HBO’s True Detective is the most exciting program on television right now. The spare elegance and sly existential humour of writer Nic Pizzolatto’s dialogue grabs the breath in your throat and arrests it mid-craw. And the structural complexity of the two-tiered timeline Pizzolatto uses to feed information to the audience, like a multi-hooked fishing line, not only gets your complete attention, but laser-hones your focus onto the story’s every nuance. The mucky, green-gray, hardscrabble mise en scène of Cary Fukunaga’s direction, the blank lonely skies and ribbon roads through vacant green swamp, imprint in your imagination. You can hear the grit sliding on the shovel as this show breaks new artistic ground.
Which is why this series’ girl problem simply isn’t acceptable. How is it possible, when everything else about the program is so spare and meta and cool, that it relies on such old-school paint-by-number tropes to stand in the place of female characters? Pasha Malla in his article examining the parodic aspect of True Detective in Slate Magazine (http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/television/2014/02/true_detective_is_…) writes, “And if True Detective’s vapid gender dynamics are intended to comment on the ways women are often depicted in these types of stories, they have yet to ripple, let alone puncture, the veneer of these portrayals. (The ex-hooker Mary screwed in Episode 6 should be cause of an eye-roll and a sigh). All the female characters are prostitutes, strippers, stay-at-home moms or unstable, revenge-driven single career women with beautiful breasts that we get to see whenever HBO sees an opening. Pasha Malla is right. The women in True Detective don’t scan as ironic, tongue-in-cheek, parodic commentary on the genre, they scan as old-school, cheap short-cuts. The female characters are never interesting or magnetic in the way the off-kilter, reinventions of cops represented by McConaughey and Harrelson are. They’re filler, place-holders for plot points.
I wrote a screenplay for a short film a number of years ago and had the pleasure of being on set during the shoot. At a certain moment during the proceedings the director got the sudden inspirational idea that the young female actress should bare her breasts in a scene that had never called for it. I remember the hushed wheedling discussion with her to see if she was willing, spoken as though it was tremendously important and a matter of raw art. She caved. I will never forget the silent, horny, fake-respectful atmosphere shooting the scene and the actress’s deeply ambivalent vulnerable bravado afterwards.
I’m still watching because True Detective is extraordinary, but the naked sexually tortured dead girls, the beautiful bouncing bare breasts, and the cornball, unironic stereotypes all make me feel like I have to set aside myself and watch like a man to enjoy it. Most women are practiced at this skill, but I am always surprised by how often I still need to employ it.