Saturday, February 24, 2024

True Detective: Night Country Asks an Interesting Question: What if The Thing Was a Murder Mystery?


Scott D. Parker

I’m a True Detective newbie but I was all-in on the fourth season, True Detective: Night Country. Why? Jodie Foster. And the setting.

I know Foster moved behind the camera for a long time and she did some great work. She directed an episode of the science fiction show “Tales from the Loop” a few years ago and I really enjoyed that series. Last year she co-starred with Annette Bening in “Nyad,” a movie I’ve not seen (but will now). Thus, Night Country is the first acting performance I’ve seen in a long time. 

She’s fantastic! She’s hard, stern, dogged, determined, and occasionally unlikeable. In a recent podcast episode, Marc Bernardin mentioned that Foster was enticed by the script written by Issa Lopez but wanted her character, Police Chief Liz Danvers of Ennis, Alaska, to be more irritating. I suspect Lopez was initially surprised at the request, but fulfilled it nonetheless.

The other main actress is Kali Reis. She plays Trooper Evangeline Navarro. Navarro and Danvers have history—because of course they do—but must work together again to solve the case with deep ramifications to the town. Navarro has some indigenous heritage that she draws on and deals with, a theme I’ve noticed with lots of recent shows I’ve watched (like Reservation Dogs, Tin Star, Resident Alien, and Alaska Daily). Like Foster, Reis is excellent with saying a lot but not always with words. 

The Setting

The story takes place in Alaska at the Winter Solstice. In this portion of Alaska, the Winter Solstice means the sun doesn’t rise for weeks. As someone who gets irritated when it’s merely cloudy here in Houston for a few days, I could not live in that environment. At all. There’s a foreboding when it’s always dark. It’s claustrophobic. It’s unnerving. And people live in places like that all the time.

This setting pretty much makes the town and the surrounding environs another character. The show puts nearly every viewer in a situation wholly unfamiliar, and pieces out bits of information in dribs and drabs. It was wonderful to be immersed in something so new yet so foreign.

The Story

If you watched the trailer, you probably got instant vibes from John Carpenter’s The Thing. I really appreciated how Lopez drew me into the show and its main crime—the murder of a group of scientists in a research lab—with the possibility of the supernatural as well as good old-fashioned natural violence. I’ve read that along with The Thing, another inspiration for her story was the original Alien (1979) and its ominous setting. Well, it worked.

The other thing that worked was the ending. I didn’t see it coming, and that is a huge testament to my enjoyment of the six-episode series. Too often, the tried and true tropes come out to play and you just go along for the ride, especially if you like the characters and actors. I’m fine with those types of stories, but when something new and original comes along, it’s so refreshing.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Reading Hammett and Proust at The Same Time

In conjunction with watching the series Monsieur Spade (about which more next week perhaps), I decided to do some Sam Spade reading. There's not much of it, of course, just The Maltese Falcon and three short stories, but I'd never read two of the three Spade stories before. So in addition to re-reading "A Man Called Spade", the longest of his stories, I read "Too Many Have Lived" and "They Can Only Hang You Once". They're all solid Hammett stories, written in his sharp, not-a-wasted-word style. Sentences are short, and we get little to no writing that goes inside the characters' minds. We get gestures, actions, facial descriptions, descriptions of conversational tones. Explorations of characters' mental states we do not get, though we can infer a lot about what people are thinking from their actions, words, how they present themselves and so on. Hammett, like Hemingway, uses the iceberg approach to writing. You see the top tip of the iceberg and not the seven eighths of it underwater, but you're certainly aware of what's below the surface. The Theory of Omission, as the Iceberg Theory of writing is also called, allows for a lot of interesting ambiguity in a story, which Hammett excels at.

Now while reading the Sam Spade stories, which I did on the subway going to and from work, I also was reading Marcel Proust. About a year ago, after decades of pondering the massive work, I finally plunged into In Search of Lost Time. My plan, if I can do it (and assuming I like it) is to read the entire thing before I die. Time is limited these days, with so much reading getting done in short snippets, especially during the work week, so I decided that the way I'd read Proust would be to read two to three to five pages a night, most nights, before bed. At this rate, it'll take me years to get through In Search of Lost Time, maybe almost as long as it took Proust to write it (not that long really, I'm exaggerating), but reading it this way, I can take my time and really savor what I'm reading. Besides, as I knew going in, Proust is someone you sort of have to read slowly, or at least I do; he's not hard to read (like, say, Joyce from Ulysses on can be hard to to read), but he does demand full attention and patience. All those long sentences, all the incredibly detailed descriptions of nearly everything, the introspection upon introspection upon reflection upon yet more reflection of the events long gone by -- we are firmly in the Narrator's mind and this is writing that is majestically unhurried. You cannot do justice to this type of writing by trying to rush through the reading.

