bad fan fiction written by an angry college girl, Season Four of True Detective can’t decide whether it wants to be Lovecraftian Horror or an extension of former showrunner Nic Pizzolatto’s philosophical detective story. Unfortunately for the viewers, it prolongs the decision too long, then picks neither, and instead dwells on characterizations that are cartoonishly political—the female’s always smarter than the male, always tougher, etc.—to the exclusion of anything more substantive. The plot’s tedious, the dialogue stilted and the pacing unbearable. To say the season comes to nothing is too kind.

I’m appalled at how low the franchise has sunk, but can’t say I’m amazed. A few weeks before the first episode was released, I read a New York Times article filled with the kind of breathless excitement that can only be stirred up in my vacuous generation by moralistic handwringing and pseudo-political cant. “The six-episode season has an icy milieu and a female gaze forcefully distinct from the show’s past outings,” coos culture reporter Alexis Soloski. From that alone, anyone can already guess where things are heading, but the coup de grace comes a few paragraphs later.

Discussing declining viewer numbers after the height of the first season, she explains that the “third season, which premiered in January 2019, attracted significantly fewer viewers. That might have meant the end of ‘True Detective.’ But HBO believed the franchise could continue. The network began to search for a new showrunner for Season 4, preferably a woman of color. (Earlier seasons skewed overwhelmingly male and largely white, in front of the camera and behind it.)”

This tedious formulation says little more than we’re going to build a show on identity categories, and not because of any aesthetic or narrative impulse that we feel compelled to discharge. The only thing discharged will be our own ill-conceived pieties—and you won’t be getting a tissue to wipe off when we’re done.

Unable to help herself, Soloski goes on in the same vein: “In the first season, women appeared mostly as beleaguered wives or prostitutes. Here the gaze and the detectives are defiantly female.”

How exactly can a gaze be defiantly female? One has to already assume the entire narrative of patriarchy and “centering” and so on for the claim to make any sense. Beyond that, it seems telling that at their most “defiant,” the female detectives in the show just clumsily imitate male stereotypes (trite things like getting in fights rather than dealing with emotions, drinking too much, and related clichés). In any case, the entire promotional campaign was conceived around the identity of showrunner Issa López, and the actresses in leading roles (Jodie Foster as Police Chief Liz Danvers and Kali Reis as Trooper Evangeline Navarro). And since aside from a producer credit, the original showrunner had nothing to do with the season, it’s natural enough to ask if this is still the same show. Even Soloski felt compelled to raise the question, but answered it in the expected way: “while Pizzolatto was not available for comment, López argues that it is.”

After this article was printed, Pizzolatto did comment, and what he said was none too flattering. “I certainly did not have any input on this story or anything else. Can’t blame me.”

What we have, really, is a poorly-made season which even the creator of the show seems to disown. And since artistic merit can’t be claimed for it, the usual suspects argue for its political relevance. This is the last refuge of the aesthetically blind: to judge art by a political metric.

Given the ridiculous publicity campaign already described, I was hardly excited to watch the show. But I hoped the season might be only a partial failure—or even that the absurdity of the campaign might be limited to publicity, that this might just be a way to motivate young true believers to watch the show. After all, trailers often don’t adequately represent movies, and the executive producers listed were the same.

I gave the first episode a fair try. I ignored my assumptions and even tried to suppress initial reactions long enough to be impartial. This lasted for about 15 minutes. The best thing, about the season, is its location—though showrunner López fails to get as much out of the desolate, snowbound landscapes as she could’ve, had she a better cinematographer, or any idea how to utilize one. She cuts too quickly away from images she ought to dwell on, and dwells far too long on banal dialogue, uninspired interiors, and aimless domestic interactions.

The pacing is dreadful. López has no idea how to tell a story. After briefly showing the case that’s supposed to be central, we suffer through endless, pointless details about the clichéd private lives of every female in the town. Every scene feels like it was cooked up to make a political point, rather than advance the story or build up a tone or texture. Nothing hangs together. We’re dragged from tableau to tableau, wondering what one has to do with another. By the time we get back to the murder, we’re surprised to learn that we’re still watching the same show—and half-convinced that we changed the channel in our sleep.

