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Louisiana landscape in ‘True Detective’: swamps, abandoned churches and oil refineries 

This month we’ve seen the first season of True Detective, and watched the last episode of  the final season of Southland. We’ve been fans of the under-rated and overlooked Southland ever since it first appeared on our TV screens, while True Detective held us in its stylish grip through recent evenings.  As if that wasn’t enough, Mad Men has just returned for its final season, and we’re three seasons into a Breaking Bad catch-up.

All of these are examples of the long-form TV series format that in the last decade critics have hailed  as rivalling anything that the cinema can offer in terms of telling long stories and developing characters.  The Sopranos started the ball rolling fifteen years ago, closely followed by David Simon’s The Wire, Mad Men, and Treme.  TV, it seems, has become the medium of choice for storytellers keen to work on story arcs with the narrative complexity and character development of a novel, rather than the conventional model of television storytelling through episodic or serial forms. TV is able to do things cinema, within the constraints of 90 minutes, can’t. In over 70 hours, David Simon’s team on The Wire, for example, was able to focus on complex characters and intricate plotting because it had the time to do it.

Some say that in these outstanding series at least, TV has become a writer’s medium. In contrast, cinema has favoured the director – either the auteur of independent cinema or the hired hand of Hollywood – while writers, in Hollywood especially, are reduced to subordinates whose scripts may be rewritten more than once to satisfy the money men or the responses of audiences at test screenings.

That said, the first season of True Detective was unusual in having a single director responsible for every episode  – Cary Fukunaga (I saw his first film Sin Nombre back in 2009, and looking back at my thoughts then I see why there were aspects of True Detective that made me uneasy). I’ll take a look here at True Detective and the very different – and superior – Southland.

True Detective came from HBO, the cable channel that has brought us some of the best long-form American TV of the last decade.  Set in Louisiana, it was created and written by Nic Pizzolatto, author of a crime novel and several short stories also set in the American South. The first season starred Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as two Louisiana State Police homicide detectives investigating a series of ritualistic murders and child disappearances in Louisiana in the 1990s.

Several things made True Detective eminently watchable and gripping.  The cinematography of Fukunaga and Adam Arkapaw (who filmed the superlative Top of the Lake) ranged from atmospheric landscapes to interior scenes of nail-biting tension (the outstanding example of the latter being the impressive six-minute single shot of a police raid on a drug den at the close of  episode 4).  Fukunaga told the Guardian:

Before I even started working on True Detective, I made a point of telling Nic … that one of my priorities as director was to defend craft despite the constraints on my time and budget. In every episode I wanted to at least try to find specific moments in which you could treat the visual side of the medium with the same importance as we were treating the dialogue.

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Impressive as that scene was, it was the widescreen shots of eerily-brooding Louisiana landscapes, shot on cinematic 35mm, that were the outstanding feature of this series. Fukunaga commented on the thinking that lay behind the cinematography:

It might be about how an oil refinery, or lack of nature, or encroaching nature in the background somehow spoke to the conversation that was happening between the characters. I saw the frames as being like dioramas at the natural history museum- foreground, middle ground with the characters, and then deeper commentary beyond that.

Reinforcing the mood and texture of the series was a superb soundtrack put together by T-Bone Burnett, who wove deep into the background of scenes varied sounds from all areas of Americana – from blues, gospel, and old timey country to just plain weird – including many lesser-known acts and songs with a darker edge that deepened the sense of dread and foreboding that hung over the series.

Above all, the song ‘Far From Any Road’ by the Americana husband-and-wife duo The Handsome Family used as True Detective‘s opening theme set the mood each week, and was hard to get out of your head.  t’s not puzzle why Burnett chose the eerie song –  the couple are known for the dark and violent imagery of their lyrics.

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Detectives Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey)

A further distinctive feature of this series was the way in which the action cut between two time frames: in the first it’s Louisiana 1995, and detectives Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) are investigating the ritualistic murder of a former prostitute, found in a still smoking field of burned crops, with a symbol painted on her back and wearing a crown of deer antlers.  The narrative switches back and forth between the 1990s investigation and Cohle and Hart being interviewed separately, seventeen years later, by detectives Thomas Papania (Tory Kittles) and Maynard Gilbough (Michael Potts) about the earlier investigation.

Through this device Nic Pizzolatto turns Hart and Cohle into also rival narrators who recount the same story from alternative perspectives. Hart is the pragmatic one who tells the story in straightforward police procedural terms, while Cohle’s mumbled account is a darker, dread-filled tale of supernatural horror, littered with occult symbols, drug-induced psychosis and abandoned meth shacks. The narrative of the present-day interviews becomes a voice-over, layered over flashbacks.

