True Detective, Season 1: "Seeing Things"

The foreign object at the center of HBO's True Detective

This week on Dear Television:


Heavenly Creatures
By Phillip Maciak

January 23, 2014

Dear television,

THE OPENING CREDITS sequence of HBO’s new Louisiana noir series True Detective is structured around a procession of beautiful, menacing, sepia-toned silhouettes. Over these are superimposed images or slow-motion scenes from the show itself. Many of these silhouettes are of Matthew McConaughey’s head (or, given our recent proclivities for portmanteaus, Matthew McConaughead). It’s a striking sequence and an appropriate visual, not just because the show is interested in haunting and consciousness — it is — but because there is a Matthew McConaughey-shaped hole in every scene from which this actor is absent. Whenever co-star Woody Harrelson is conducting an affair with a buxom court reporter or arguing with his wife (played by the underused Michelle Monaghan), all I can see is that silhouette of McConaughey settling over the action like a shadow. McConaughey is this show, but not in the way we might initially imagine.


This is not to say that True Detective is a crummy work of art with a stellar central performance. Sure, the dialogue dramatically alternates between purple pronouncements and flat-footed bon mots, so it’s walking on a tightrope so far, but the acting, production design, cinematography, and soundtrack are strong enough to carry the script through some wobbles. (As Sarah Bunting said on this past week’s Extra Hot Great podcast, the dialogue shouldn’t work, but it unaccountably does.) Instead, this is to say that, so far, the most compelling reading I can figure for this somewhat inscrutable show is that it is only masquerading as a two-hander, gritty buddy cop series. McConaughey’s Rust Cohle is an engine, and everything and everybody this show can find is being scooped up and thrown into the furnace.

Given AHP’s archive of McConaugheyan magnetism, it would be easy to imagine that he’s just hijacking the show with gravitas — a perhaps unfortunate but not altogether unwelcome event. But that’s not quite it (in fact, one of the most striking and aberrant things about his performance is how profoundly un-showy it is, how little it leans on the actor’s deep well of charm). One could also imagine that creator and showrunner Nic Pizzolatto is just better at writing McConaughey’s Rust Cohle than he is at writing the other characters. That’s probably true to some extent, but it’s also insufficient as an explanation. I’m choosing to read generously and suggest that this is a fully-imagined show, a built world, with a foreign object at its center.

Let’s take, as an example, one of many scenes between Cohle and Harrelson’s Marty Hart on a long drive through rural Louisiana. After witnessing a particularly gnarly crime scene, Hart probes his new-ish partner to find out more about him. Diving directly into questions about his passenger’s religious beliefs — Hart has obviously read his Emily Post on conversation etiquette — Hart prods a little until Cohle begins a short trippy monologue about his pessimistic master narrative of humankind. “I think human consciousness was a tragic misstep in evolution,” Cohle reports, glassily gazing out the car window, gesticulating in the manner of an Oxford (England, not Mississippi) Don. “Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law.” (This is what I mean by purple.)

At this point, a strange dissonance enters the conversation. Hart furrows his brow and responds, “I wouldn’t go around spouting that shit, if I were you. People around here don’t think that way! I don’t think that way!” (The theme of rural Louisiana’s religious fervor is always present and never overplayed, though it seems like that culture will play a larger, more complicated role in the coming weeks.) After a rueful moment, he says, “My luck, I pick today to get to know you.” Floodgates already open, Cohle makes another opaque remark about how he can “smell the psychosphere,” and Hart loses his patience: “Let’s make the car a place of silent reflection from now on, okay?” This dynamic is a familiar one: mismatched partners start out as antagonists but grow from there, etc. We know from the present-day interviews that Hart eventually grows to trust and deeply respect Cohle, but that’s somewhat beside the point here.

In this car ride, it strikes me that we not only have two points of view but two different types of “creature,” as Cohle might say. The purple vs. flat-footed dialogue issue I mentioned is right on the surface here and is very instructive in terms of how we understand what’s going on. These two cops are almost literally speaking different languages, both improbably. Cohle is spouting amateur philosophy like Morpheus from The Matrix, and Hart (“My luck I picked today to get to know you”; “Fuck off, Cohle”; “Let’s make the car a place of silent reflection”) is one I’m-getting-too-old-for-this-shit away from being a cookie-cutter cop cliché. (For what it’s worth, these lines that should play as laugh lines just don’t, contextually.) And this extends to the rest of his life as well. From the way he flirts with the receptionist at the police station every morning, to a mind-bogglingly boring adulterous sex scene (Really? Handcuffs?), to the Fight-By-Numbers argument he has with his wife about bringing-his-work-home, to the high school football ring on his right hand, Hart is a character from a much more conventional cop show who’s found himself on this arty, apocalyptic dirge of a series. He imagines himself to be the protagonist — and the show gives him the requisite scenes for this to be true — but he is not.

