It happens. Every so often, everyone you know is obsessed with a TV show, and you don’t quite get it. They’re gushing about how it’s the latest in the quality TV revolution and picking through episodes for clues like NSA data-miners with Skype records; and you’re standing on the sidelines, shrugging.
The more people talk about HBO’s “True Detective,” and all the Yellow King and Five Horseman clues regarding the identity of the sadistic serial killer, and the greatness of Matthew McConaughey’s performance, the more mystified I become.
I’ve enjoyed the eight-episode HBO show, which has its season finale on Sunday at 9 p.m., just as I’ve enjoyed other horror-tinged crime series such as “The Killing,” “Ripper Street,” and, in its early glory days, even “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” It’s an evocative mystery game, with provocative time shifts, creepy-deepy imagery, and a glimpse at the basest level of human behavior, and it can be both diverting and satisfying.
But the level of reverence for and devotion to “True Detective” seem out of proportion to the material. I mean, this isn’t “Twin Peaks.” The show is just another stylized serial-killer whodunit with a pair of oil-and-water detectives, right? Yes, it’s gussied up with Louisiana Gothicism, a classy title sequence, and existentialist notions, as McConaughey’s Rust Cohle natters on about how people “labor under the illusion of having a self” and about “our sentience just cycling through our lives like carts on a track.” And show creator Nic Pizzolatto has also thrown in a few obscure references and meta-nods for the smarties out there.
But it’s as if “Lost” fan types are so completely jonesing for the good old days of Easter egg hunts that they’re forcing “True Detective” into that TV-puzzle slot. They’re bringing their formidable analysis and Sherlock instincts to bear on a much flatter piece of work. Analytical dispositions abhor a vacuum, I guess: “True Detective” premiered at a moment when, in the wake of “Breaking Bad” and before the returns of “Mad Men,” “The Americans,” and “Game of Thrones,” there weren’t a lot of challenging dramas on the air. “True Detective” may have become the beneficiary of a spare TV landscape.
If you thumb through the endless Internet recaps of the show, you’ll see viewers scrutinizing every scene, every shot, and every element of set design for the solution to the crimes. There are many theories, including one in which Cohle is the killer and another in which Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart is the killer – the cropping of his blond hair in the show’s poster alluding to the Yellow King’s crown, don’t you know.
There have been many video mash-ups of “True Detective,” just as there have been for most It shows. But the very best is called “True Detective: Yellow King Theory,” and it’s a goof on all of the crazy theories and hyper-analyses of the show. The video inserts a goofy guy painted yellow and wearing a yellow crown into clips from the show, so that he’s photo-bombing all of the heavy-handed moments. Go ahead and YouTube that baby.
Ultimately, I find it hard to care much about who committed the crimes and why. I’ve cared so much more about the characters on crime series such as BBC America’s “Broadchurch” and Sundance Channel’s “Top of the Lake,” both of which spent a good amount of time adding dimension and complexity to all of the characters – detectives, victims, and suspects. The Tuttle family, Marty’s family, the Ledouxs, whatever – I barely know their names on “True Detective,” and hardly feel inclined to learn them.
Even Rust is more of a concept than a real person, with McConaughey overdoing the mystic voice and the grandiose affect to telegraph alienation, nihilism, and torment. The character seems painfully one-dimensional, as if he has only a single mode of being. We get it, McConaughey, the guy is mesmerizing.
For my money, Harrelson’s performance is the best on the show. Harrelson has given viewers the only character who seems like he could actually exist. His Marty is committed to police work, but not to anything else, including his wife, his girlfriends, or his daughters. And yet he is possessive of them, like a big, spoiled child. The sequences of him in 2012, overweight, pasty, and alone, not even motivated enough to be the explosive jerk he once was, are among the show’s most emotionally laden.
I’m sure there are all kinds of supernatural and horror genres and pulp precedents that fans have studied to make “True Detective” seem richer. And until the show is over, I will listen to their big ideas and crazy theories, standing on the sidelines, shrugging.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.