Thursday, July 17, 2014

Hilary Davidson's Love-Hate Relationship with HBO's True Detective

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Remember when all the Jungle Reds were sick and I was the one with pneumonia? 

Well, one of the good things to come out of the experience is that I  was able to binge-watch TV in a way I never have time to do. And one of the shows I devoured was HBO's True Detective. It premiered last January and you've probably heard of it — an Emmy-winning crime drama starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. It uses multiple timelines and unreliable narrators (one of my favorite plot devices) as two detectives in Louisiana hunt down a serial killer.

It was fantastic. 

And it was awful. 

I was talking with Hilary about it — and she had the exact same reaction. (So did plenty of television critics as well, including Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker.) 

Online debate proved problematic as women (me, for one) voiced concerns about the misogyny of the series — that all the female characters were there for sex and/or killing. (And that's really it. Few of them even have names.)

Several men took it on themselves to explain to me "how noir works" — basically women are victims. (I called it "mansplaining" — especially because there was a certain patronizing tone involved). None of them seemed to even notice how the female characters were treated — let alone consider it problematic.

But I wasn't convinced. And so I went to Anthony Award-winning novelist Hilary Davidson, who certainly knows her way around noir, to get her take on True Detective.

And here it is.

HILARY DAVIDSON: I’m shameless about my addiction to certain TV shows. I love The Americans, Sleepy Hollow, Justified, Orphan Black, Scandal, and Game of Thrones, and I’ve recommended each one to people in person and online, at parties and on planes. I’m also quick to make up my mind about shows I don’t want to watch, jettisoning them after one or two episodes.

But HBO’s True Detective, which aired earlier this year, fell somewhere in-between. Watching the first of the series’ eight episodes, I was lured in by the fine performances of the two leads, Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as police detectives Marty Hart and Rust Cohle. The landscape of backwoods Louisiana was deftly captured in both its lushness and its loneliness. The music that played in the background was a pitch-perfect accompaniment to what was on the screen. I also liked the structure of the show, which cut between a present-day investigation of ritualistic serial murders and a past investigation that estranged the detectives.

Other parts of the episode left me uneasy, starting with the first murder victim the audience encounters. Her name is Dora Lange, and she’s notable for the antlers attached to her head and the designs imprinted on her body. As a crime writer, I’ve got no problem with gory, even graphic, depictions of violence; what I object to are dehumanized victims whose suffering is only so much window dressing. Dora Lange’s body was presented as a fetish object, and what mattered was the ritualistic nature of her death, not the woman herself.

Still, I kept watching. It was impossible to overlook the show’s cartoonish, cardboard depictions of women — including Hart’s wife and mistress — but I had an explanation for that: True Detective was fully aware of how it objectified and exploited women, and I thought it was offering commentary on how stoic men — like detectives Hart and Cohle — could grow obsessive in their hunt for a killer so they could save women, while abusing the women right in front of them.

If you’ve already watched all eight episodes of True Detective’s first season, you know how stupid I feel about this theory in retrospect. (Spoiler alert: I WAS WRONG. SO WRONG.) But, just as many viewers went down the rabbit hole with their Caracosa and Yellow King theories, I clung to mine. Sometimes, I thought the show was winking at me, such as when Hart gives a teenage prostitute some money and Cohle accuses him of making a down payment, and Hart has sex with the girl an episode later. To me, this suggested an arch self-awareness on the part of the show’s writers, a hint that they had some dark tricks up their sleeves. (Spoiler alert: They did not.)

There was no incisive commentary. I know you can’t sue a TV show for false advertising, but there should be an exception for True Detective. “Spread the darkness” urged the show’s clever social-media campaign. “Something deep and dark,” boasted the show’s Facebook page. Here’s the thing: ultimately, the show had the depth of a cellophane wrapper, and what darkness it contained was dispersed in its weirdly feel-good finale. It was, for all intents and purposes, a Hardy Boys adventure that happened to involve a serial killer and philosophical ramblings that wouldn’t be out of place in a college dorm between rounds of beer pong.

What the show did — and did very well — was represent two men and the demons that drove them. Their relationship was the beating heart of the show, and it was fun to watch. Hart’s expressions while Cohle spouted nihilist philosophy were priceless, as were their verbal jousts. I could (and did) watch Cohle make beer-can dolls for hours. As a buddy show about two misanthropes who can’t have relationships with other humans, it gets an A+. 

