The overrated True Detective

At least based on the general critical reaction I've seen on the web, by far the most overrated show on TV is HBO's True Detective, so I'm somewhat too heartened that the great Emily Nussbaum stabs the show repeatedly with her quill, leaving it wounded and bleeding, if not dead (the finale has yet to air).

On the other hand, you might take a close look at the show’s opening credits, which suggest a simpler tale: one about heroic male outlines and closeups of female asses. The more episodes that go by, the more I’m starting to suspect that those asses tell the real story.

This aspect of “True Detective” (which is written by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Fukunaga) will be gratingly familiar to anyone who has ever watched a new cable drama get acclaimed as “a dark masterpiece”: the slack-jawed teen prostitutes; the strippers gyrating in the background of police work; the flashes of nudity from the designated put-upon wifey character; and much more nudity from the occasional cameo hussy, like Marty’s mistress, whose rack bounces merrily through Episode 2. Don’t get me wrong: I love a nice bouncy rack. And if a show has something smart to say about sex, bring it on. But, after years of watching “Boardwalk Empire,” “Ray Donovan,” “House of Lies,” and so on, I’ve turned prickly, and tired of trying to be, in the novelist Gillian Flynn’s useful phrase, the Cool Girl: a good sport when something smells like macho nonsense. And, frankly, “True Detective” reeks of the stuff. The series, for all its good looks and its movie-star charisma, isn’t just using dorm-room deep talk as a come-on: it has fallen for its own sales pitch.

Also odd is that everyone is raving about Matthew McConaughey's performance. He does the most he can with dialogue that is largely hokum. I've rewatched entire scenes from the show with the subtitles turned on just to see if the script needs some decanting to release its profundity, but no, it is some hard-boiled, imitation Cormac McCarthy nothingness. Meanwhile, Woody Harrelson's Marty Hart is actually the more compelling character both on the page and on the screen, largely because he's the type of actor who never seems to be taking himself too seriously, even when he's in a grim serial killer drama, and even if that show is one of the more self-important shows in recent memory.

Marty may be a hothead and a philandering fool, but it all feels grounded. McConaughey's Rust Cohle feels like, as Nussbaum phrases it, a very conventional TV trope, the “heretic with a heart of gold,” except in this case he has the verbosity of a TV writer in love with his own voice.

Not to say the show can't evoke a mood. The clenched, discordant music, the languorous camera moves and unusually low number of cuts in the editing, and HBO's signature top notch production design and cinematography all add up to one continuous feeling of dread. At the end of episode three [minor spoiler], Cohle intones, “And like a lot of dreams, there's a monster at the end of it.” On screen we see, in a long shot set in some backwater swamp area, a man wearing only his briefs and a gas mask, holding a machete, lookin like Walter White framed as Bigfoot.

It's a creepy way to end an episode, but then last week, when we finally meet said man, Reginald Ledoux, he turns out to be another guy spouting some premium grade claptrap. “Time is a flat circle,” he says to Cohle. Earlier in that episode, Cohle finally meets Ledoux's partner DeWall. Both Ledoux and DeWall look like the type of crazy backwoods mountain men who Raylan Givens would be slapping around in Justified, and yet DeWall takes one look at Cohle and proclaims, “I can see the soul at the edges of your eyes,” he tells him. “It's corrosive, like acid. You got a demon, little man, and I don't like your face. It makes me want to do things to it.” This is some pair of loquacious redneck murderers, maybe distant cousins of Anton Chigurh?

True Detective has not concluded yet, so it's possible that when we find out who the killer was, so much of the setup will end up paying off, rather than feeling, as in the plot of The Killing, like so much moody padding. Until then, though, the emperor has no clothes (nor do most of the women on the show).