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Matthew McConaughey as Rustin Cohle in the present-day interview scenes

Indeed, the character of Rustin Cohle is the final piece of the jigsaw determining what made True Detective distinctive and utterly unmissable. From the start, Cohle is convinced that the murdered prostitute this is not the killer’s first victim, while Hart remains sceptical. Aloof and mysterious and always making notes in an A4 portfolio, Cohl is a paradox. Steeped in a nihilistic philosophy derived from Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, he sees no meaning to life, yet drives himself unrelentingly towards solving the murders.

It’s here that writer Nic Pizzolatto introduces elements foreign to the pulp detective fiction genre to which the series’ title pays homage, increasingly drawing on themes from supernatural horror as the story develops- most especially in the final (and to this viewer, at least, the least satisfying) episode.  Those familaiar with the genre have noted quotations from and direct references to Robert W. Chambers’ 1895 genre classic The King in Yellow and lines of dialogue directly inspired by the works of modern-day cult horror author Thomas Ligotti.

I gather that Cohle’s grim overview of humanity is derived directly from Ligotti’s 2010 non-fiction work The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, in which Ligotti calls consciousness ‘the parent of all horrors’, a concept articulated (if that’s the right word for his mumbled dialogue) by Detective Cohle.  While Ligotti writes of humans being  ‘uncanny paradoxes’, the result of  nature veering into the supernatural ‘by fabricating a creature that cannot and should not exist by natural law, and yet does,’  Cohle at one point informs his interrogators that:

Human consciousness, is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself, we are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labour under the illusion of having a self; an accretion of sensory, experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody. Maybe the honourable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight – brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.

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Detective Cohle seeing signs

Cohle’s philosophizing drives Hart nuts.  There’s a bloody fist-fight in the end – perhaps not surprising with Cohle given to quoting Schopenhauer to the effect that the most reasonable position a man could take was not to bring children into the world ‘so as to spare the coming generation the burden of existence’, and muttering the thought that a man who hopes for divine reward ‘is a piece of shit’. Or this (speaking of two of the serial killer’s victims):

Fuck, I don’t want to know anything any more. This is a world where nothing is solved. Someone once told me, ‘Time is a flat circle.’ Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again. And that little boy and that little girl, they’re gonna be in that room again and again and again forever.

I wasn’t put off by Cohle’s nihilism – quite the opposite: this was all part of the deepening of character that makes True Detective and other TV series of its kind so worth the time spent with them.  I do, though, have a couple of reservations about this season.  One concerns the closing episode which consisted of a lengthy and implausible sequence drenched in tropes from horror movies in which Cohle inexplicably survived the most horrific wounds.  Finally, the episode ended with Cohle apparently abandoning his belief in the meaninglessness of existence and embracing a Pollyana-ish optimism.

In a scene of male bonding that was at odds with everything that had preceded it in this series, Hart wheeled Cohle out of the hospital one night and they talk in the parking lot. Cohle reveals his new hopeful outlook on life, describing a universal battle between light and dark. Looking up at the night sky, Cohle states, ‘Once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.’  Regarding this scene, I tend to agree with Chris Harvey writing in the Telegraph:

Cohle, slightly implausibly, survived his wounds and had something of a Damascene conversion in his coma, slipping into a deeper darkness in which he was ‘part of everything I’ve ever loved’. Watching Cohle go from the philosopher of humanity as “sentient meat” to true believer, seeing a parallel for the oldest story (‘light versus dark’) in the heavens – ‘once there was only dark, then the lights went in’ – was disorienting. Seeing these two resolutely “unbuddy” cops embrace buddyhood even more so. Paradoxically, Cohle’s unflinching nihilism has been a thing of great joy, and his epiphany was a bit depressing. It was a disappointing end to a superb series.

The other issue we had with the series was summed up by Emily Nussbaum in the New Yorker:

Take a close look at the show’s opening credits, which suggest a simpler tale: one about heroic male outlines and close-ups of female asses. The more episodes that go by, the more I’m starting to suspect that those asses tell the real story. […] While the male detectives of True Detective are avenging women and children, and bro-bonding over “crazy pussy,” every live woman they meet is paper-thin. Wives and sluts and daughters—none with any interior life. Instead of an ensemble, True Detective has just two characters, the family-man adulterer Marty, who seems like a real and flawed person (and a reasonably interesting asshole, in Harrelson’s strong performance), and Rust, who is a macho fantasy straight out of Carlos Castaneda.

This was a weakness of the season: fair enough to have a story about the evil of men who treat women as lurid props, but – as Nussbaum observed – though the dialogue was deeply and deadly serious, the show itself tended to treat women as lurid props.

Apparently there will be a second season, but with different actors, characters and a different setting.  So, maybe True Detective is not truly long-form TV.  In Southland, however, though some have come and gone, a core of interesting characters have been developed over five seasons.