In other words, True Detective sets up a traditional protagonist and then frustrates our attempts to identify with him. This is, in part, the brilliance of having McConaughey play the heavy. Whenever Cohle speaks, even if it sounds like hot nonsense, everything that is said in its wake seems drowned out by a kind of dull buzzing. Cohle is ignored — even kind of bullied? — by his colleagues in the police station, but at the bunny ranch, at the truck stop, even in Hart’s own home, his voice rings out, resonates, in a way that Hart’s never does. (To be clear, this is not a criticism of Harrelson’s excellent performance — a lesser actor might have been afraid of playing Hart this dull.)

I mentioned above that I think this is a show with a foreign object at its center. But I also think it’s an open question as to who that foreign object is — one of these fellows is that creature who should not exist by natural law. Is Cohle an alien visitor, a secular prophet in the midst of fools? Is he an aberration of the same kind as the serial killer he tracks? In the present day interviews, Cohle seems loosened, broken by this world whereas Hart seems roughly the same. Very little about Hart’s present-day state would be surprising to someone who knew him in 1995 — balding, divorced, making money in the private sector. But Cohle is different. He does not seem well-met by this world.

On the other hand, what if Hart is the foreign object? Cohle sees things in the natural environment — the bird swirls are lovely, if a little reminiscent of Take Shelter — he understands things, and the show dangles a fair possibility that the world of True Detective is exactly as impersonal, cruel, and profoundly wrong as he says it is. Even from a visual standpoint, the 1995 sequences — with their ominous fields, empty storefronts, decaying churches — are more allied to Cohle’s vision of the terrifying sublime than they are to Hart’s. (And the present-day scenes betray nothing, shot as they are in the controlled, objective, fluorescent, digital palate of the police station.) It’s possible True Detective is a portrait of self-preserving delusion in the form of Hart. Hart’s seamless integration with the classical incompetence of his police station turns a well-worn critique of law enforcement’s bureaucracy into an abstract critique of the idea that human laws can be enforced at all. Hart and the police are living a dream. In the first episode, standing in the middle of what looks like a boarded-up strip mall in patchwork colors, Cohle says, “This place is like somebody’s memory of a town, and the memory’s fading.” Hart, as he always does, tells Cohle to, “Stop saying shit like that.” Notably, he doesn’t argue with him, doesn’t suggest that he’s wrong. Hart just doesn’t want to hear it.

Especially in the second episode, we start to see a shocking violence latent in Cohle — perhaps an urge as tenuously controlled as his alcoholism — as he pulls information from some mechanics and calmly threatens to break Hart’s wrists. To me, the guiding question of this show moving forward is whether that violence is excessive or proportionate to Cohle’s environment. Is this gothic Louisiana a place that rejects or necessitates that kind of force? A number of critics have rightly pointed out that the case at the center of the show’s plot is by no means its central mystery. Rather, Cohle and Hart’s transformation is the most compelling case. Another way of stating that, I think, is this question about the environment of the show, its large-scale or even global perspective. True Detective needn’t ultimately land on Team Good or Team Evil by the end. Indeed its invocation of this dialectic is sufficiently blurry and ambivalent that a clear statement either way would seem bizarre. Maybe it’s hackneyed to describe this show as an existential crime thriller — I’m certain that’s how it was pitched. But it’s also a study in the power of screen acting to produce that existential crisis, to so unsettle us from our expectations of genre, convention, even celebrity that Cohle is the one who makes sense to us. Matthew McConaughey is a magnet, it seems fair to say, and he’s pulling us someplace. The mystery is in figuring out where.

Smelling the psychosphere,



The McConnaissance: An Alternate Reading
By Anne Helen Petersen

January 21, 2014

Dear Television,

IN EPISODE TWO of HBO’s stunning new series True Detective, the laconic Rust Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey, spends a significant amount of car time with his partner, Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson), trading quips and offering the audience veiled truths about themselves. It’s a trope of the procedural: cops, even female ones, are aspiring always towards a masculine ideal of laconicism. The only time it’s safe to talk about feelings, therefore, is within the bounds of the car, heads faced forward, and even then, those feelings are hidden beneath a heavy layer of insult.

