The very capable Chris Ryan at Grantland (a publication which should definitely hire me) gets it almost right:
...True Detective needs the signifiers of our world, but not the rules. It needs the corruption, the graft, the institutions, the laws, and the crime, but that’s it. Characters on this show don’t talk like us, and they don’t act like us. They are of this world but not in this world. This is “Los Angeles,” not Los Angeles.Once you accept this, True Detective becomes a different kind of show, and it makes a certain kind of sense...
The first part, yes; the second part, no. So almost, but not quite.
Because right now, HBO's True Detective does not make sense. Not yet, anyway. Right now, it is failing on its own terms. Which doesn't mean it will, in the end, be a failure, but at this moment it is not delivering on what it promised.
And here's why.
This is not a heist story, so there are no plans to draw or teams of expert misfits to recruit. It isn't a crime-gone-wrong story either, or a buddy flick, or a road picture. It isn't Elmore Leonard mesmerizing us with the folkways and conversations of C-list criminals. It isn't Ian Fleming or John Le Carre or Graham Greene navigating the world of James Bond or George Smiley or Alden Pyle. It isn't a Mario Puzo parade across three bloody generations of America's most infamous fictional crime family, and it isn't Arthur Conan Doyle letting us peer at the world through the cool, logical mind of the world's only consulting detective.
So if the list of all the things which True Detective is not could go on for days, then what is it exactly?
Ah. Glad you asked.
It is a dream. A very intense dream. And stories which aspire to take you up into a dream -- which don't merely ask you to suspend disbelief in the way all fiction does, but which requires that you to take up the local language and rules of a dream world -- take on a very special and delicate burden.
My future colleague at Grantland points quite correctly to the work of David Lynch as the scaffolding on which Nic Pizzolatto is hanging these eight hours of television --
In the absence of the singular vision of Fukanaga and the interview gimmick, the show’s directors (so far, Justin Lin for the first two episodes and Danish filmmaker Janus Metz Pedersen for Episode 3) have turned, consciously or not, to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive as a central text. Lynch’s 2001 film looked at Los Angeles — from the Hollywood Hills mansions to the sun-baked parking lots outside of doughnut shops — and saw a city that could contain infinite possibilities, horrors, timelines, and realities.Nic Pizzolatto’s story is following suit. Those overhead shots of freeway interchanges are overused and serve mostly to transition from one scene to another, but when viewed as part of the dizzying narrative that is being assembled, they make sense. These roads are Carrie Mathison’s or Lester Freamon’s cork boards — they indicate the interconnectedness of the evil that lurks in the light.
-- but I'd like to push a little deeper for today's lesson in How To Watch Teevee Like A Snob and suggest the proper template is Franz Kafka or, better yet, Edgar Allen Poe.
Poe's, The Fall of the House of Usher, for example, is ridiculous from the point of view of a linear, plot-driven story. No one in it is a normal human who gets up and goes to work on Wall Street or at Arby's. Around these surreal characters, apparitions come and go, maybe. Someone dies, maybe. Their body is going to be kept in the house for weeks, stored for mysterious reasons in a screwed-shut coffin, in a locked copper-lined crypt below the house. The sun never shines. A wild storm whips up out of nowhere, The dead rise, maybe, and tear doors off their hinges, And our narrator escapes just in time to see the the House of Usher split in two by a bolt from Heaven and collapse into a dead black lake.
As a conventional work of fiction, it makes No. Damn. Sense. at all, But as a dream it works amazingly well, because Poe was a poet who cared much more about navigating his readers from one emotion to another by carefully crafting the atmospherics to move them implacably towards a specific psychological outcome. And so from the very start, Poe piles the adjectives relentlessly on to let you know that you are not only are in a dream, but exactly what sort of dream you are having.
In Usher, you are immediately told through imagery and interior emotional states you are headed into a very bad dream, where horrible things are likely to happen:
DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was -- but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me -- upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain -- upon the bleak walls -- upon the vacant eye-like windows -- upon a few rank sedges -- and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees -- with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium -- the bitter lapse into everyday life -- the hideous dropping off of the veil.
And if the specific vintage of nightmare on the menu wasn't clear enough, Poe makes sure to drive the point home:
Noticing these things, I rode over a short causeway to the house. A servant in waiting took my horse, and I entered the Gothic archway of the hall.
And for all of his long sentences, Poe moves his readers along through all of his horror stories at an incredibly brisk pace. Usher is a hair over 7,000 words. Sixteen pages. And that's long by Poe horror standards. The Tell-Tale Heart is 2,200 words and The Masque of the Red Death just over 2,400 -- figure five pages each, give or take. Poe could and did plot with great care when he was pioneering the consulting detective genre, for example, but his horror fiction was a different beast entirely. Those were constructed to draw you in and move you along fast, fast, fast. No time to slow down and admire the carpet or go through the drawers, because while his detective fiction were clever puzzles that invited readers to poke and scrutinize and solve, his horror fiction was designed as intense, immersive dreams. And dreams unravel when you give your readers time to stop and handle the fiddle faddle on the knick-knack shelf.
(As an aside, let me underscore that the magic of this is in the words. Which, by themselves are just...words. Same stuff you and I use every day. But in his stories Poe the poet selects and fits each one into place with enormous care so that, together, they drag you along towards your inexorable fate like a team of Percherons.)
The first season of True Detective got this balance between pacing and carefully deployed weirdness just right: using a few words and pictures they constructed a dream which swallows you up and bears you away towards something terrible; something which you could almost-but-never-quite feel rushing towards you because it was made out of the vocabulary of human nightmares.
And those are the two element at which this season of True Detective is failing so far. The pacing is arrhythmic, leaving us lingering in the wrong places (like the Sylvia Plath Bar & Grill) for too long. And the visual and verbal cues are off: with more than 1/3 of the story told, I still can't tell if we are observing the melancholy House of Usher from across the fields, or if we are on the causeway to the house or if we have passed through the Gothic archway and into the heart of the nightmare.
There are still five chapters of story to tell, and I have not given up on it yet. But we are three chapters in, and so far our storytellers have failed to create that delicate alchemy of real and surreal, inevitability and surprise. weird and mundane, out of which captivating dreams are made.
And time is running out.