But it was a letdown on so many other fronts. Strip away the stylish storytelling, and it was hollow at the core. The show hinted at so many intriguing elements (including the possible abuse of one of Hart’s daughters), then pulled away and never mentioned them again. It was frustrating to see so many intriguing layers of the story cast aside without explanation. The truth was that they didn’t matter. It was always about Hart and Cohle. It was only about Hart and Cohle.

That said, I’m curious about Season 2. The show’s creator, Nic Pizzolatto, has stated that it will have a new cast. There are rumors that one of the leads will be played by a female actor. If that happens to be true, I’ll be tuning in again. A female lead won’t erase the missteps of Season 1, but since the show’s strength was strong writing for its leads, I’d be curious to see when it’s going. 

Otherwise, count me out. 

Time may be a “flat circle,” as Cohle claimed while cutting up beer cans, and we may be doomed to do things over and over again, but I reserve the right to make better TV choices in the future.

Hilary Davidson won the 2011 Anthony
Award for Best First Novel for THE DAMAGE DONE. The book also earned a Crimespree Award and was a finalist for the Arthur Ellis and Macavity awards. The sequel, THE NEXT ONE TO FALL, a mystery set in Peru, was published by Forge in February 2012; the third novel in the series, EVIL IN ALL ITS DISGUISES, was published in March 2013. Hilary's first standalone novel, BLOOD ALWAYS TELLS, will be published by Forge in April 2014.Hilary's widely acclaimed short stories have been featured in publications from Ellery Queen to Thuglit, and in many anthologies. She has won a Spinetingler Award for best short story and an Ellery Queen Reader's Choice Award, and she's been a finalist for a Derringer Award. A Toronto-born travel journalist and the author of 18 nonfiction books, she has lived in New York City since October 2001. Visit her online at She also writes the Gluten-Free Guidebook blog:


Joan Emerson said...

It certainly sounds like I didn't miss anything by not tuning in to this show . . . .

Mark Baker said...

I don't have HBO, so I don't watch their shows. Frankly, they all sound so dark that I don't think I'd enjoy them anyway.

I hear about all of them (over and over again). I think this one would have bothered me for the reasons you mentioned. I'm a guy, but I'd like to think I'd pick up on something like that. Okay, so maybe you'd have to point it out to me, but still, once it was pointed out to me, I'd get it.

Women in noir? How about the femme fetal. They are there to cause all kinds of problems that serve a bigger purpose than that one guy claims.

Ellen Kozak said...

I don't have cable, so I haven't watched this show, but after I binge read all the James Bond novels published through 1966, I realized that the "Bond girls" were all there just to be seduced by Bond, James Bond, and to be consumed like so many shaken-not-stirred martinis. Their lack of depth, and the underlying misogyny of the books, annoyed me enough that I got over Bond. (Saw one or two more of the movies as they came out, because the boyfriend-at-the-time wanted to, but they annoyed me because I saw the same thing in the filmPs that I'd seen in the books.)

Hallie Ephron said...

Such fun reading this, Hilary and Susan --

I'm a huge fan of some of the same shows (Scandal YES) - and TRUE DETECTIVE is in my queue. Can't wait to see for myself what all the fuss is about.

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Hi everybody and thanks to Hilary for the insightful essay.

If I didn't love Rust and Marty and their relationship so much, I would have stopped watching. But I did -- blame the pneumonia?

I'll definitely try the next season -- it's an all new story with an all new cast, like Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story (which I do NOT watch -- too scary!)

Ellen Kozak said...

Hallie (and Hillary)-- "Scandal"? I guess it's okay if one is into total fantasy. I have spent too much time around the REAL White House and Congress, and while I found "The West Wing" amazingly good, I've needed nausea pills every time I've watched even five minutes of "Scandal". It abandoned its premise of someone being a "fixer" (now THAT could have been an interesting show instead of the let's-keep-shooting-people-for-personal-vengeance-and-lust lapse into soap opera). I just can't make myself care about the shallow characters engaged in unrealistic actions.

