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A True Detective post-mortem

Corinn Columpar shares her take on the wildly popular show

Performances by Woody Harrelson (left) and Matthew McConaughey helped turn True Detective into a pop culture sensation (photo courtesy HBO)

Having trouble saying goodbye to True Detective?

The HBO anthology crime drama – starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as two Louisiana homicide detectives hunting for a serial killer over the course of seventeen years – wrapped up its first season this past Sunday.

Throughout its eight-week run, what became clear to viewers tuning in was that this was not your average procedural, buddy-cop crime show. Moody and philosophical, with literary references to cosmic and cult horror, just to name a few, True Detective became a show fans and critics loved to dissect.

U of T News spoke to Associate Professor Corinn Columpar of the Cinema Studies Institute at the University of Toronto about the allure of the show, as well as its achievements and flaws. Columpar specializes in the practices and textual politics of counter-cinematic traditions, including feminist, Aboriginal and independent filmmaking.

What drew you to True Detective and – now that it’s over – how do you feel about it?
In light of my current research, I have been thinking about issues of performance a lot recently, so what initially drew me to True Detective was its participation in the so-called ‘McConaissance.’ Between his dead-eyed stare, husky drawl, and uncharacteristic stillness, I found Matthew McConaughey’s performance as Detective Rust Cohle – the older version especially – riveting.

Then as the season unfolded, so many other things compelled me as well: the cinematography, the pace, the chemistry between the two leads, the credit sequence. All of these things gave the show a texture and a sense of mood that was utterly absorbing. Very few television shows are this assured from their first episode on.

Aside from formal factors, I’ve also been really interested in the show’s meditation on masculine identity. Especially in its first half, this season of True Detective dedicates itself to exploring the various ways Rust and Marty (played by Woody Harrelson) represent – and misrepresent – themselves to each other, to the world at large, and to themselves, in the process of negotiating the various roles they play as men. As the season wore on and became more plot driven, giving itself over to the generic moves required of a police procedural, I found myself a bit less compelled, but by that point I was already hooked.

The show sparked a cult following almost immediately, with critics praising its unusual feel and format (mini-series with a new cast and crew every season) – how original was it and how influential do you think it will be?
It is highly original in that the same writer (Nic Pizzolatto), director (Cary Fukunaga), and cinematographer (Adam Arkapaw) have worked on every episode. Even in other multi-volume, mini-series, such as American Horror Story and the BBC’s The Hour, this is not the case. As a result, there is a consistent through-line, both aesthetically and thematically, lending the show the coherence of a film. As for whether this will prove influential, it is hard to say. It would mean moving away from the typical televisual mode of production, which is more flexible and involves a larger pool of creative personnel, toward a cinematic mode of production. Given how eroded the lines between these different media forms and exhibition platforms already are, however, it isn’t difficult to imagine more shows like True Detective being made.

On that note, True Detective has been hailed as a show that blurs the line between film and television. What’s your take on that – and how significant was that six-minute tracking shot?
For the reasons I just mentioned, it does indeed blur the line. As for the tracking shot, it was highly significant in the context of the series: not only was it a highpoint in a season full of exquisite cinematography, but it occurred at the very end of the fourth episode, which is essentially the mid-point of an eight-episode arc. In this privileged position, the fluidity of the camera speaks legions.

Having said that, a shot of this length or even complexity, is by no means unprecedented in the history of television. To name only a couple of examples, Aaron Sorkin’s shows, such as West Wing and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, frequently featured walk-and-talk shots of a similar nature. And, one episode of the sitcom Mad About You was filmed entirely with a single shot lasting over 20 minutes in length.   

This is a show that’s fun to analyze. There’s Rust Cohle offering his philosophical takes on life, death, religion and love that draws from Nietzsche, to Richard Dawkins; there are also references to Robert W. Chambers' The King in Yellow. As a cinema expert, what references were you picking up? How closely were you analyzing?
I know that many critics have gone down rabbit holes in this regard and that the Internet is full of discussion of the show’s various inter-textual references (just as it was with Lost, for example). Truthfully, I haven’t been too concerned with cataloguing those references, but I am interested in how they contribute to character development, especially in the case of Rust, who seems more at home in his head, in the company of ideas and words, than in any geographical space.

What I think is even more interesting, however, is thinking about the show in relation to its generic antecedents (detective stories, police procedurals), and how it does and doesn’t play with genre conventions.   

Do you think this is a show that will one day be analyzed in classrooms?
Certainly season one could be used in the classroom as a way of talking about everything from genre to gender to media convergence, but whether it will prove popular in that regard may depend on how the series develops in subsequent seasons, how it expands on certain themes or tropes that were introduced in this one.

Among others, Linda Williams, a prominent film and media scholar, has taught an entire course on The Wire, and her ability and inclination to do so has to do with how expansive that show was over the course of five seasons. By moving between different social and institutional milieus from one season to the next, The Wire was capable of producing an extremely complex and nuanced representation of Baltimore that was attentive to a wide variety of economic, political, and affective realities.

I am really curious to see if True Detective can generate subsequent seasons that are not only as accomplished technically and narratively as its first, but also capable of putting pressure on some of the more generic, even stereotypical, elements of the show. Were it to do so, it could develop into something quite generative in an academic context.

Although the show garnered rave reviews, many viewers and critics pointed out that there was a lack of development for the show’s female characters. What are your thoughts on that? How could they address this in the next season?
As a feminist film scholar, this is an issue in which I have a lot of interest, and I was very curious to read Emily Nussbaum’s article on it in The New Yorker, as well as various responses that her article elicited. Strategically flippant about the show, Nussbaum argues that True Detective is just another example of the same old, same old: three-dimensional male heroes and two-dimensional female victims. To a great extent, I agree. 

Having said that, the show’s first season, at least early on, was intent on interrogating masculinity by laying bare its various trappings. From an investment in clichéd rescue fantasies, to gendered double standards regarding sexual activity to, finally, an inability to respond attentively or compassionately to women’s experiences. As already mentioned, however, that interrogative spirit seemed to dissipate as the season wore on and the investigation took narrative precedence. As a result, the show ended up reinforcing some of the very myths that it started out questioning.

In light of all this, what I would love to see in season two is at least one female detective, maybe even a pair of women, functioning as protagonist. Failing this, female characters who are capable of acting as well as reacting, and who aren’t defined exclusively in terms of their sexual availability or victimhood doesn’t seem like too much to ask for.  

The location of Louisiana certainly set a haunting, unsettling tone to the season. Can you talk about the importance of location to storytelling?
Given the extent to which cops must respond to, and act on, their environment, setting tends to play a key role in shows and films featuring them. This is definitely the case in True Detective, but in an interesting twist, it opts for the sprawling, varied, and almost primordial landscape of rural Louisiana over city streets, where crime and detection are more typically staged.

What I think is so effective about this choice of setting is the fact that Louisiana, through both its physicality and its history, raises the spectre of a population that is resistant to regulation, be it at the hands of census takers, record keepers, public service providers, or police officers. As a result, the show is capable of staging each investigatory act as an encounter with something, or someone, disarmingly uncanny.     

Like I mentioned, this show is so dense that we could discuss it for quite some time! But to wrap things up: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Just this: we will likely be waiting quite a while for season two, so if people are looking for another detective show steeped in character and locale, but one that is far more attentive to the gender politics of both violence and representation, I would recommend Jane Campion’s fascinating Top of the Lake.

Liz Do is a writer with University Relations at the University of Toronto.