True Detective Poster

There was so much–so, so much–hype surrounding HBO’s True Detective, which just finished its first season. Every Sunday night (pre GoT return, of course) it felt like my Twitter feed was full of people talking about this new show. And then came the references. That’s what really got my attention; I didn’t read articles like this one from io9 for fear of spoilers, but just seeing Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow mentioned was enough to convince me to watch the show.

Did the show live up to its hype? What about a supernatural payoff? Did the show deliver on that front? Let’s talk. And of course be aware: this post will have massive spoilers for the entire first season of True Detective. Consider yeself warned!

True Detective episode 7

I admit I was skeptical of Matthew McConaughey. I haven’t seen any of his dramatic work, so to me he was just that dude from How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and other Kate Hudson movies. That said, his performance as the alcoholic, socially awkward, just all around weird detective Rust Cohle impressed me. His character could talk your ear off with a lot of nihilistic nonsense, but for me, it was compelling while he did it (to a point).

Woody Harrelson played the skeptical straight man to Rust’s mysticality. His performance was also quite nice and typical of what you’d expect from a paywalled network like HBO.

“What about the other actors and actresses? How were there performances?” you might ask. And I’d respond, “Yeah. Pretty much there is nobody else in this show.” That’s not to say that the supporting cast were bad. No, but to the narrative True Detective tells, they’re unimportant. The show is about these two men and that’s about it. And that’s one of the biggest problems I had with the show.

Women in True Detective?

Much as this Grantland article statesTrue Detective is a show about men doing men things. Marty and Rust are the two main characters–middle-aged white detectives doing the grim work of tracking down a sadistic serial killer. They think they get him in ’95 when they kill Reggie Ledoux, but he’s no king. It’s not until 17 years later that they finally end that chapter in their lives.

michelle monaghan true detective

And throughout this entire time I saw only three types of women: murder/rape victims, prostitutes and strippers, and wives and mistresses.

We saw scenes with Marty’s wife, played by Michelle Monaghan, but she’s mostly off-screen. Some other women are: prostitutes at the “bunny ranch,” murder victims, strippers at the club, and then more of Marty’s mistresses. I don’t think there was a single cop–background or one with a speaking role–that was a woman. Now I don’t know what police department demographics were like in the show’s interpretation of 1995, but the parts in 2002 and 2012? Where were the women?

I hope season two of True Detective–with its new characters and storyline–will have some women in starring roles. Or at the very, very least more variety in the women shown in supporting roles. Maybe season two will go a little lighter on the “macho nonsense.”

Race

According to the US Census estimates from 2012, almost one-third of the population of Louisiana is black or African American (32.4% to be precise). Where were these people in True Detective? Almost entirely absent. Almost every single person Marty and Rust talked to during the course of their investigation was white. There were two black detectives in 2012 that play an important role in show’s “modern timeline,” but most of the time they’re there to listen to Marty and Rust tell their story.

Michael Potts True Detective

There were black people in the projects in episode four. There was a black preacher on screen for a few minutes. And then in the penultimate episode the lead duo question an older black woman who worked as a maid/caretaker for the Tuttle family. For a show that (supernatural trappings aside) tried to be gritty and real, wouldn’t it have been “realistic” to have more visible persons of color?

I know I’m coming at this from a position of expansive privilege, so maybe I’m out of line. Maybe I’m making mountains out of molehills, but I’m just spitballing about the show, and the fact that there were so few PoC characters in a state with a sizable minority stood out of me.

References as Showing Off

And now let’s get to that Yellow King. The flapping tattered Yellow King in dim Carcosa. True Detective started out as a cops-hunting-serial-killer story, until whabam! the show throws out references to Chambers’ The King in Yellow. And then we learn that Rust hallucinates sometimes. There’s some creepy drawings, some creepy ass birds that form the spiral painted/tattooed/branded on the back of the murder victim that started this whole thing.

True Detective Birds

The show hints at something deep, something mystical and supernatural. That’s what really made me want to watch the show. I thought it was going to be a show that starts off normal and then you learn there are older, deeper, scarier things out there in the universe.

Nope! By the end of the show all the setup is nothing more than referential window dressing, a way for Nic Pizzolatto to show off how literary he is. The people shouting about death not being the end, the little stick thingies, and even Carcosa are nothing special.

True Detective Yellow King notebook

The killer is the lawnmower man from earlier in the season. His spaghetti-monster face? Yeah, I actually couldn’t even tell he was scarred until the very end. I thought it was going to be dramatic scarring. Something like the Hound from Game of Thrones. In the end, it all ended up being a rape/murder ring with some cult-y trappings.

As Emily Nussbaum writes in the New Yorker, the show’s finale features “no payoff on a lot of things.” Apparently Reggie Ledoux was just a meth addict spouting nonsense with a bunch of tattoos. The killers just had a thing for antlers or something. Really, the references to the Yellow King and Carcosa were just that–references. Little shout outs to those in the know, to the culture of fan conspiracy theories.

When everything was over, after Marty and Rust had their heart-to-bro smoke break outside the hospital, I felt disappointed. A show that hinted at supernatural weirdness had turned into just another serial killer cop show. It’s nihilistic postulating had been reduced to “light vs dark” and apparently Rust was coming around to Team Optimism or something.

True Detective The Yellow King

True Detective was impeccably produced, well acted, and clever when it came to its multiple timelines running in tandem. But aside from all that, the content and plot itself was not what I expected, and in my book, definitely not one of the greatest TV shows of all time.