Public Service Announcement 29 of 2015: True Detective, My Mad Fat Diary

The first season of True Detective was definitely worth watching despite its Damaged Men, cod philosophy, and problematic attitude to women. As promised, it’s returning with a new cast and new storyline – so out go Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, and in come three men whose careers, for various reasons, need the credibility that a quality cable TV drama can provide: Vince Vaughn, Colin Farrell, and Tim Riggins out of Friday Night Lights. Rachel McAdams and Kelly Reilly are also in the main cast, and presumably hoping to get more to work with than the female characters did last time round. On looking back at my reviews of the first run I see that I promised to “watch the shit out of” a new season. Except… I’m not going to, for a couple of reasons.

When looking back at the first season I suggested that it perhaps looked like great TV, without actually being great TV. Much of the remarkable look and feel of the show was down to director Cary Fukunaga, who helmed all of the episodes first time round (and won an Emmy). This time, though, he’s out of the director’s chair, amid rumours of conflict with creator/writer Nic Pizzolatto. Meantime Fukunaga remains as exec producer, although given that (apparently) one of the episodes will feature an unflattering portrayal of an Asian-American director one might reasonably wonder what his continuing involvement actually amounts to.

And, crucially, the second season just isn’t as good, according to the critics who’ve seen the first few episodes. I suspect that part of this will be a delayed season 1 backlash, but the consensus so far is that Pizzolatto hasn’t managed to pull off the same trick twice. The good news is that, once again, Sky Atlantic is sticking very closely to American transmission, which starts today, so for UK viewers there’s a 2am simulcast in the early hours of tomorrow morning and a 9pm repeat (Mondays, Sky Atlantic).

One show I will definitely be watching, though, is My Mad Fat Diary, back for its third and final season. At the end of season 2 I suggested that the last episode had rounded things off nicely, but I’ll be delighted to see whether there’s a little more mileage in this fresh, funny, and charming show, anchored by a dazzling but subtle performance from Sharon Rooney. Three episodes this time round, and weekly reviews again (Mondays, E4, 10pm).

Also starting: three-part Sheridan Smith vehicle Black Work, in which she plays a police officer investigating the murder of her detective husband (tonight, ITV, 9pm); Tim Robbins and Jack Black in HBO’s new and reputedly not-terribly-good geopolitical comedy (sic) The Brink (Mondays, Sky Atlantic, 10.10pm); season 3 of Chicago Fire (Tuesdays, Sky Living, 9pm). And we should probably have mentioned Norwegian six-parter The Saboteurs, about the struggle to stop Nazi Germany developing an atomic bomb during the Second World War, before now (Fridays, More4, 9pm; first episode available through the usual on-demand services).

True Detective s1 ep 8

This final episode is pretty much everything you might expect from True Detective. There’s no real mystery to be solved: we see the killer with the scarred face at home, and what a home it is: the stuff of a set designer’s dreams, and everyone else’s nightmares. Cluttered and labyrinthine, with his father tied to a table in one room, and his half-sister/wife requesting sexual gratification in another. It would be easy to call him evil, and perhaps he is, but he’s clearly remarkably damaged as well; the show doesn’t make it too easy for us.

Anyway Hart and Cohle track him down and chase him through his maze-like complex of buildings in a dazzling, hallucinogenic sequence. It perhaps went on for too long, but there’s genuine suspense at work: we really don’t know who, if anyone, is walking away from the approaching confrontation. In any event, we get as much of a happy ending as can reasonably be expected from a show which featured a videotape of child abuse so shocking that people screamed on watching it, and the whole thing concludes with a moral from Cohle about darkness and light which, like the show itself, you can regard as enigmatic and profound if you’re a devotee, trite and hollow if you’re not.

At the conclusion of the season, it seems churlish to mention the show’s shortcomings, when so much of it – the acting (particularly the astounding Matthew McConaughey), the directing, the complex structure, the ambition – has been memorably good. But the occasionally portentous dialogue, the attitude to women, and the overall feeling that it wasn’t quite as profound as it thought it was, all need to be weighed in the balance as well. For the avoidance of doubt I liked it a lot, and I would watch the shit out of a second season (as yet unconfirmed, but a racing certainty). Adding it all up, though, I’d have to say that I thought this to be a very good show which fell just short of the greatness for which it was striving. But it’ll live with me for quite a while.

True Detective s1 ep 7

After their present(ish)-day meeting at the end of last week, Cohle tries to get Hart to join in with his re-opened investigation. Hart is difficult to persuade at first, but he agrees to go to Cohle’s lockup, where Rust has the Conspiracy Wall, the map with dots on it, the lot. There’s also some photographic and video evidence of child abuse, and after viewing as much of it as he can stomach Hart agrees to help. (Incidentally, the abusers wear animal head masks. Following last week’s use of Münchausen syndrome by proxy as a plot device, this is the second episode in a row in which True Detective has coincidentally employed a motif which featured in The Bridge [Bron/Broen]. Hm.) It’s quite interesting to see how Cohle and Hart slip back into working together, particularly given the brutal way their partnership ended first time round; all water under The Bridge, I suppose.