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Southland – shunted into a late-night slot on More 4 after failing to attract a large audience in America – looked a classy act from the opening credits that consisted of  a sequence of sepia images from actual crimes scenes in Los Angeles that looked as if they dated back to the 1940s. Even though the show was set very firmly in present-day south LA, the credits conveyed a mood of raw reality that fit what followed in each episode.

The series was created by Ann Biderman (who also developed NYPD Blue) and combined weekly scattershot storylines with long-range storytelling and character development.  It was really very good, and deserved not to be so overlooked. After starting out on NBC, the increasingly dark tone of the show led the network to axe the show after the first season.  TNT stepped in to save the show, but after five seasons and with audiences down a third in the US, the plug has been finally pulled.

It’s a real shame, since Southland combined vivid observation of police procedure and random events on the streets with long-form storytelling and character development.  Southland was a morally complex and insightful drama, with each episode deftly juggling different crimes and incidents, at the same time as exploring the private lives of the LAPD officers and detectives featured – sometimes portraying acts of bravery, at others revealing them to be flawed individuals with dilemmas or psychological issues magnified by wearing a badge and carrying a gun.   The off-duty problems the officers faced – pregnancy, drug addiction, child custody battles, the death of a loved one or a fellow-officer – were as much the concern of the series as the dangers they faced in the line of duty.  As Slant observed at the end of season four:

Key to the show’s success is a preoccupation with character as opposed to plot; it’s far more concerned with cop culture than with specific cases. The first season was held back by the sprawling cast and the broad strokes it necessitated, but the restrictions of a cable budget forced the producers to streamline, leaving us with four regular characters who’ve gained considerable dimension.

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Ben Sherman (Benjamin McKenzie) and partner Sammy Bryant (Shawn Hatosy)

The show’s characters were played by an extraordinary cast, notably regulars Ben McKenzie, Regina King, Shawn Hatosy, and Michael Cudlitz, plus Lucy Liu’s superb appearance in season 4 as Jessica Tang.

We watched the slow moral erosion of Ben Sherman (played by Ben McKenzie) from the naïve, middle class rookie of the first season into a decorated, hardened cop with a willingness to cut moral corners and shady associations in his private life.  As a rookie in season 1, Sherman was assigned to the hard-boiled and troubled John Cooper (played by Michael Cudlitz), whose father taught him to shoot guns, was in and out of prison during Cooper’s childhood, and is now incarcerated for the rape and murder of Cooper’s 16-year-old girlfriend.  This has been a superb portrayal of an intense and complex character.  Suffering from chronic back pain, Cooper is forced in the first season to wear a back brace and self-medicates with pain pills which he obtains from his ex-wife and drug dealers.

In season 4, Cooper’s returned to street patrols following back surgery and rehabilitation. No longer riding with Ben Sherman, he is partnered with Jessica Tang (played by Lucy Liu). She perceives something that Cooper will not publicly admit: that he is gay. The partnership becomes strained after Tang shoots a teenager wielding what turns out to be a toy gun and Cooper realises that she has removed evidence of her error from the scene.

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Cooper testifies at his father’s parole hearing: ‘My father should stay in here until the day he dies.’

In many ways Cooper proved to be the backbone of the show: in the final season he begins to unravel again as a long-term relationship falls apart and he drinks heavily. In the show’s finale, as he pistol-whips a neighbour in an altercation over noise, he is shot and killed by LAPD officers.

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Detective Lydia Adams with partner Ruben Robinson

This has been the chief strength of Southland: to watch as these men and women have grown into fully fleshed-out characters. One of my favourite characters has been that of the non-uniformed black detective Lydia Adams, a  a role inhabited with both stillness and athleticism by Regina King.  I’ve enjoyed watching her partnership with sensitive and supportive fellow-detective Ruben Robinson in the last two seasons – a period in which she has had to come to terms with pregnancy and coping with being a lone mother.

These characters have been the heart of Southland, but each episode has held our attention through the dramatic or just plain odd situations encountered by the officers as they patrol the city streets.  Through location shooting, with the camera often situated in the police vehicle behind the driver’s shoulder, the series has portrayed life in the streets of south LA with energy and the appearance of authenticity. The pace would often change gear from two officers driving through their territory, swapping anecdotes and relaxed banter, to high speed chase and shocking violence in a split second. Every moment that the cops were on screen felt as if it had been drawn from actual police reports.  In this household, at least, Southland will be sorely missed.

One thought on “‘True Detective’, ‘Southland’ and long-form TV

  1. I stopped watching television since I moved to Europe about 3+ years ago. I used to follow detective/crime investigation TV series, from Matlock and Murder She Wrote, to CSI (the original) and Cold Case. After reading your review of Southland, I’m tempted to watch at least the first few episodes!

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