But in True Detective, the trope gets revised: you have one traditional cop who doesn’t like asking or answering personal questions and another who not only speaks freely about himself, but the area, the universe, our fates as mankind, etc. etc. He’s like a one-man Cormac McCarthy novel, dropping poetic, sparse observations the way most of us talk about the traffic or the weather. It’s a hypnotic performance, and anything Rust Cohle lacks in realism he makes up for in gravitas.

During one of these drives, Cohle meanders about some of his history, eventually arriving at the quiet declaration that “I know who I am. And after all these years, there’s victory in that.” That self-knowledge, and lack of shame concerning it, is part of what makes Cohle so compelling. But it’s a statement that we could easily be applied to McConaughey himself, who is currently taking what can only be described as a magnificent victory lap around Hollywood.

As Chris Ryan termed it in a recent Grantland podcast, we’re living through a veritable McConnaissance: nearly twenty years after McConaughey first made his indelible mark in Dazed and Confused, he’s being trumpeted as a serious and important actor — maybe even one of the best of his generation.

For those who haven’t followed McConaughey’s career, this isn’t just a case of a decent actor proving his chops, or a teen heartthrob taking a Method role. McConaughey went through the late 20th/early 21st century version of the studio system and emerged a vanilla shell of his original charismatic self, and his actorly “rebirth” is not just a reflection of a maturing star, but the broken state of the star system and, by extension, the film industry at large. Without a system that misjudged, exploited, and ultimately rejected him, there would be no McConnaissance.

Let’s go back to the beginning. McConaughey grew up in Central and Eastern midsize-town Texas, which is another way of saying he is legit Texas, especially when coupled with a degree from UT. That legit Texasness would be the root of his early, pre-Hollywood image, as would the generalized lechery and good-time-ness (alright, alright, alright) of his turn as Wooderson in Dazed and Confused.

In the mid-90s, the image continued: he was a handsome no-gooder in Trisha Yearwood’s video for “Walkaway Joe,” co-starred with an equally unknown Renée Zellweger in a straight to video sequel to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and made a distinct impression as Chris Cooper’s father in Lone Star. So far, so Texas.

Which is part of why McConaughey was cast in the filmic adaptation of John Grisham’s A Time to Kill. It was supposed to be his ticket to Hollywood stardom: The Firm, The Pelican Brief, and The Client had all made big money, but by the time A Time to Kill hit theaters, Grisham fatigue had begun to set-in, exacerbated by the grim details of the story. People loved the procedural and caper elements of previous Grisham films, but A Time to Kill was, in contrast, heavy shit. It grossed over $150 million worldwide, but that was nothing compared to the $270 million of The Firm. McConaughey’s Southernness fit the film, but the film’s high seriousness didn’t precisely fit what he had roughly established as an onscreen image.

No matter, however, because McConaughey had been fast-tracked to stardom: he was cast in Spielberg’s equally self-serious Amistad, which should be a reminder to never cast him in anything before, say, 1950, and played a very earnest, sexless scientist opposite Jodie Foster in Contact. It was like they’d taken all the handsomeness and forgotten what to do with his charisma. He had become a name actor, but the discourse was mostly just about his face and his drawl.

They tried to make him an action star (U-571), a likable Ron Howard star (EDtv), and a sci-fi dragon slayer (Reign of Fire). All three of those films, I’m sure, were mapped as blockbusters: they’re all high concept, and he was the star name that could make it work. Only he wasn’t really a star: a star is someone with an established image that means something mixed in with irresistible charisma, and before McConaughey’s image could mean anything about masculinity or Southernness or sex appeal, it was whitewashed by the blockbuster apparatus. Put differently, he never had a legit star turn — the way Cruise had Risky Business or Julia Roberts had Pretty Woman — to give his image the sort of foundation that other blockbuster films could then build upon. Instead, these films built upon the vast blankness, and proved blank in return.

A similar affliction has plagued a seemingly endless stream of recent would-be stars: Ryan Reynolds, Chris Pine, Sam Worthington, Taylor Kitsch. But before you say that Kitsch had an established image, you have to remember that Friday Night Lights is a television show with an extremely limited viewership — he might have been Tim Riggins to the type of people who read this piece, but for the world at large, he was a blank slate whose bland pictures kept him that way.