By contrast, when True Detective was at its best, in Season One, the digressions served to build up either a coherent tone related to the murders, or to advance the characters—again building a web of meaning between characters and story. In True Detective Night Country there’s no such link—unless it’s the endless icy boredom we feel when we zone back in and remember that we’re watching what is supposed to be a detective story.

The season also fails to explore any coherent points of view, as was the case in Season One. There, the long digressions of Rust Cohle, based largely on the philosophical pessimism of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Zapffe and Ligotti, were met by and balanced by the down-to-earth, life-affirming obliviousness of Marty Hart. The relationship between the two men’s worldviews changed over the course of the years, and each came to absorb and be shaped by aspects of the other’s understanding of the world and of the case. Here there are no worldviews exchanged or balanced—unless we count the vague ghost-fearing shallows of the mind of Navarro as a point of view.

And as expected, political platitudes are always brought to the center. Every imaginable cliché is worked in and exploited: a case not investigated enough because of racism, the females are constantly underestimated, managing however to beat up aggressive and homicidal males right, etc. Even the gratuitous sex scene in the first episode has to show a dominant female—on top, in charge, apparently even physically stronger. The scene adds nothing to the story, and as far as characterization is concerned, it merely completes the impression that trooper Navarro is a caricature of a “strong female.” Or worse: she seems to be a satirical construct made by a saboteur in the writer’s room, meant to show the inanity of the project of hiring and making aesthetic decisions based on identity characteristics. Cheeks pierced, a humorless, scornful expression plastered on her face throughout every episode, Navarro is the perfect mascot for the entire woke project.

Putting politics over substance, Night Country encapsulates everything wrong with current popular culture. Lacking the requisite detachment to write well, López and Co. move uninteresting characters through the poorly-conceived steps of a ludicrous plot.

Camille Paglia once said, “science and society are our frail barriers against the turbulence of cruel, indifferent nature.” Night Country could’ve built something worthwhile on that insight—something perfectly suited to its setting. It might’ve pursued the issue of a skeleton of society barely holding back wild nature in remote Alaska. It might’ve dealt with the frailty of civilization in such a place. Instead, we’re treated to a thoughtless repudiation of everything that holds civilization together.

I’ve avoided the absurd story so far, but in order to get to the core of the show’s failure, let’s consider the ending. After investigating the murder of several scientists, the detectives find out that the motive for the crime was a previous murder committed by the victims. It’s then revealed that a number of village women have already managed to solve the case, and, having solved it to their own satisfaction, have taken their guns to the research station and forced the scientists responsible to strip naked and walk out onto the ice—where they inevitably freeze to death. Confronted by the detectives, the women given an account of what they’ve done (albeit as a hypothetical story). Chief Danvers and Trooper Navarro then smile and tell the ladies to have a happy New Year. 

It’s an ending in which a mob takes revenge for one murder by committing several, and the police do nothing to punish them. Rather than bring the murderers to justice, the mob takes justice upon themselves. There’s an interesting train of thought to pursue here. The ideal that López and Co. seem to be pushing, the female-led society of their utopia, reveals itself to be little more than the breakdown of law back into the pursuit of revenge. It’s the reverse story of the Oresteia, which, remember, is the story of how society broke the cycle of revenge by achieving justice through the law.

The irony is tremendous, since the trial at the end of Aeschylus’ trilogy, in The Eumenides, which sets up the format for civilized justice, is presided over by a goddess. Female. It’s broadly understood that this play represents an account of the origin and evolution of civilized justice and the rule of law in ancient Greece. But what does any of this mean to a poorly-read feminist? Clearly, the genius of López and her team has determined that true justice comes when a gynocratic democracy unweaves the fabric of law. It’s far better to let the mob pursue revenge than to require justice by trial and state punishment. This is actually the final word of the show. It’s astonishing.

There’s nothing impressive, enjoyable, or even vaguely interesting about this show. As good as Season One was, that’s how bad Season Four is. 


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