Once again the pace isn’t breakneck by any means, but such investigation as the guys carry out – an elderly African-American woman who starts rambling about Carcosa; a Ledoux cousin who fills in some details about the family – lead them to the conclusion that there was indeed a third member of Ledoux’s little gang, and that he has scarring on the lower part of his face. Papania and Gilbough, the cops who have been carrying out the interviews in the 2012 timeline, encounter a dude answering to this description at the end without knowing his significance. While that’s going on Hart and Cohle have abducted a sheriff who they think covered up one of the murders, with Cohle making Hart dark promises of torture to get at the truth.

For once the attitude to women was almost OK, inasmuch as they featured at all. Like last week’s episode, though, ‘After You’ve Gone’ dragged a little.

True Detective s1 ep 6

I’ve wondered already whether Hart would, in the fullness of time, turn out to be the really unbalanced half of the True Detective partnership. This episode, bookended by two incidents in which Hart employs violence, suggests that he might be. At the start, he administers a fearful beating to the two boys caught spit-roasting his daughter last week; and, at the end, he chases Cohle out of the police station in order to beat him up. As it happens, Cohle gets the better of that exchange, but it’s a close-run thing; it leads to him walking away from the police, and there’s a telling detail right at the end, when it turns out that the light on his van which was broken in the 2002 fight remains broken in 2012. The mystery of where he has been, and what he has been doing, is becoming more and more central to the show.

In between Hart’s eruptions we get to see the final breakdown of the Hart/Cohle partnership, a process which starts with Cohle extracting a confession from a woman with Münchausen syndrome by proxy – a condition which seems to be more common in TV dramas than in real life – then suggesting that she kill herself; and ends, as we always know it would, when Maggie Hart finally tires of her husband’s infidelities and decides it’s time to get some Cohle-powered loving. “I haven’t been fucked like that since before the girls”, Maggie snarls at Hart, which if you think about it isn’t necessarily a compliment to Cohle.

The show’s still operating on two timelines: in 2002, on top of the big fall-out, Cohle is working away to substantiate his conviction that there’s a serial killer or killers still out there, and that Tuttle is connected to it. There’s also movement in 2012: as well as Hart and Cohle’s first onscreen confrontation in that timeline, Maggie is interviewed by the detectives trying to unpick what happened in 2002. “In a former life,” she tells them, “I used to exhaust myself navigating crude men who thought they were clever”. Which is, on one view, a neat critique of the show itself. Specifically, the show’s attitude to women has gone beyond ”problematic”. I’d like to think that the scene in which the former child prostitute booty-calls the married cop while posing in front of a mirror clad only in her underwear represents a kind of apotheosis, but with two episodes to go there may be more to come. And this, in turn, almost inevitably means that the final verdict on True Detective will be heavily qualified. As for this episode: I liked it, but I found parts of it a little static.

True Detective s1 ep 5

Last week’s episode finished with the now-famous bravura six-minute tracking shot which was, from a technical point of view, astoundingly impressive, even if it perhaps amounted to not very much in terms of the narrative. The first third of this episode, on the other hand, doesn’t push the technical envelope, but is a terrific piece of storytelling. Rust and Cohle have tracked Ledoux to his countryside retreat-cum-meth cookhouse, and in the present-day timeline are giving an account of coming under fire from Ledoux. This is complicated by the introduction of yet another timeline in which they give the same story to what looks like some sort of investigative committee.

There’s a disconnect, however, between these accounts and what actually happened, as we see in flashback. Any veteran of watching cop shows knows that when there’s an agreed but misleading version of events there’s a cover-up under way, and so it turns out: Hart searches château Ledoux and is so horrified by what he sees that he immediately shoots Ledoux in cold blood. Still, omelette/eggs: the killing of Dora Lange has been solved, another potential victim rescued, and Hart and Cohle are out of the doux-doux and fêted as heroes. Job done, and what ensues are good times: Hart puts his marriage back together, and Cohle finds something approaching love with one of Maggie’s friends, while gaining a reputation as some sort of Perp Whisperer, the go-to-guy when you want a confession.

It can’t last, of course, and the first signs that we’re heading back towards the dark side come in 2002 when Audrey, one of Hart’s daughters and by now a teenager, starts acting rebelliously, eventually being found in a car with two older boys. Hart wonders whether she’s going to be “captain of varsity slut team”, thus providing another possible role for females to play in True Detective: victim, wife, mistress, ho, teenage slut, etc. (In fairness it should be noted that Cohle’s lover during “the good years” is a doctor, even if she doesn’t actually get any dialogue.) Cohle, meantime, is extracting a confession to a double homicide from a meth-head who suddenly starts babbling about the Yellow King, and claiming that Dora’s real killer is still out there. Before he can be questioned properly about this, though, he kills himself.