But you know what Hollywood can do with handsome dudes without much of an image? Make them the foil to established female stars in rom-coms. Thus: The Wedding Planner, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Failure to Launch, Fool’s Gold, and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. Some of these films are tolerable (I have a soft spot for The Wedding Planner) but some, like Fool’s Gold, are egregiously bad.

It was during this fallow period that McConaughey became a caricature of himself. Dazed and Confused had always had a sleeper fandom, and McConaughey’s off-screen actions reactivated the memory of Wooderson. Only instead of hanging out at the Poodle Dog pool hall in Austin, this 21st century iteration of Wooderson spent his time running shirtless on the beach, playing bongos naked, and living out of an Airstream.

It all made sense, really: the “real” McConaughey was just living the life of all his rom-com characters before they got reformed by their shrill female counterparts. He was People’s “Sexiest Man Alive” in 2005, which coincided with the release of Sahara, a film that Viacom intended to become a massive franchise based on the Dirk Pitt series of novels, with a budget and marketing campaign to fit. Sahara opened at number one and grossed $120 million worldwide, yet due to its massive budget, still managed to become one of the most notable flops of the year.

It’s was a nice metaphor for McConaughey’s career: looks okay if you look at it in isolation, but the more perspective you gain, especially when considering the promise of his early roles, the more disappointing and empty it becomes.

But stars can be kept alive by their gossip, even when their films falter and disappear entirely: just ask Angelina Jolie. McConaughey’s textual persona had dwindled to something flat and ridiculous, but there was something about his extratextual persona that, for all of its ridiculousness, people loved. His girlfriend, a former supermodel from Brazil, gave birth to their first child in 2008, and McConaughey seemed like the perfect chill dad with the perfect chill family, just hanging out in their trailer where, in the words of Wooderson, they “just kept livin’.” It’s as if the star machine tried to make him into a clean-cut, almost Tom Hanks-ian hero, but the Texas drawl, the Wooderson roots, just kept emerging from the white-washing.

And amidst the flops and rom-coms, it’s as if this Wooderson side of McConaughey finally began taking some roles: We Are Marshall was saccharine but played up the Southern football fandom for which McConaughey had become known, and The Lincoln Lawyer was crackling L.A. noir, the bright, bleached out surface of Los Angeles hiding something dingy and broken below.

Which, in truth, is a perfect way to describe the tone of the McConaissance. And it’s no accident: McConaughey spent two years off-screen between Ghost of Girlfriends Past (2009) and The Lincoln Lawyer (2011), and it’s easy to believe that he spent that time not only getting married and having two more kids, but redirecting his course.

An April 2011 Esquire cover story seemed to declare as much: sure, “men forgot the men he played” and those women had “whittled their expectations as he tripped from one gorgeous, spoiled, obtuse version of a man to another,” but this was a new McConaughey, with his handful of weird, non-rom-com, non-Blockbuster, totally Texas projects; these days, “it’s perfectly okay to root for the guy again.”

It was publicity spin, clearly trying to make amends for a decade of Hollywood disasters. And while McConaughey certainly signed off on those roles, it’s difficult to blame him for what was, in essence, the work of the contemporary star machine, with its imperative to find charisma, cast it in a blockbuster, flatten it out, and relegate it to B-pictures when the concept, not the star, fails to catch hold.  McConaughey was never a bad actor: he was just a bad Hollywood actor.

He was bad, in other words, at playing the annoying manchild who “grows up” to be a bourgeois provider, bad at playing supporting actor to a CGI franchise, and bad at being a palatable white guy who stands in for the audience.  Think back to Dazed and Confused: McConaughey isn’t either of the main dudes who earn our identification. He’s the weirdo in the peach-colored jeans hanging outside by himself and giving no fucks.

That’s what McConaughey is good at, and that’s what these last five years have found for him: beautiful, complicated perversions of mainstream roles. Bernie was the sort of Texas black comedy that Linklater should be making full-time; everyone talked about Jack Black’s role, but McConaughey’s befuddled cop underlines just how good a comedic actor he can be when it’s not at the service of limp, vaguely misogynist rom-com laughs.

If The Lincoln Lawyer was a darker turn, then Killer Joe was pitch black. Directed by William Friedkin (best known for The Exorcist), it’s an intensely problematic and broken film that clearly anticipates the bleakness of True Detective. And Mud plays like a rom-com gone wrong, which is why the casting of Reese Witherspoon is so perfect. Importantly, all three of these films were Texan and/or Southern, and McConaughey plays nothing that could even approximate a hero. Sympathetic, briefly, and magnetic, always, but not a hero.

