Tuesday, January 29, 2019

A First on True Detective

I'm neither a True Detective lover or hater.  Despite its controversies, I liked the first season overall, and though it had its good moments and contained an excellent performance by Rachel McAdams, I found the second season underwhelming.  Nic Pizzolatto's show does remain one that is easy to ridicule, but I think in large part that's because it is so relentlessly somber.  Whether a season or an episode or an individual scene is strong or weak, effective or meandering, its tone in this show - you can count on it - is some variation on solemn.  This doesn't make True Detective any more serious as a piece of art than, say, a work consistently funny, or a work that punctuates its bleakness with moments of levity, but Nic Pizzolatto doesn't seem to have understood this yet. Or perhaps he's just temperamentally incapable of lightening up.  This incessant self-seriousness was one of the things I found most irritating about season 2 in particular.  The show had that tone in season one as well, but the overall creepiness and the better plotting than in season 2 and the acting by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConnaughey made up in large part for this Pizzolatto weakness. 

In season 3, which got off to a solid start with its first two episodes, directed by Jeremy Saulnier, before slowing down to something of a crawl in episodes 3 and 4, we've gotten more of the same tone.  But I must say that there are occasional signs that Pizzolato is, so to speak, expanding his palette just a little bit. I wouldn't call it banter exactly - the exchanges are dry - but some of the verbal interplay between Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff has an undercurrent of humor.  Again, this seems due more to the strength of the actors than what's in the actual script, but that's okay. I'll take it.  And there was in episode 2 a truly unexpected scene that made me laugh out loud. It's the first time, the only time, through 20 episodes of True Detective, that I've laughed like that.

It occurs when Ali's character as an old man is talking to the young, white TV woman interviewing him for her true crime show about the case at issue, a case that has been haunting Ali's character for decades.  

At one point she asks him, "With what happened in 1990 and you leaving the force, did you ever feel your leads and theories were discounted because of your race?"

"No," he says. "Not particularly.  Why?"
A self-satisfied expression comes over her and she says, "Well, I'm interested in the intersectionality of marginalized groups within authoritarian and systemic racist structures."

She looks at him with a kind of bright hopeful look, as if he, and his grown son standing next to him, will approve, but Ali's character only looks a bit disgusted and slowly turns his head towards his son, with whom, in effect, he shares an eye roll.

It's an unexpected moment and seems real, the awkwardness exchanged between the white reporter with all her good intentions and pre-conceived notions conveyed through academic jargon and the black police detective who has no time for topical theory but a large amount of real-life experience.  It also captures well a certain type of irritation a person of color can have with a well-meaning white person.

As I say, I found this scene, which came out of nowhere, quite amusing, and also real.  Nic Pizzolatto breaking out with something funny (and insightful)!  I didn't know he had it in him.  The scenes don't have to have anything to do with race or even social issues, but True Detective needs more true to life little moments like this, those moments when in the midst of the brooding and difficulty, the ridiculous or the incongruous pops up and makes you actually smile. It would help the show.


Dana King said...

I liked Season One except for the ending, though you're right: the primary reason to keep watching was the interplay between Woody and McConnaughey. (I trusted you on the spelling.) There was one scene in S1 that struck me funny. The two cops are in the car and McConnaughey is going on about his utterly depressing, borderline nihilistic philosophy (which went on so long it was darkly humorous its own self) and Woody waits until he's sure the monologue is over and says something along the lines of "Remind me never to ask you anything again." That struck me as nice, dry wit that was believable in that context.

I may give Season 1 another try some day. I've never read anything that gave me any interest in Season 2.

Thomas Pluck said...

That's a good scene. I gave up after season 2, Ali withstanding. Maybe I'll watch it after it's all done. But the relentlessly solemn tone is part of the turnoff. There's humor, but it's always a variation on gallows. It becomes oppressive. Even Vachss had comic relief in his books.

scott adlerberg said...

Dana, I forgot about that scene from season 1. Yes, that was funny. I remember chuckling at that, and of course, the way Woody Harrelson said it didn't hurt.

scott adlerberg said...

Tommy, putting aside all the brooding, I'd say season 3 is pretty solid so far and worth watching, a big improvement on season two. The pace could pick up a bit, though. It dropped off a lot after the Jeremy Saulnier episodes. I'm curious enough to see where it goes, at least for now.

shawn cosby said...

I was a rabid fan of season one but I also read Flannery O' Connor and Thomas Harris for kicks lol but that scene with Woody was hilarious

Unknown said...

The scene where McConnaughey talks about humans as "sentient meat" during a monologue only for Harrelson, listening with increasing befuddlement, to ask "what's scented meat?" got a huge belly laugh out of me. Beautiful delivery of a rare moment of humour.

scott adlerberg said...

Martin, that's one also. There have actually been a few funny moments, true. But like the one where Woody Harrelson said, "Remind me never to ask you anything again", I get the sense that the laugh came mostly from how the actors did the scene. Woody was so good playing off McConnaughey. That the humor came more from the actors than the actual lines doesn't make the scenes any less funny of course.