Watching the Detectives

When this year’s Oscars are handed out on March 2nd, and Matthew McConaughey has deservedly picked up the Best Actor award, attention can finally shift to his actual best performance of the past 12 months: not on the big screen in Dallas Buyers Club, but rather on TV in the role of Detective Rust Cohle in HBO’s new “anthology” series True Detective, due to air on Sky Atlantic on February 22nd. In what is certain to be one of the biggest ratings and critical successes of the year, McConaughey stars alongside Woody Harrelson, playing Marty Hart – two homicide detectives investigating a murder with occult overtones in rural Louisiana.

Separate from the quality assured by the backing of broadcaster HBO, there are a number of striking elements that distinguish this series from the lumpy police procedurals that clog up TV schedules. First, there is a cohesion and coherence that stems from having one writer, Nic Pizzolatto, and one director, Cary Joji Fukunaga, responsible for, respectively, the story and its presentation. Secondly, there is the fact that the show is structured as protracted interrogations of the two detectives 17 years after the initial investigation, which we observe in lengthy flashbacks. As the mystery of the murder investigation is unspooled through recollection, there remains the present-tense mystery of what precisely is being pursued in the separate questioning of Hart and Cohle. The final distinguishing feature of the series, and perhaps the most impressive, is the outstanding  quality of the performances.

On a roll with meaty parts in films such as Killer Joe and Mud, McConaughey tests himself even further by seizing the opportunity to play Rust Cohle, a brilliant, world-weary nihilist, whose own personal tragedy has liberated him from the niceties and self-censorship demanded by civil society. His Texan drawl savours every syllable as, between pursuing leads and examining clues, he reflects and expands on what he sees as the illusion of the self and his belief that human consciousness is “a tragic misstep in evolution.” In an exclamation that might have the Iona Institute taking legal advice, Rust impugns Christian faith, saying “If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward, then, brother, that person is a piece of shit.” The fact that his philosophical ruminations are suffered with head-shaking disbelief by a very grounded and unreflective partner, who advises him to “keep this shit to” himself, makes for one of the most entertaining onscreen odd couples of recent years.

In the less flamboyant role of the amiable, philandering Hart, Harrelson is every bit as impressive as McConaughey. Just as McConaughey’s voice relishes every beat of the great and grandiose dialogue he has been gifted, so too Harrelson’s face registers every emotion that courses below his good-ole-boy demeanour.  Harrelson will never achieve the prominence that McConaughey’s beauty has won for him, but, as actors, both men are cut from the same cloth. As McConaughey showed a long time ago with the derelict Wooderson in Dazed and Confused, and Harrelson similarly displayed in a delicious cameo in No Country for Old Men, both men are capable of taking the smallest of roles and making them a show-stopping delight. True Detective affords them all the time in the world to make the most of the strong material they’ve been given. It does not rush along a plot-driven course, allowing us to spend much more time in the entertaining company of the two men than would be accommodated by the rote three-act milk-run of most TV police procedurals.

Many critics will reach for “novelistic” – the adjective du jour in discussions of what is now often referred to as this “golden age of TV” – to account for the show’s less than frantic pacing and its other strengths, but that appeal to the respectability conferred by some other anointed art form is entirely unnecessary. While writer Nic Pizzolatto has published fiction and worked as a teacher of creative writing, he has himself acknowledged that shows such as Deadwood, The Wire, and The Sopranos…were actually filling my hunger for fiction as an audience more than the contemporary fiction that I was reading.” Indeed, some of the best features of True Detective find their most obvious source in these trailblazing HBO series. The procedural elements on show have more of the authentic workaday feel of The Wire than the flashy tech of CSI or NCIS. Marty’s infidelity and the attack-as-defence attitude he strikes at home to fend off his wife’s suspicions evoke the recurring domestic tensions between Tony and Carmela Soprano. Any fan of Deadwood will approvingly cock and ear when Cohle quotes a St. Paul verse that was also used in that earlier show to challenge the idea of the individual’s separateness from society.

