Sunday, March 9, 2014


Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in HBO's drama series TRUE DETECTIVE.
The conclusion of the first season of HBO’s crime drama TRUE DETECTIVE ends tonight and no matter how it wraps up, it will go down in history as one of the most provocative first seasons ever done for television. On the surface, this series appears to be a police procedural about two Louisiana detectives trying to solve a series of ritual crimes. What it really is about is the complex ideas of good and evil. And how the lives of the two cops have been ruined by their work. (

TRUE DETECTIVE knows that it’s one heck of an ugly world out there and that knowledge informs every tense scene; every gloomy, overcast shot; every dread-inducing moment. No wonder Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) is so pessimistic about trying to do right in a world that’s become a horror show. He knew it going into the job. It took longer for the simple-minded Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) to figure it out. But it sullied him fully too.

McConaughey and Harrelson playing the younger versions of Rust Cohle and Marty Hart.

Not for nothing is the nihilistic cop named Cohle and the one driven by his machismo passions named Hart. These two may ultimately arrest the killer tonight, but they’ve already lost their life to him. Their attempts to solve the mystery have wrecked them. They have abandoned duty, their morals, friendship and rational thought to try and reach closure with the case, but it's an endless cycle of violence and insanity they're dealing with. And they've paid a heavy price chasing after it. 

They have a shot at redemption in the last episode, and it looks like they may very well finally solve the crime. As with any crime story, there are many theories about who exactly the “Yellow King” is, the big baddie of the piece, and some of the better thoughts are dominating the discourse about the show ( We’ll see if any of them hold muster tonight but the crucial part of the show will be in determining what it does to the two men.

Mads Mikkelsen as the title character in NBC's crime series HANNIBAL.
TRUE DETECTIVE has always been more Cormac McCarthy than Agatha Christie. It’s really all about true character, not true detective work. The case turned the once crisp and eager Cohle into a dead-eyed, alcoholic wastrel who aged 20 years in a decade. Hart thought he had it together but lost control to his rage, drinking and infidelity. They drove his family away and caused him to quite the force too. The fact that these two may even have a glimmer of hope for something better in the show’s finale seems almost out of character for one of the bleakest shows ever on television.

And yet, despite all the darkness, the show was a massive hit, averaging in the neighborhood
of 11 million viewers each of its first seven episodes. Why so? Quite prophetically, the show
is in tune with our times. Cohle’s and Hart’s jobs destroyed them, just as most Americans
believe their careers are ruining their lives too. A full 70% admit to hating their jobs ( No wonder depression is at an all-time high in the nation. This show
gets that. 

Jon Hamm as Don Draper on AMC'S drama series MAD MEN.
The movie world, on the other hand, seems bent on going in the exact opposite direction.
It seems like another super hero movie is opening every other week, and if it’s not some
Marvel reboot, it is Liam Neeson kicking international ass once again. Movies have a
much shorter time to tell a story but it’s interesting how movies seem obsessive about
filling their narratives with good guys and bad guys rendered in broad, black and white
strokes where TV is exploring all the shades of gray. Even the Academy Awards obsessed
over heroes in their telecast last weekend and it seemed like a theme from the 80’s.

Across the channels, television is putting damaged and dangerous people whose jobs are killing them at the center of their shows. HANNIBAL, MAD MEN, SCANDAL, THE GOOD WFE, the recently departed BREAKING BAD, and even Netflix’s HOUSE OF CARDS are pushing things as dramatically far from the rules of upbeat, escapist fare as possible. All these shows showcase antiheroes like Cohle, Hart and their problematic jobs:

Aaron Paul, Dean Norris, Anna Gunn and Bryan Cranston in AMC's BREAKING BAD.
On NBC’s HANNIBAL, FBI agent Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) can blame his job for landing him in jail ( He profiles serial killers so well that he couldn’t shake them from his own psyche, and it rendered him too blind to see that his friend and colleague Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) was a murderer who set him up for the crimes he committed.

Over on AMC’s MAD MEN, we have Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the antihero in the gray flannel suit. For sevens seasons now, he has used his high-powered ad executive job to deceive, cheat or bully anyone in his way. And he never seems to enjoy being a creative director either as he’s become a problem drinker and womanizer looking for happiness in all the wrong places. 

Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) on ABC's SCANDAL and Alicia Florrick (Juliana Margulies) on CBS's THE GOOD WIFE have learned to fight political fire with fire in their high-powered careers, even if it’s utterly unethical and sometimes quite illegal. At least they're not as horrible as Francis Underwood on Netflix's HOUSE OF CARDS. Ol' Frank (Kevin Spacey) has even murdered to keep his DC power. And his careerist wife Claire (Robin Wright) has done so many awful things to advance her hubby’s career it would make Lady Macbeth blush.

And who can forget that on the finale of BREAKING BAD, Meth kingpin Walter White (Bryan Cranston) was killed because of his dangerous job? Of course he worshiped it more than anything else in his life and left this world cradling his one true love – the pot where he cooked his superior blue product.

Like TRUE DETECTIVE, all these shows have struck a real chord with an audience looking for someone that understands their pain. These shows ask many of the same ethical questions our disparaged and underpaid work force asks itself daily, just like Rust Cohle pondered in episode three. He said, “If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward then, brother, that person is a piece of sh*t. And I'd like to get as many of them out in the open as possible. You gotta get together and tell yourself stories that violate every law of the universe just to get through the goddamn day? What's that say about your reality?”

The reality is we’re probably all justifying a lot to keep it together in this world, including our jobs. It’s a truth 70% of Americans understand all too well. And it sure does make for some riveting and therapeutic television.


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