I don't watch "Game of Thrones" for the same reason I never watched "Deep Space Nine"-- I'm just not ready to learn a whole bunch of alien (made up) philosophies and histories when I have enough trouble keeping track of the ones in the real world (Sunni vs. Shia vs. Baathist-who-I'd-thought-were-Sunni). I'm happy for George R.R. Martin's success (I've met him a few times), but after I watched the first episode (late), and saw incest and brutality, I read ahead-- and the first time George killed off a character (and a dire wolf!) I liked, I decided there was enough grief in the real world.

Hilary Davidson said...

Thanks to the wonderful Jungle Reds for having me visit again, and especially to Susan. I love that our conversation led to this post!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Yes, yes, and you said it so perfectly. We watched form thievery beginning..and wow, the acting is fantastic, and the writing brilliant, and.. But I kept getting squeamish about the relationships with worn, and then I worried that I was being to0 critical, and that it didn't matter, and that if the ending wrapped it all up and explained it, then it would be okay. Like you, I expected great things.

But here's a weirder thing, They just-lost me. I didn't even see the ending, I just didn't care. It's sitting there on our DVR. And now you have me curious.

(SO Lovely to see you here today! XOXO)

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Has anyone heard of the Bechdel Test?

Basically, it asks if two women in fiction, who have names, talk about something besides a man.

I challenge you to use it on some of your favorite books, films and TV shows.

Dana King said...

I agree with Hilary, pretty much down the line. I noted the show's unevenness when I watched it, and in my own review, but she described the reason for that unevenness better than I had even thought of it.

The Beloved Spouse and I both thought Michele Monahan was wasted. We've seen her work elsewhere, so we had a comparison, and what she was given to do is far below her talents. Her character was shown as a vindictive shrew, the best explanation of which was to "explain" why Hart did some of the things he did. The show needed either to flesh this aspect of the story out better, or cut it, and just make it about the two guys. Those parts work remarkably well, and made it worth watching, and I'll probably watch it again.

But, yeah, there are serious holes, and Hilary nailed them.

Triss said...

Hilary, I think you nailed it.Such a combination of fascinating and disappointing. I only watched the first episode because my husband wanted to - he hated it and I was fully hooked.WHERE were they going with this? And then, where they ended up was less interesting than the getting there. Though I think some of the comments are underestimating the role of the wife- who may have been the only sane character in the story

Mary Sutton said...

I don't have HBO, so I miss a lot of the hyped shows. However, based on this, I have zero desire to watch TRUE DETECTIVE. I just don't want to spend lots of time around people like that. Ugh.

Susan, I've heard of the Bechdel test. Oddly, I think most of my favorite shows (with two women) pass - for example, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (and almost anything Joss writes). Yes, the women talk guys, but they talk about a lot more than just guys.

Hilary Davidson said...

Thanks for all of the thoughtful comments! I'm glad I'm not the only one who was so disappointed in the show. It felt like there was such great potential, and that it was completely unrealized. And, like Dana said, Michele Monahan was wasted. (I wanted to keep this piece as spoiler-free as possible, for the people who plan to watch True Detective later, but Michele Monahan's character... aaaargh. What a waste of a gifted actor!)

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Good grief. Here is my comment without typos.

Yes, yes, and you said it so perfectly. We watched from the very beginning..and wow, the acting is fantastic, and the writing brilliant, and.. But I kept getting squeamish about the relationships with women, and then I worried that I was being too critical, and that it didn't matter, and that if the ending wrapped it all up and explained it, then it would be okay. Like you, I expected great things.

But here's a weirder thing, They just-lost me. I didn't even see the ending, I just didn't care. It's sitting there on our DVR. And now you have me curious.

(SO Lovely to see you here today! XOXO)

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

The ending, I thought, was good. It was all about Rust and Marty — where the show excelled — and so I did like it (and I'm none of those people who need closure).

One thing I found — well, amusing isn't the right word — but interesting is that the serial killer seems to be the only man on the show who can actually satisfy a woman. How's that for weird?

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

er, one of those people who needs closure.

Which is why I keep watching Scandal, even as with each passing season it gets wackier....

Diane Vallere said...

I watch a lot of shows to see character development and watch how writers and actors peel back layers--it seems to help when I'm developing a cast in a new draft. I haven't seen True Detective, but after reading this, I'm surprised by the people who have recommended it to me. This was a wonderful post. Thanks, Hilary!

