True Detective, the crime drama starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, came to an end this weekend. Compared to the huge finales that US TV series have spoilt us with in recent years in terms of twists and action, the fact that this damp squib of an episode was a total letdown of a series ending was probably the only original thing about the entire show.
From the opening credits, True Detective offends its viewers' eyes with tropes and themes that would be familiar to anybody that has ever spent more than five minutes watching film or television. The credits themselves, featuring silhouetted dancing girls, come straight from a Bond movie.
Each episode ends with its own clichéd sequence. The low-flying helicopter shots of the Southern American terrain while a piece of Americana provides the soundtrack before a cut to black and the credits reminds me in particular of how another HBO series ends its episodes - Eastbound and Down (which, funnily enough, also features McConaughey, in his years between Chick Flicks and Oscars).
Visuals aside, Harrelson and McConaughey's performances as Marty and Rust were absolutely spellbinding, and along with a fantastic whodunit with an occult aesthetic, viewers have a lot of reasons to stick with the show from the first episode.
As the episodes go on, though, one finds less and less things to keep their interest, and the payoff in the series finale did little to reward the patience of viewers of a show that has been criticized for being slow-paced (its defenders call it "atmospheric"). While the story of Marty and Rust's relationship plods along quite nicely, there are few characters with anywhere near as much depth. Women in particular exist only in relation to strong male leads. This is in huge contrast to the abundance of well-written, highly motivated female characters in the essential boxset viewing of House of Cards. Sadly, writer Nic Pizzolatto has track form for writing weak, supplemental women - the events of his first novel, Galveston, are sparked by the protagonist's girlfriend's infidelity. The main character, Roy Cady, later hits the road and finds himself in the company of that old literary archetype - the hooker with a heart of gold.
Look throughout True Detective, and you'll see Pizzolatto's use of stock characters and done-to-death ideas everywhere. Rust, the sociopath addict who is outstanding at his job but socially inept could easily be Hugh Laurie's Gregory House or Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock. A former housekeeper featured in the seventh episode named Miss Dolores, astonishingly in the year 2014, is the very definition of a "Mammie" character. And in case you were in any doubt of classic Hollywood star Terry Moore's performance as a retirement home resident, she's brandishing the unmistakable shiny gold wrapper of a Werther's Original in her scene.
When we get to the show's "final boss", Errol Childress, Pizzolatto seems to reach terminal velocity with the clichés. Childress is a lumbering hulk; abused as a child, physically imposing, and treading the fine line between evil genius and child with learning difficulties. In case the audience wanted to give the writer the credit of not going down the obvious road of having incestuous characters in a rural Southern state, the incest is not only explicitly mentioned, but actually shown. Having learned to speak from watching old movies and TV, Childress at times employs American cinema's finest example of bad guy diction - the English accent.
In the final showdown between Childress, Rust and Marty, two more tired examples of cinema-lore are expertly displayed; Childress has what is known in the trade as "retard strength", completely no-selling three bullets to the back as if they were just bothersome gnats. This is immediately followed by a good old-fashioned character shield - Marty gets an axe thrown into his chest and it's apparently no big deal. A FUCKING AXE.
A lot of ideas may have been directly taken from works such as Robert W. Chambers' King in Yellow (a fact that Pizzolatto has willfully admitted), but between the stereotypes and clichés, the most important question is whether or not True Detective was entertaining.
If you ignore the people who are telling you how this is the most amazing television show of all time and stop taking it all so bloody seriously (honestly, are we really going to sit and listen to Matthew McConaughey of all people talk sixth form philosophy at us? Nihilism was buried when the Coen brothers sent it up beautifully in The Big Lebowski), what we have is a story about two very different people and a complex serial killer tale that keeps you guessing. My advice is to suspend your disbelief and enjoy it at face value as a piece of trashy noir while you still can, before it disappears up its own darkness.