If there is a novel, or rather series of stories, that informs the show, it seems to me to be a rather surprising one. At present, two TV series relocate the character of Sherlock Holmes to the present day. In the BBC’s more celebrated Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch embodies the great detective almost as someone on the autistic spectrum somehow edging closer to “normality” with each season through the improving influence of his grounded and kindly Doctor Watson. In the U.S.-based Elementary, Jonny Lee Miller is Holmes the recovering addict, with a female Watson (Lucy Liu) originally employed as his sober companion. Both of these versions have their fans, but True Detective might be the most inspired resurrection of the spirit of Alfred Conan Doyle’s consulting detective. Cohle is as insightful, knowledgeable and unconventional as Holmes, while Marty is very much the surprised, disbelieving companion, unable, or unwilling, to see past the familiar surface of everyday life to achieve the insight and acuity of his possibly unhinged partner. McConaughey gives us Holmes as a wounded pessimist with no time for the illogical pieties of respectable civilisation, whose only stimulation comes from pursuing a mystery to its explication. Harrelson’s Marty is the impressed Doctor Watson rooted to the ground by his appetites and ego. Despite the similarity to Holmes, however, Cohle never seem so unearthly as Holmes, as bound by the dictates of fictional superheroism. As we cut between the investigation and the interviews 17 years later, his decline is apparent. This is a man with a fascinating, perhaps tragic story, but not an archetype impervious to fear.

Despite all of its wordy pleasures and ambling storytelling form, True Detective is far from directionless. The show simply has a far greater tolerance for variety than, say, that evinced by the CSI franchise. Its occult elements, deployed minimally, evoke the dread possibilities once summoned up by David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. On a similarly visceral level, it knows how to handle thrills and spills. In fact, the fourth episode climaxes with one of the most exciting action sequences ever staged for TV, as Cohle becomes caught up in a confrontation between a biker gang and a drug dealers in a six-minute, single continuous shot that is already the stuff of TV legend. It is one part Michael Mann and one part Grand Theft Auto, a tour de force of staging that makes most TV shoot-outs seem like the pat-a-cake choreography of the preschool Christmas play.

Pizzolatto promises that any further series, as suggested by the anthology label, will focus on new characters and tell a different setting. This storytelling model has the benefit of avoiding the slow rot that sets in when success demands that a show stretch on into seasons that exhaust its initial inspiration. This anthology formula is already being used to interesting effect in FX’s American Horror Story, each season of which tells a different story using the same actors as a kind of repertory company. At the end of the first season of True Detective, however, McConaughey and Harrelson will be released from their TV captivity back into the cinematic expanse. Only half way through this opening series, we can not only recline luxuriantly into one of the finest examples of recent TV drama, but also already begin to wonder which great actors might possibly recruited to tell a story as compelling and rewarding as this one.

 

The Small, Bald Golden Man

If there were to be such a Borgesian thing as an industry award for industry awards, the Academy Awards would be a worthy nominee and would have every reason to begin composing an amusing, heartfelt, rambling, good-cause-invoking speech that takes itself very seriously and doesn’t stop for the cut-off music. The outstanding achievement of the Oscars is certainly not that they accurately reflect the best films in a given year or offer up a tasteful, compact or even mildly entertaining ceremony, but rather the quaintly odd fact that they retain a direct link with their original function of celebrating the film industry and showcasing its wares and players. This is truly anomalous within the field of televised award ceremonies with, for example, the Grammy Awards and VMAs surviving as floating signifiers with only the most vestigial connections to a feeble music industry.

The Oscars are effective not only in drawing in a significant television audience (40 million people in the United States alone in 2013), but also in increasing the audience for the films in contention. Until recently, commentators would blithely cite the fact that wins in the important categories of Best Actor, Actress, Director and Picture would provide a measurable box-office bump to the winners. In truth, however, from the beginning of October until March, cinemas and cinemagoers are already dominated by films vying for these awards. If you are blindly venturing out to the cinema during awards season, you’d better have a high tolerance for worthy historical drama, uplifting biopics, Meryl Streep, affecting epoch-altering speeches, the music of John Williams, and beautiful actors temporarily looking as godawful as the rest of us, or you’d better have an extra-strength EpiPen hovering in readiness just above your heart to deal with some serious anaphylaxis. Of course, some of these films are great, but many – and there seem to be many more of these pretenders each year – are not. It is only when the nimbus of Oscar glory has drawn out the very last of the taste-conscious laggards that cinemas change the fare and the variety of the awards season yields to the steroidal mass of the summer blockbusters, a new one arriving each week to strong-arm at least six screens per multiplex in a determined smash and grab before the next disappointing behemoth rolls in.

