A Girl’s Eye View of True Detective

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‘Ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have fallen in love with?’  That’s how I feel about True Detective.  It’s silent, brooding and masculine as hell.  All the guys I know love it but to begin with, as a girl, I wasn’t so sure.

It’s true there’s double the eye-candy – you can choose between Matthew McConaughey as the moody intellectual with the razor-blade cheekbones, or Woody Harrelson as the fresh faced, good ole cop with a naughty twinkle in his eye for the ladies.  But the only ladies you’ll see are hookers, wives and pissed-off girlfriends.  Nothing new there you might say.  So what’s the hook for this girl?

This is the old made new, the generic buddy cop movie made strangely particular by the beauty of the language and the stillness of the pauses between these two men as they drive through the Louisiana landscape.  Nic Pizzolatto’s writing is elegant, often spare but sometimes dense, intellectual and witty.  This is dialogue worth tuning in to, by turns philosophical, self-loathing and slyly funny.  As a film it’s impossibly beautiful, the big skies, the yellow skin tones,  the Southern heat and dust made visible by director Cary Joji Fukunaga and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw.

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And then there are the two star turns – McConaughey the initial draw as the screwed up anti-hero, but with Harrelson subverting your expectations as his character becomes less charming and more a drowning man clutching at women like straws.

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Like my other favourite ‘slow-burn’ series from last year – Hannibal and Top of the Lake, True Detective ain’t in no hurry to tell you the plot, using the now common device of ending a quiet episode with a sudden glimpse of horror.  The momentum keeps building.  Like House of Cards, you’re watching one long story unfold over a series.  There is the odd flashy set piece but it’s the incremental gains you watch for.

It’s a masculine vision of the world that reminds me of The Godfather, not in its description of mob life but in its belief that it’s ‘kill or be killed’.  The characters are in the grip of ancient laws, desires and grudges beyond their control or understanding.

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It creates a view of the male psyche, trapped in a world limited by the very pleasures used to drown his sorrows.  Sex, drugs, alcohol and violence  are seen as useless aides in the face of the loneliness of life, they only make things worse by confronting you with a vision of yourself you can’t stand to be around.   You could argue many male-oriented films indulge in these activities while revealing them as hollow and self-defeating – but it’s the quality of the writing and the silence enveloping these characters on their long, existential drives that demands our attention and evokes a desire to understand them.

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That and they’re just so goddamn cool. Like Billie Holiday, I am in love with the ‘No Good Man’, but I also want to whisper, ‘Don’t Explain.’

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The Rise of the Slow Burn Series

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Inspired by the end of ‘Top of the Lake’ and still missing ‘The Returned’, I steel myself to watch the misty nightmare that is Southcliffe.  The slow-burn drama series is enjoying a (long) moment – but what’s the appeal of these cult shows and what can they teach us about great storytelling?

My favourite show for many years was the fast-moving, action-packed and slickly edited ‘CSI’ series in the US.  These days I’m watching the hypnotic yet relatively slow moving ‘Hannibal’.   Scandi-Noir series ‘The Killing ‘and ‘Borgen’ have no doubt had a big influence on this new movement with Danish drama, ‘The Bridge’, the latest show to be remade for Sky Atlantic.

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So is slow the new fast?  These cult series demand your attention but in different ways.  How?

Less is more.  Less plot means more time for atmosphere and emotion.  The characters take centre stage, and the primacy of relationships is reiterated, allowing us to connect more strongly with their journeys.

You have to concentrate.  It’s much harder to second screen when watching as the plot is not as formulaic.  You can’t predict the sudden revelation or shock event as you are not set up for it with heavy music cues and other tension building devices.  So you give it your undivided attention, like watching a movie. The fact you can pause the show or watch it On Demand means you can sit down and watch it when you’re ready, with no ad breaks.  So less time doing recaps and flashy end of act breaks and more time telling the story.

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The Show Runner as Auteur.  From ‘Buffy’ to ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Mad Men’, to ‘Breaking Bad’, the Americans have led the way with the rise of the creative writer/producer who has a vision for a new kind of TV show. But with the migration of cinema stars and directors to the small screen in search of funding for mid-budget drama, Jane Campion and Steven Soderbergh are now directing for television and Video on Demand.  Which means…

Television is the new Cinema.  These series are high on visual style.  The dialogue is minimal.  There is nothing ‘domestic’ about these dramas.  The landscape is a big attraction.  The beauty of New Zealand, of the French mountains, creates a form of visual-tourism, we can escape to these worlds and feel our world expanded by them.  And yet…

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They are Other-Worldly.  Supposedly real settings feel decidedly unreal.  Artful cinematography mediates nature creating a feeling of isolation from the real world.

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The Village is Key.  Most of these series are about a community in peril, the multi-protagonist storylines perfectly suited to TV’s broader canvas.  We have time to get to know whole families and learn about their world as it implodes around them.  This is not a new idea but the village has been reinvented – as unstable, damaged, at risk of flooding, occupied by squatters, or terrorised by a gunman who lives there.  And we are all shown as culpable because each character is connected to the main event in a very real way.

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Complex and Real Characters.  With less plot, the characters have time to breathe and have all the quirks and desires of real people.  Even if they behave in extreme ways we understand the psychology behind what they do, and so can relate it to our own experience.  The genius of ‘The Returned’ was to ask what real life questions and emotional damage the return of a dead loved one would create…

The most exciting revelation of these slow-burn series is this –

We are focused on the inner not the outer life.  Rather just the depiction of reality – the illusion of progress with a logical plot and cause and effect reactions, we are faced with the unpredictable and illogical world of a dream.  Isn’t that closer to the reality we face every day?

The writer with something to say and directors with new ways of saying it are at the heart of this new wave of dramas.  No more pretty pictures tied up in a bow for us to sleepwalk through.  Jane Campion and Co are plumbing the depths of the lake,  drenching us with images and ideas that wake us up, pushing us into new ways of seeing.

We are active viewers again.  And it feels good.

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How have you been inspired by recent TV drama? Leave a comment here or find me on Twitter @emlin32.  Happy viewing…