Some thought he was settling into a lifetime of supporting roles, a career like Woody Harrelson's or Michael Shannon’s. It certainly seemed the case with Magic Mike: ten years ago, he’d have taken Channing Tatum’s role. But the beauty of his turn as the perfectly bronzed Dallas is that it, like the rest of his recent celebrated roles, just seems like one of many paths that Wooderson may have taken at some point in the 1980s. It’s the McConaughey image through a glass darkly, with an accompanying honesty about the hubris and negligence necessary to maintain the image, and the lifestyle, at that level.

When people talked about a possible Oscar nomination for McConaughey, it was jokingly, like could you believe we’d give this dude an award for being himself? But Tom Cruise plays “himself” all the time, so does Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington and Will Smith; so did Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper. But none of these actors play/played themselves so much as play their images, which is just another way of saying that they’ve managed, through early roles and subsequent publicity, to come to mean something legible and likable, and subsequent roles reflect that meaning. But no one would say that Cruise or Grant are bad actors. They’d say they’re movie stars. The problem with McConaughey “acting himself” in Magic Mike isn’t that it’s not good acting — it’s that that’s not the image we want of our movie stars.

Which brings us to the one-two punch of Dallas Buyers Club and True DetectiveBuyer’s Club is a textbook Oscar turn: actor loses/gains an extreme amount of weight; actor takes the role of a real person; actor’s role involves triumphing over personal and/or systemic adversity. But like the McConaughey’s other films of the last three years, Buyer’s Club is still clearly tethered to Texas and what I’ll now go ahead and call Wooderson masculinity, only compromised. Here’s a man laid low by the work of his penis — and one who has to accept alternate ways of being in the world in order to survive.

It’s a feel-good story, complete with rom-com alumnus Jennifer Garner, in a way that these other recent films aren’t, but I think that McConaughey understood precisely what this role could and would do for him: it’s in the same vein of this other recent work, only with a Hollywood ending. Enough, in other words, to make him a leading man again, only this time the image his roles would be magnifying and distorting wouldn’t be one of blank handsomeness, but the chronically troubled interior life of the man behind the perfectly-cheekboned face.

Which is precisely what he is in True Detective. I don’t know what they’re doing in the make-up department, but the Rust of the early 1990s looks as dewey and fresh-faced as McConaughey did in Contact. He’s gained back a bit of the weight after Buyer’s Club but not all; if before he had a little bit of the jock bloat, now, he’s at a fighting weight that makes him look like a triathlete, even as it gives his face the certain hollowness I associate with old, worn, lifelong smokers. The performance feels like the next in a series of life choices from the last three years of parts, as if Rust has been a killer-for-hire and a love-sick convict hanging out on a muddy island and a male stripper and a HIV-positive bullfighter, and thats why his files from Texas are sealed and he says things like “other times I thought I was mainlining the secret truth of the universe.”

The McConaughey of True Detective — the McConaughey that just won a SAG Award for Best Actor and is now a favorite to win the Academy Award for Best Actor — shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s the culmination of a half dozen carefully curated performances which, in hindsight, seem to be ramping up to this year and its accolades. What bothers me, then, is the assertion that a shit actor magically got good, or the overarching disbelief that a man with a career like his could choose such surprising and elegant projects.

The road from Hollywood is littered with the corpses of handsome men, and the speed with which the current franchise-driven model disposes of its stars is part of the reason it hasn’t a new superstar in nearly a decade. But unlike other Hollywood stars with a glorious second act, McConaughey didn’t burn out (Downey Jr.) or start directing (Clooney). Instead, he figured out what would’ve made him a movie star — the core of his image, the essence — and then he decided to use it not to be one. And as for me, I’ll watch these sullied Wooderson iterations until he stops making them.

There’s a victory in that,



LARB Contributors

Anne Helen Petersen is a Ph.D. from the University of Texas – Austin in the Department of Radio-Television-Film. She currently teaches film and media studies at Whitman College.

Phillip Maciak (@pjmaciak) is the TV editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His essays have appeared in SlateThe New Republic, and other venues, and he's co-founder of the Dear Television column. He's the author of The Disappearing Christ: Secularism in the Silent Era (Columbia University Press, 2019) and Avidly Reads Screen Time (New York University Press, 2023). He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!