MovieBob - Intermission
True Detective: The King in Yellow

Bob "MovieBob" Chipman | 10 Mar 2014 14:30
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Criticism of "classy" television (i.e. shows that usually air on cable, have abbreviated seasons clearly pre-built for Netflix viewing, draft talent from movies, etc) is often an odd beast right now; trained by the teeth-cutting many of its top practitioners did on Sopranos, The Wire and especially Lost to regard a central narrative as secondary to callbacks, clues and self-flattering literate allusions ("Oooh! That's from Chambers' The King in Yellow! I've read that!") that function both as a personal conversation between the show creators and fans/journos who "get it" and as a way to generate content in the weeks between new episodes. The insistence with which fan-theorists pounced on True Detective, juxtaposed with the actual show's clear focus on the relationships and personal developments of its characters and creator Nick Pizzolatto's decidedly non-cryptic assertions that no, The Green-Eared Spaghetti Monster would not be some Lovecraftian eldritch horror summoned up from the mire in the penultimate episode, was dissonant it's spawned it's own mini-genre of parody theories.

At times, it almost felt like True Detective was deliberately messing with that particular style of viewership, dutifully checking-off "classy TV" benchmarks like show-offy bravura trick shots, embittered jerk-ass antiheroes and, yes, meth. Always meth. It also leaned hard on familiar modern hard-boiled mystery tropes: When the plot thread of a powerful family of Evangelical Fundamentalist preachers pushing to subsidize religious schools crops up early on, it's a foregone conclusion that child-molestation cover-ups are in the offing. Ditto the precise mechanism that breaks up Marty's family... Marty, who talks at length in the first episode about "The Detective's Curse" of missing solutions right under your nose, which of course those playing at home would take to be foreshadowing aimed at him rather than a clarification to them.

I won't even pretend to be immune myself: Heading into the finale, my "pet theories" were A) Rust wasn't really a cop - he was a vigilante expertly conning his way into the investigation on a personal mission of revenge against the Carcosa Cult for the murder of his daughter, whom we're told is dead but only by Rust himself; and B) Marty's father in-law, a moralistic long-time town elder, would be The Yellow King. Obviously, I couldn't have been more wrong.

I imagine that, by the end of the year, "True Detective" will be remembered as one of the great success stories of TV this year - a deep-dive into the foundations of the genre it cannily borrows for its title and refocus of mystery narrative away from twist-for-twist's-sake (think the "Law & Order" franchise and it's infamously predictable midpoint table-flips i.e. "We were investigating a Peeping Tom... but instead we found AN AL-QAEDA DIRTY BOMB!!!!") formula and back onto personal drama.

The series kept its promises: Cohle and Hart cracked the case, put down The Spaghetti Monster, raided Carcosa and even came face to face with The Yellow King. But it also afforded real depth and understanding to what began as two thoroughly unlikable archetypes of the genre (Marty is an obnoxious boor even before we know he's a self-flattering philanderer, while Rust is a textbook study in how annoying "The Smartest Guy In The Room" can really be) and wind up not only legitimately heroic (to a point) but also, improbably, redeemed.

The next season - it's nearly a foregone conclusion that there will be one, when this one is popular enough for its finale to crash the HBO GO streaming service - will feature a new story with new detectives from a new director; though it's not known whether it will tie in with the first season at all (Rust and Hart acknowledge that there must be Cult-members still at large they didn't get). Whoever is entrusted with that task has a lot to live up to.

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