True Detective and Televised Crime: The World We Deserve?

Crime stories will never not fascinate us, and television is arguably the perfect medium for them. You get to traffic in and ride shotgun to transgression. This makes them the ultimate vicarious TV experience. Every great crime show, like every great novel or movie of this genre, offers that experience in its own particular way while (almost invariably) borrowing from everything that came before. True Detective is no different, and thought its second-season iteration wasn’t “better” than its predecessor, it explored its lurid path in a more direct and unsettling fashion.

Nic Pizzolatto’s anthology series earns both praise and criticism due to its self-seriousness and bleakness. The first season took us to the ravaged gulf coast of Louisiana for a gothic journey through generational evil rooted in the perversion of religion, guided by two police, Rustin Cohle and Marty Hart, instant entrants to the pantheon of great crime fiction characters. But for all its sincere commitment to horrific subject matter, the leads, as brilliantly portrayed by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, kept viewers steady. You knew Marty was a weak man but ultimately one with moral convictions when push came to shove, and conversely Rust wore his morals front and center but reflexively drowned them in grief and pessimistic philosophy. You were never really adrift, which is perhaps one of the first season’s (numerous) faults.

A lot of crime fiction, including plenty I love, tries this have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach. One of Raymond Chandler’s best-known maxims — “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean” — is to some degree a copout. No one can remain clean. No one can make it out unscathed, and many don’t make it out alive. True Detective season 2 certainly knew that and stuck to that path in its brutal ending. It embedded us with four leads (arguably five, depending on what you consider Jordan Semyon [Kelly Reilly]) who were just as broken as the world they inhabited. They knew who they were, for the most part — even the turn toward relative goodness of Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) came out of desperation rather than moral decency — and were not good people stuck in bad places. They were not even, as Rust Cohle said, “bad men…keep[ing] the other bad men from the door.” Their motives were often selfish and even at their best warped by personal damage. They were bought-and-paid-for bagmen, racketeers, hired killers fueled by false righteousness, rage addicts looking to justify the persistent aches of old wounds. They did not seek forgiveness, and none of them received it.


Consider again the world and people of True Detective season 2 — one of pure rot, more so than that seen in the show’s first installment. Velcoro (Colin Farrell) was a corrupt alcoholic detective in a shitsplat tiny California city — Vinci, based on the real Vernon — that only existed to support various industrial businesses and pollute the surrounding air for miles. Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) was a Sheriff’s deputy with a knife obsession and a simultaneous fascination/repulsion with sex stemming from childhood trauma. (We all saw your PornHub searches in episode 2, girl, blurred focus or not.) Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) was an Iraq vet and California highway patrolman who worked for corporate mercenaries as much as he did the U.S. government — and a repressed, self-hating gay man. Then we have Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn), the career gangster with delusions of legitimacy, and Jordan, his wife who knew full well the bed she made despite her occasional protests to the contrary.

These three cops and two racketeers are forced to collude, with contradictory interests, due to a city manager’s torture/murder that unravels a massive conspiracy. (For the record, I was able to follow most of the resulting labyrinth, but it would be pointless to explain it in full here.) Everyone involved is unpleasant and self-interested, and all the more fascinating — albeit in an uncomfortable way — as a result. When Velcoro uses brass knuckles to pummel the father of a kid who bullied his son, we have to ask, “Is this really what we want to see?” It speaks to reserves of ugliness in ourselves that we are uncertain about how we feel when the scene begins, because we naturally like to see nasty people get punished. The end result of cracked ribs, a bashed-in face and Velcoro’s hideous rape threat is repulsive, but it’s the natural result of this behavior. Ugly broken people usually break things themselves. It’s not pleasant to see Bezzerides’s hypocrisy, castigating her sister for being a webcam girl while being a porn addict herself, but it’s something we see in people all the time — just like we often see closeted people like Woodrugh use words like “fag” casually and complain loudly about being cruised. (Another thing — why did those who hated this season find it so implausible that an outwardly macho war vet wouldn’t handle his own homosexuality well, in 2015 or any other time? It was painful to watch due to the unevenness of Kitsch’s performance, but it made perfect sense for the character. Just saying.)

Obviously, this show isn’t realism and never purported itself to be. The filth and fetishes of most people are far more banal than the bizarro cock sculptures and nude dolls and decorated skeletons littering the house of dead city manager Ben Caspere, and most of us don’t have the opportunity to enact revenge beatings on our children’s tormentors’ parents. That shootout was certainly not intended as fucking realism, though it paid attention to the deaths of innocent bystanders in a way that most similar scenes don’t. Nonetheless, the heightened melodramatic portrayal of these events doesn’t dilute the essential truth of what happens to people like this who allow themselves to land in these situations. They rot. They become agents of evils much greater than their own individual damage — unchecked capitalism, religion, political fakery, the violence of the drug trade and much more.


It’s tempting, if perhaps a bit hyperbolic, to say we’re in a golden age of crime shows. They’ve always been all over the airwaves, but in the past few years the best among them have taken us in truly thought-provoking and disturbing directions. Directions that offered the viewer no easy comfort or rudder. They make you examine what’s on the screen and, to quote a character from one such show — Lorne Malvo in the first season of Fargo — ask yourself, “Is this really what you want?” The mainstream cop/law enforcement procedurals ask us to wish horrific homicides upon people so that their perpetrators can be locked up or politely shot. Shows like Top of the Lake, The Bridge, Hannibal, True Detective, Fargo, Broadchurch and American Crime ask us what we’re really wishing for and why, and supply us with unreliable, damaged or vicious protagonists rather than the jaded-and-hurt-but-essentially-good Philip Marlowes and Colombos and Sipowiczes. We don’t like them, necessarily, and our negative feelings are too complicated to be simplified as hate for a villain. But we’re compelled to keep looking as they explode or implode.

Season two of True Detective lacked the singular visual style that Cary Fukunaga brought to the first, and only occasionally flashed those gothic vibes. (That raven mask worn by Caspere’s killer, the bloodied chair in the woodshed, and the hallucinatory orgy of episode 6 are the best examples of goth freakiness.) And many hated the dialogue writing of Nic Pizzolatto as they did the last time around — it was no less overwrought, and Vince Vaughn often didn’t know how to deliver it. But for me, the sprawl of the conspiracy and its roots in the confluence of business and public policy and vice felt more in tune with the evils of our world than the cult-driven deeds of serial killers. (I feel like the murderer of season 1 was more comforting to people, because he’s a bogeyman they can easily shake off. It’s harder to simply shrug off images of police who function as thugs, mayors who become bagmen, and public figures with sexual preferences contingent on the exploitation of others, even though we see them in the news all the time.) The characters here are archetypal, but they make sense. And while the perverse underworld we get glimpses of is borderline Lynchian, it works because of its garish contrast with the more common evils of political corruption and organized crime.

The second season ends with three of its five protagonists dead. The two who survive are on the run, with a thin chance of exposing the conspiracy’s evil. Most of that evil’s architects go unpunished, because they are not the criminals who willingly do dirt. (Naturally, those people do get killed via some nasty violence during the finale.) The true architects, though, are the faceless corporations with profitable stakes in questionable land and construction deals, the lawyers who represent underworld and white-collar criminals alike, the politicians who benevolently supervise the fleecing of the poor so long as no rich or important people get hurt. Corruption usually wins, because it can stand up to scrutiny. And that, despite True Detective’s sometimes fanciful plot details, despite the portentous weight of Pizzolatto’s dialogue and the pitch-black shade of his worldview, rings true in a way. Most deeds, good and bad alike, lead to punishment.

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Originally published at on June 21, 2015.

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