On the shallowness of 'True Detective'

I don’t think anyone expected New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum to give True Detective (HBO) a positive review. Titled ‘Cool Story Bro,’ her piece on the fledgling crime show amounted to as much, despite a nice accompanying illustration and some neat summation in the opening. 

True Detective "smells like macho nonsense" she writes. Yet despite her reservations — namely that women’s pain is used as plot decoration in the show — Nussbaum seems to like the style of what she sees.       

Willa Paskin over at Slate proved far more forgiving. Paskin appears happy to give show writer Nic Pizzolatto the benefit of the doubt: 

“I think True Detective has not triggered my usual response because it is, at least on some level, very aware of how stereotypically and perfunctorily it treats its female characters.”  

Her analysis is a close reading and I don’t do it justice with one pull-quote but in short, she writes of how the show’s hetero-normative masculine overload reveals a story about the destructive effects of this stuff. To her, it’s no celebration.  

Of course, in the days since, this has all bounced around the internet. 

Counter and attack. 

Back and forth. 


Is True Detective smart and self-reflexive or self-important and misogynous? 

These are difficult questions to answer. It presupposes a great deal to assume that Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukunaga have barreled into such an elaborate, layered production without pausing to consider the relative absence or quality of their female characters. But who knows? 

Obviously, this is not at all how Pizzolatto sees it. On twitter he writes: 

One of the detriments of only having two POV characters, both men (a structural necessity). Next season… 

And here I have to admit I take him at face value. The reason why is a little more elaborate and personal. 


When Emily Nussbaum’s piece dropped, my friends emailed me. Have you seen this? What do you think? As much as it pains me to admit it, to my peer group I’m the kindly academic face of violent masculinities in fiction. I’ve been a reader of crime novels since my teens and everyone knows it. I can be tremendously boring on this topic at parties. 

Anything noir or hardboiled or grim, anything with loser crims or corrupt cops, I’m there. I’ve long been obsessed with this particular sub-set of the crime genre. And as such I’m blind — as the obsessed tend to be — to a great deal around my particular interest: I could care less about Midsummer Murders, cosy crime writing, true crime reportage and anything easily resolved in an hour. I’ve watched about two episodes of Law and Order in my life. 

But True Detective fits neatly into my field of interest. Six episodes in, I tend to accept that Pizzolatto is constrained (and freed-up) by a fairly fixed narrative viewpoint, something approaching a third-person omniscient style. I trust this because it’s common ground where I’m from. If this were a novel, the reality around these characters would be heavily swayed by their own personal preferences and prejudices in a literal way: the characters wouldn’t just think in terms that may appall us or confront the reader, they’d see the world this way and it would appear on the page as such. Some of the best crime novels I’ve read do this. 

The flat-out master of this technique is James Ellroy, the hardboiled ‘demon dog’ of crime writing. In an Ellroy novel, the descriptive text is littered with all sorts of slang, racial invective and projected horror. No one sees their own prejudices in an Ellroy novel until it’s too late and then these weaknesses consume them. Pizzolatto, also a novelist, is on-the-record as a fan of Ellroy’s large scale ‘social’ crime books. This POV style he’s utilsing in True Detective has not sprung out nowhere. It’s not a workaround for current criticisms aimed at the show. 

This playing around with point-of-view and human failing is an aspect of True Detective that Nussbaum willfully obscures. In comparing the show to Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, she writes:

“On True Detective, however, we’re not watching the distorted testimony of an addict, punctured by flashes of accidental self-revelation.” 

Really? Are we watching the same show: 

In True Detective, the viewer, sees nearly everything through the eyes of the two male protagonists, Marty (Woody Harrelson) and Rust (Matthew McConaughey) and it’s grim to the brim: 

Marty: You wonder ever if you're a bad man? 

Rust: No I don't wonder Marty. The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door. 

Riding alongside these guys, the viewer sees the clearly objectionable territory that goes along with their corrupted worldview: 

The female characters are thin because everything on the periphery is thin to them. Rust’s apartment is vacant of furniture for a reason. 

The mutilated victims are depicted as human rag dolls and two-dimensional images because these men do not really care about these people. Marty is disturbed by what he sees as the mystery unravels, but is he outraged? No. Marty wants all this to go away. 


These characters are not noble crusaders for justice. Why mistake them for such?  

Marty and Rust’s interest in the case is entirely motivated by the most base level of self-gain: ego and the exertion of power, particularly masculine iterations of each. They are barely in control of these desires. (Cue Marty throwing up in the car park. Cue everything about Rust, except the speed at which he walks.) The case of the murdered women — which Pizzolatto himself has described as borderline incidental to True Detective’s plotis just an excuse to these men. It’s their ticket to live out these impulses, to cheat, assault, abuse and give themselves over to any other transgression that comes along. In short, they’re the epitome of corruption, both surrounded by it and perpetrating it.  

Ultimately, True Detective is a story that refuses to judge its characters. Instead, the makers have chosen to dump these men in your lap. Reconciling their actions and their world-view with your own reality? That’s your job. If you’re titillated by Marty and Rust’s urge to destroy, or the bodies that pile up around them, or if you’re entertained by their journey and the show’s picturesque production, welcome to hardboiled crime and noir. This is a genre that is as seductive as it is cruel. It has an arch moralist bent, writ large over it’s comic book pulp vibe. Forget ‘seriousness.’ It’s not operating in that realm. This is more The Shield than The Wire. 