But what we then see raises the possibility that Cohle has been involved more deeply in the killings than he (or the show) have thus far let on: in 2012, he’s been seen repeatedly attending at the scene of a murder, and refuses to let the cops search his shed; and we leave him in 2002, holding one of those twig sculptures slightly above head-height, illuminated by a shaft of light from a window, in what looks like a sort of parody of a Catholic Mass.

True Detective, of course, fancies itself as being much more than a whodunit. I don’t have a problem with that, in itself; there’s nothing wrong with ambitious TV. It does mean that the show’s higher aims manifest themselves in a number of ways: there’s Cohle’s tedious philosophising, for example, becoming more irritating every week; the show inhabits a world populated by people who talk like characters from pulpy crime novels (“I don’t like your face. It makes me wanna do things to it”); and there’s ferocious attention to detail, such as the creepy “Do You Know Who Killed Me?” billboard. If you can take all of that – and the show’s attitude to women, of course – it remains one of 2014’s best new shows. But I can quite see why the mix might be too rich for some. It might yet prove indigestible for me, although this was another strong episode.

True Detective s1 ep 4

I’m guessing that this episode jumps back in time from the end of last week’s, when we saw Reginald LeDoux. Which means that we’re now operating on three timelines. I think. Anyway – after a quick check-in with Dora’s ex-husband, going on about the Yellow King – most of this week is about the hunt for LeDoux. He’s not an easy man to find, though, and to start with Hart and Cohle go after an associate, Tyrone Weems, who turns out to be pretty easy to scare, and who tells them that LeDoux is supplying drugs on an exclusive basis to a biker gang. It’s a gang that Cohle used to run with during his undercover days, and he offers to go back under, no doubt attracted in part by the possibility that he will need to consume a heroic amount of drugs to do so.

In order for Cohle to ingratiate himself with the gang, though, he needs to assist with a raid on an African-American drug den. Which is tough, but I remember Jack Bauer cutting someone’s head off to prove his loyalty to a gang. It goes kind of very badly wrong, more or less provoking a race riot, but Cohle and Hart manage to get away with the gang leader who will, presumably, help them find LeDoux. It’s an extraordinary sequence, both thrilling and technically dazzling, consisting of around six minutes of unbroken tracking shot, yet strangely inconsequential; we are quite specifically no further forward this week than we were at the end of last, which is a high-risk strategy in a season only running to 8 episodes.

Domestically, things are worse for Hart: his wife Maggie leaves him after Lisa tells her about the extra-marital affair. Hart turns up at the hospital where Maggie works and goes apeshit. It’s sobering and perhaps frightening to reflect that Hart might be the really unhinged one, given  how disturbed Cohle is. Anyway, it means that, this week, women are either strippers, pole dancers, vindictive ex-lovers, or embittered wives. We are where we are with the women of True Detective, I think, but next week a little more forward momentum with the story would, perhaps, be judicious.

True Detective s1 ep 3

Another episode in which the detectives don’t do very much actual detecting. We start with the Friends of Christ, resettled from the burnt-out church which featured at the end of last week’s episode. Cohle’s scathing about the congregation both in flashback (“Nobody here’s gonna be splitting the atom”) and in the present-day (they’d “rather put a coin in a wishing-well than buy dinner”). Cohle and Hart do, however, get a lead: their victim, Dora, was seen by members of the church with a tall, scarred man. They’re also able to eliminate a sex offender with learning difficulties, who is attached to the church: as Cohle establishes, he couldn’t have raped Dora because he – ouch – isn’t quite equipped to do so.

Much of the rest of the episode is devoted to telling us more about the main characters, and it’s looking increasingly as if Hart is, in fact, the more disturbed of the partnership. He’s furious when he comes home to find Cohle, wearing a vest, in his kitchen chatting to his wife Maggie, having just cut Hart’s grass for him – for now literally but before long, one has to suspect, metaphorically as well. Then Hart and Maggie go on a double date with Cohle and a friend of Maggie’s, but Hart sees his mistress Lisa with another guy, which sends him into a violent rage: he bursts into Lisa’s apartment and assaults her date. And his daughter, on top of last week’s disturbing doll tableau, has been drawing sexually explicit pictures at school. Woody Harrelson is quite superb throughout, incidentally; Matthew McConaughey is as good as ever, but it’s Harrelson’s week.

We return to the crime, though, in the final few minutes, when Cohle’s dogged detective work reveals a crime which is similar to the one they’re investigating, fitting in with his theory that the murder of Dora is the work of a serial killer. This takes them to Reginald LeDoux, convicted sex offender and former cellmate of Dora’s boyfriend; LeDoux, on the basis of our sighting of him at the end of the episode, is completely demented, but presumably we’ll find out more next week.

The pace might not be for you; as I’ve said before, The Blacklist it ain’t. You could pick holes in Cohle’s portentous speeches (this week, in particular, the monologue about the victims of killers welcoming death strained my tolerance). And you could, today of all days, question the show’s attitude to women. On the evidence so far, though, True Detective is shaping up as one of the best dramas of the year, and this was a fantastic episode.