Julia said...

Susan, thanks for mentioning the Bechdel Test. It's a good springboard for looking at the way screenwriters treat their female characters.

Has anyone seen RIZOLLI AND ISLES, the TnT show based on Tess Gerritsen's books? It's all about the relationship between the women and their competence at (eventually) solving crimes. But somehow, women-helmed shows don't get the critical approbation and excitement of "edgy" stuff like TRUE DETECTIVE (it probably doesn't hurt that TD had movie stars instead of TV stalwarts like Angie Harmon.)

We seem to be seeing the start of more novelistic approach to television series in the US - stuff like TRUE DETECTIVE and AMERICAN HORROR SHOW. I love the format, and I like that cable has made production companies much more willing to experiment, but I wish I could see more shows that ACTUALLY reflect what's going on in American fiction. The sort of all-guys, all-the-time story you see in TD is a vanishingly small part of fiction today. Even manly-man techno-thrillers avoid making every female character a sex object or victim nowadays. Why can't we see more stories like the ones we read?

Thomas Pluck said...

You hit the nail on the head, Hilary. The show offered up a lot of teases and paid off on none of them, except the two characters. And in the end, that wasn't enough for me. However I'll give season 2 another chance.
I started watching THE WIRE so I'm pretty unforgiving of shows that use paper dolls for everyone but a main character...

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Thomas, I just started watching The Wire, too!

Kathy Reel said...

Hilary, thanks for an enlightening critique of this show. I've only watched a few minutes of True Detective, so I don't really have an informed opinion on this show. I will say that those few minutes didn't grab me. It doesn't sound like I would have liked it if I'd watched more.

Julia, I watch Rizzoli and Isles, and I thoroughly enjoy it. Although it strays mightily from Gerritsen's books, which I love, it does feature that female competency, as you said, that is refreshing.

Although I have HBO and Showtime and watch several shows, my favorite series shows are still on PBS, featuring British drama. And, how about History Detectives as opposed to True Detective.

Hilary Davidson said...

Thanks for all of the thoughtful responses! I'm looking forward to finally watching The Wire. I just started Breaking Bad and I love it!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

THE WIRE is the best ever. Ever.

It'll seem, at the beginning, that you can't understand anyone. But it's so well done--every time there's slang, sone else will instantly say something so you know what is meant--almost a translation. And soon--you won't even need that. Eventually, you'll start using the same slang. (You feel me?)

Loved every minute of it. Can't wait to talk about it with you all.

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Good news is that I never watched the show and after this blog have no reason to want to. :)

~ Jim

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Breaking Bad is AMAZING. Season one is a little flat-footed, but it's short and then they get it together in season two and the momentum never lets up....

ALSO: interesting and complex female characters!

Reine said...

Interesting that so many of those commenting report being unhappy with the show for some serious reasons yet would watch another season of it. That makes me want to watch it. I'm very curious what is in there that makes it worthwhile.

Anonymous said...

Hilary, what is your take on TV shows like Wonder Woman, Cagney and Lacey, Rizzolli and Inch (sp?); Covert Affairs, Alias, among other shows?

I loved James Bond films, even if I am a girl. There was a lot of action. Recently, the women characters are smart and strong like the computer programmer in the movie with Pierce Brosnan and Alan Cummings, another movie with Michelle Yeh (?) and look at Judi Dench as M.

Susan, I was reminded of something in your new book. Winston Churchill said something about Puritanism in America in reference to J. Edgar Hoover.

Here are my thoughts: I am NOT a big fan of violence in any way, shape or form. There was a TV Cable channel that was supposed to be started by women. I think it is the Lifetime Channel. But ironically, so many of these movies have stories about violence AGAINST women, which I think defeats the purpose in my opinion.

I saw the trailer for True Detective and I never wanted to watch that.

We seem to have a higher tolerance for violence than sex in American films. Please correct me here if you disagree and explain why.

Hilary Davidson said...

I completely agree with the comment that Americans generally have a higher tolerance for violence than for sex in film and television. I'd take it a step further and say that there's a higher tolerance here for violence than there is for swearing, too. It's very, very strange.