There are always checks and balances with this stuff. In the hardboiled/noir aesthetic, you will be constantly forced to confront the nasty shit lurking inside yourself. You will be asked to decide how much horror and human failing is enough, and how far into the dark a character can go and still retain your empathy. This place where you are now, where True Detective is hitting every cue, this is always — in no small part — an exploration of your own standards, and the writer’s. Beyond all the style and swagger, I’ll wager that this is the detection that sits at the heart of this series. 


Ian Keith Rogers maintains a blog here

  • By Ian Rogers

3 comments so far..

  • Gearz's avatar
    Date and time
    Thursday 27 Feb 2014 - 3:12 PM
    I totally agree with the idea that the characters are as corrupt as their surroundings.

    I take issue with the demonizing of the show for it's view of women. (I note you did not take part of it, but would like your view on my theory)
    In the show it seems sexuality is a tent-pole of this series. Rust seems to be A-sexual until Hart's wife shows up. Marty can't control his sexual desires. Maggie is the only one wanting a "normal" life. Until Marty's sexual desires tear her down completely. Turning her from sympathetic character to devious monster. She knew Rust was drunk, that's what kept her going towards him with sexual advances. She uses her sexuality to hurt Marty in the worst possible way, she uses Rust in the worst possible way, taking advantage of his intoxicated and less than ideal decision making to use him as a pawn.
    There is also this overarching idea that "nothing is ever over" were all part of a game we play over and over.
    Marty turns Maggie into a monster because of his sexuality, Maggie uses Rust, and completely violates his role in Marty's life to get back at Marty. I would laud the writer for his use of women, on one hand they use women as plot devices and throwaway sexual objects. Then, we have a character like Maggie, who is in complete control over her own person, using her sexuality to inflict grievous wound on Marty. She took charge of the circumstances and returned the pain to him in the worst way.
    You could point out how all of this show focuses on the failings of men to treat women as equals. Marty tries to control the women around him. He tried to "save" the girl at the sex park by giving her money. So she can do what he deems positive work. His daughter explores her sexuality and Hart blows back with violence (against her and the boys she was a willing participant with).
    And the victims of violence? They are not just simple women thrown to the meat grinder. They are young, impoverished, drug addicted, and often with a history of sexual abuse . This entire show could have just as easily been about men as women. The women are victims because they are the fancy of the cult/killer(s). We should remember that one of the victims recovered was a deceased male. He had been abused like the girl.
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  • Gibson's avatar
    Date and time
    Friday 28 Feb 2014 - 1:43 PM
    I really disagree...the female characters don't have to be nimphomaniacs with no discretion, always willing, always turned on by the two detectives, always with their asses out, and young at that! Lisa is portrayed how she is, it's not through Marty's flawed viewpoint. The viewpoint is through the camera for us, the audience, to view her. The overalls girl telling Marty that he's flawed but perfect and a 'good man' and he's sooooo good in bed that she's heaving, exclaiming and AHHing throughout their sex and then begging for anal sex from him. She could think of nothing else for a whole week!! That's how the director and the writer see them and portray them to us. If they are supposed to fantasy girls from the harsh eyes of our main characters they do not come across as that. I'll tell you what I see: total male fantasy, pure titillation for male viewers or viewers in general, placed there to enhance the egos and machismo of our main characters. They are porn-like, one dimensional props used and abused by the writer. What is porn about? Porn is the ultimate using and objectifying of another human as a piece of flesh that the viewer gets to not have to have a conversation with. One dimensional. Male fantasy (not all men) is total accessibility to a woman's body (all her orifices) with no strings attached and this said body also is put into unreal ecstasy by the male's perceived sexual prowess and potency. With no strings attached. The female characters serve this purpose. Then, Lisa had to act like a whore-bitch by having a need, requesting respect and daring to share her mouth with someone else. Well, she was just "crazy p---y" and needed to be "skullf----d". Maggie having sex with poor pathetic Rust who has no control over himself (please) is the same as rape victims in the past having to explain how high their skirts were, because men can't control themselves and are predatory and violent by nature...that's insulting to men, so it's ALL Maggie's fault for forcing Rust to f--k her from behind. Because marriage and cheating is really all about p---y. So she gives "it" to Rust to hurt Marty because "it" is what it's all about. One dimensional. This is so obviously Nic's vehicle to live out his fetishes (asses, specifically) and, I suspect, hatred for women. There is no redemption, it's incredibly insulting on so many levels that I watch it just to see how they (Nic and Cary) will violate women, use women, abuse women, cut off their heads while they zoom in on their boobs, the dead ass girl with no face, the ass-girl with NO personality, the victims...yes all the piles of victims used to prop up the male characters. I care more about the victims then these macho, self-important men. Too bad the writer and director don't.
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  • Adam1988's avatar
    Date and time
    Monday 03 Mar 2014 - 4:48 PM
    " I could care less about Midsummer Murders"

    It's I COULDN'T care less.
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