But it's interesting. As I read the Spade stories by day and continued on with Proust at night, I realized I could not have picked two more different writers to read at the same time. One is almost entirely about introspection, the other very much about surface. That's not to say Hammett doesn't achieve depth; he does, but it's of an entirely different sort than Proust's. But I also realized, reading both, that one of the pleasures I'm getting out of reading Proust, even at a few pages a night, is the pleasure of reading someone who does write long, complex, fascinating-in-themselves sentences. It's said that Proust spoke as he wrote, in long sentences, with dependent clause following dependent clause, while the listener had to wait for the sentence's verb to finally come, and one can believe that. Nobody could write as he does without having a thought process that functions that way. And I find that reading him comes as a welcome change from all the crime fiction I read, and fiction in general I read, that tends to follow the short sentence model. At its most extreme, you get the staccato sentence model. So much fiction is made up of clipped, terse, to-the-bone sentences. So much fiction is "spare".  It's definitely the dominant mode now, and that's fine. Anyway, it's hard to imagine the material of crime fiction, for example, fitting something like a Proustian model. That would be crime fiction trying to achieve effects entirely different than what most crime fiction aims for. But I find now that it can be a pleasure to pick up writing that does have an entirely different rhythm, that conveys what it does in long, syntactically complex sentences, if for no other reason than to exercise a different reading muscle than is usually required, and right now, nobody could fit that bill better than Marcel Proust.

PS: I should add that after that reading Proust or any other long sentence master for awhile, it is always enjoyable to go back to someone who writes primarily short sentences, and reading Hammett's Sam Spade stories certainly was that.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

A Maverick Pathologist (Mostly) Seeks the Truth: Harrow Season 1

Scott D. Parker

I actually laughed when I watched the first fifteen minutes of the pilot episode of the Australian TV show, Harrow, that ran for three seasons from 2018 to 2021. I then chuckled at the last minute as well.

Why? Because the script did exactly what a pilot is supposed to do: Introduce you to the character(s) and then hook you good enough to watch the next episode. Done and done.

The Characters

Daniel Harrow (Ioan Gruffudd) is a forensic pathologist based in Queensland. He is a maverick in the department, brilliant of course, lives on a boat, and always rankling the higher-ups and his more uptight peers. He always wants to know the ‘why’ of a case and doesn’t always go for the simple answer that would clear the case from the books in an efficient manner. He is divorced but still keeps in contact with his ex and his teenaged daughter is, well, homeless and a wanderer. 

Harrow is often teamed with police officer Soroya Dass (Mirrah Foulkes) and they work well together. Naturally sparks begin to fly as they do in TV shows (and real life). Remy Hii plays Simon, the young protege of Harrow and Damien Garvey plays the gruff, older detective who is a bulldog on his cases.

The Setting

While this might all sound like typical police procedural TV show stuff—and it is—what makes it cool is the setting and the larger story arc of Season 1. Australian shows don’t always make it to America and, as a fan of British TV shows, it’s great to see something different. And I never tire of the accents. 

The Season-Long Story Arc

The folks who created Harrow have taken their cue from The X-Files and other successful programs and created the nice blend of murder-of-the-week and a larger, bigger story. 

Remember that hook I mentioned at the end of episode 1? Well, it serves as the entry point to the entire season. It set up ten episodes of “how will that affect things?” and “Oh crap, that’s not good” and other moments that keep you engaged and interested. 

Man, I really want to say more, but to do so would put this in spoiler territory. And I’d like you to watch the first episode (on the CW streaming app; yeah, they have one and don’t ask my how or why Harrow is there) and experience it for yourself.

My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed the first season, all the way up to its cliffhanger ending. You see? Good creators always know how to set the hook and reel you in.