Truly defective

When discussing his masterful 1968 neo-noir Le Samourai, writer/director Jean-Pierre Melville said, “I’m not interested in realism. All my films hinge on the fantastic […] A film is first and foremost a dream.” This same philosophy runs through True Detective. But showrunner Nic Pizzolatto overplayed his hand in season two, leading to characters whose emotional landscapes lacked depth, or much of a through line (unless you count daddy issues). True Detective is the clearest example of the emptiest aspects of modern noir: vengeful, self-centered white men; casual racism; violence without grace or purpose; mistaking the cliché strong female character for something meaningful; lack of levity or humor; labyrinthine plotlines without verve. Ultimately, it’s a parody lacking the sincerity needed to give its pulpy center meaning. As easy as it would be to hang this on the inflated ego of its creator, True Detective is indicative of a larger problem: Modern noir has atrophied.

Great essay by Angelica Jade Bastién couching the problems of True Detective in the larger context of the decline of noir in film and television.

This second season of True Detective was problematic, as many have pointed out. The plot was both convoluted and shallow all at once. I didn't think season one was as great as its widespread critical reception would have one believe.

Despite all that, I am glad a show like True Detective exists. I love the film noir genre. For all of season one's plot banality, it achieved an ominous, claustrophobic mood that is something typically found only in movies and not in television with its heavily plot-driven priorities and rhythms.

I love genre movies because they're such entertaining software for encoding deeper commentary about society, life, and the human condition. The gangster movie. The western. Film noir. Vampire movies. The heist film. They're always about something else beyond the literal plot realities, and as such they persist across the decades, commenting on each successive iteration of society, pointing out that plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

As long as there are people who are forced to play a losing game by the world, noir has a place in our storytelling toolbox. We are certainly far from done with the femme fatale, for example.

Noir’s shifts in part come down to one question: Whose story is being told? The dominant image of noir today is a white, male power fantasy, whether it be in positioning his brutality as badass in Drive, turning depravity into parody in Sin City, or the empty stylistic exercise of Looper. Meanwhile, the dominant female image in noir has shifted from a complex, contradictory woman comfortable with her sexuality to a hard-edged one whose strength and anti-feminine dress are implicitly linked to past sexual trauma. Shows like Top of the LakeThe Killing, and now True Detective replicate the same basic template. These female detectives are white, capable, and rough-hewn. They have immense hang-ups with their sexuality and motherhood, along with a bevy of daddy issues. Besides their genuine interest in the women they seek justice for, they aren’t all that different from their male counterparts, which means their creators don’t have to stretch themselves creatively. And what we’ve lost along the way is one of noir’s most soulful and powerful depictions of the hypocrisy of the American Dream: the femme fatale.
By virtue of her gender, the femme fatale’s choices are limited. Her quest for riches belies more than greed. Money is never just money in American culture. It’s the ability to define your own life story. It gives women the kind of power that society often precludes them from reaching. What’s more important to the American Dream than the means to define your own future? Films like Clash by Night, Sudden Fear, and the entire oeuvre of Gloria Grahame delve deeply into how the notion of the American Dream does not include prosperity for women or people of color. The femme fatale is often categorized simplistically, as virgin or whore. This forgets that it is the femme fatale who spurns the plot, often having the most active role in the film, and shown as having anxieties and desires all her own. Ultimately, can’t the femme fatale be viewed as much as a female power fantasy as a male nightmare?

True Detective hewed so closely to the outer trappings of the genre that it was too easy to see the structure, too hard to detect its dark heart.

(Rough bets: This season ends with Ray learning that, yes, his son is his own. I would put good money on that. I would be less likely to put money on the idea of Ray getting Ani pregnant, but I think it will probably happen.)

That's Todd VanDerWerff of Vox discussing the show in early July. These are characters trapped in a prison of the screenwriter's design. It's okay to know generally how a genre piece ends, that's why they call it genre, but to see the specifics coming from so far away does detract from the narrative pleasure.

Despite all my misgivings, I hope True Detective returns for another season. The noir genre is underrepresented on television (season one of Fargo on FX was one other example, and a superior one at that). Since the show resets its storyline and characters every season, it offers something that the noir genre rarely offers its characters: hope.