Time is a Flat Circle: ‘True Detective’ Too Clever By a Shade

The only time that exists is party time. (HBO)

The only time that exists is party time. (HBO)

Forget an Emmy. Someone should give True Detective‘s Nic Pizzolatto a Pulitzer.

This is what I thought/tweeted (is there a difference anymore?) on Saturday, way back when we were all still high on the discovery of the meta-textual references in HBO’s new killer crime series. After an interview in The Wall Street Journal where Pizzolatto, a novelist and the show’s sole writer, explained with Rust Cohle-like obliqueness that we should all read the weird fiction of Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow, the Internet went nuts on buying copies of the century-old book and discussing M-Brane conspiracy theories. Finally, a show that referenced both Nietzsche and Lovecraft. And showed boobs!

But after last night’s episode, I think I can say how I really feel: True Detective is great and all, but it makes me feel really, really dumb.

Here’s what I’m talking about, from the amazing super-cut of Rust Cohle pontificating about alterna-dimensional crime-solving.

Now, maybe it was inevitable that a critic would eventually take up against such a piece of art. That, after all, is the unfortunate burden of being a critic — picking apart the things everyone (including yourself) loves. In The New Yorker this week, Emily Nussbaum admits to being a fan of True Detective, but takes up arms against its using women only to titillate or increase the body count. The interesting part of her argument, though, isn’t whether Michelle Monaghan is getting enough screen time. It’s this:

“Whatever the length of the show’s much admired tracking shot (six minutes, uncut!), it feels less hardboiled than softheaded. Which might be O.K. if True Detective” were dumb fun, but, good God, it’s not: it’s got so much gravitas it could run for President.”

And this:

“At first, this buddy pairing seems like a funky dialectic: when Rust rants, Marty rolls his eyes. But, six episodes in, I’ve come to suspect that the show is dead serious about this dude.”

Now, I’ve admitted to feeling slow while watching True Detective, but after reading Nussbaum I know I’m not alone in thinking the show is aligning too much with the worldview of Rusty Cohle, who in some ways talks more game than those revivalist tent preachers he claims to abhor. Fourth-dimensional beings, co-opting of a serial killer’s catchphrase (“Time is a flat circle”), plus manipulative if not downright cruel interrogation techniques? All these make Rust worse than an imperfect hero — he’s a baroque one. How many times during the last six episodes did he bring up Tuttle and the church — once? Twice? Sure, he’s playing the long con with these detectives and purposely leading them in a (flat) circle, but the result is that the narrative moves forward  almost secondarily to Rust’s philosophizing (and McConaughey’s spellbinding performance.)

Were we supposed to notice that Dora Lange’s notebook was full of the dark stars that Reggie Ledoux mentioned before he was done in? How many spirals can we magic-eye in the background before we finally give up and, like Marty, admit that our biggest fault lies in our inability to pay attention? Believe me, I am looking close at this show — I even think I know where the plot is headed in these last two episodes — and my biggest fear is that all Rust’s jabbering will amount to is some Easter Eggs for the fans and a very long, very skilled sleight of hand.

Television, once my chosen medium for vegging out, has become increasingly snobby in its literary pretensions, and mainly that is a side effect of getting smarter people to write shows, so I let it slide. And as Nussbaum says, for the most part True Detective is a very, very good show. But maybe it wouldn’t be so terrible to remove just one layer of artifice. After all, that would still leave us with three dimensions.