If we shift focus from the strictly industrial purpose of the Oscars to their capacity to discern quality, it is necessary to do a little throat clearing and swiftly make allowances for fallibility. Time has not been kind to many of the films chosen as Best Picture. In the last decade alone, we’ve seen the paint peel rapidly off Chicago, Crash and Million Dollar Baby. Last year’s big winner, Argo, is already looking like an unspeakable mediocrity, as unlovable as a month-old novelty record. Too often, the awards fall prey to the competing campaigns mounted by the studios vying for the prizes. The significant categories mentioned above (Best Actor, Actress, Director and Picture) end up reflecting wider debate and discourse, not strictly because the Academy is either sensitive or responsive to  trends, but rather because the producers and distributors trying to win support for their particular films often resort to modish and inflated appeals to make the case for their work. For example, in 2013, Bill Clinton was drafted in to introduce Lincoln for the Hollywood Foreign Press’s Golden Globe Awards, the former president obviously happy to embrace the association, but not necessarily doing his predecessor any favours.

Over the years, there have been rumours of behind-the-scenes dirty campaigning on behalf of, and against, certain films; such stories evoke nothing so much as the “ratfucking” of the Nixon White House, but, to my mind, the worst excesses of the campaigning are the out-in-the-open appeals made on behalf of the nominees. This year, for example, the contest reduces certain categories to whether you are an AIDS person (Dallas Buyers Club) or a slavery person (Twelve Years a Slave). The particular qualities of the films in question are sidelined, all sorts of exaggerated claims are made for the inspiring or improving effects or art, and producers and political activists meet in a mayfly coupling of shared self-interest that terminates abruptly when the credits roll on the Oscar broadcast.

Against these reliable-as-clockwork pieties stands the equally studied quirkiness of American Hustle, a lucrative vein director David O’Russell is now tapping for the second year in a row, on the back of the goofy and wretched Silver Linings Playbook. This kind of film harks back to the victories of other “leave-me-out-of-it” oddities such as The Sting and Fargo, which forsook the sobriety of the usual Oscar contenders and sailed above the fray on a chuff of whimsy. Argo almost took that route, being an equally vapid assemblage, but it also leaned heavily on its based-on-a-true-story blather and its setting in Iran during the revolution. In fact, Argo spanned a number of the perennial discourses, including satisfying sentimental requirements for a comeback by marking the completion of Ben Affleck’s return from years of J-Lo-assisted ridicule. Like this year’s Gravity, Argo also occupied a separate unspoken category, that of the studio-supported film that feeds the Academy’s desire to hoist up at least one strictly commercial feature as a stand-in for all the solid work it would like us to believe Hollywood produces: Such an avatar status also applied to Titanic, The Lord of The Rings: The Return of the King and, appropriately enough, Avatar.

Just to demonstrate how slippery the unspoken classifications that surround these films are, Dallas Buyers’ Club’s lead actor, Matthew McConaughey, is just as likely to profit from the Academy’s fondness for a comeback story. The line behind McConaughey’s campaign is that this is an actor who has seen the light after a lucrative decade of idling around in rom-coms, who has turned down the money to seek out better parts that demonstrate his gifts. The appetite for a comeback draws in Bruce Dern, who could also be said to profit from the Academy’s willingness to patronise the odd older actor with belated recognition: Jessica Tandy, James Coburn and, last year, Emmanuelle Riva. To apprehend the needless generosity of this gesture, consider the fact that Gloria Stuart was nominated for her bit part as old Rose in Titanic! A similarly schmaltzy impulse is apparent in the nomination of children, many of whom fade from attention when their cuteness expires. A more novel strain within the established order is the non-campaigning campaigning started by Joaquin Phoenix in 2013, on the way to being nominated for The Master, and vocally taken up this year by Michael Fassbender on his way to being nominated for his role in Twelve Years a Slave.

We shouldn’t watch the Oscars, however, just for the limited pleasure of snarking at the kitsch and conservatism, though it’s as reliable a spot to find those things as one could wish for. Now and again, something good slips through and snags a statue. The supporting actress and actor category is a good source of this surprise. There’s something satisfying in the thought that, given all the energy and money squandered by some very vain and wealthy people to secure this prize, someone as unaffected as Brenda Fricker could justifiably trump them with  her performance in  My Left Foot. There’s a similar joy in the idea that, under the creaking monumentality and worthiness of Oscar bait, down-and-dirty genre films could result in John Malkovich getting nominated, rightly, for In the Line of Fire, or Tommy Lee Jones winning, rightly, for The Fugitive. As for the show itself, amid the ridiculous musical numbers, the misfiring teleprompting and the long-winded false modesty of the winners, there is sometimes an acceptance speech as free of gloss and self-regard, and as short, as the one made by Joe Pesci when he won for his role in GoodFellas:

“It was my privilege, thank you.”

 

And the award goes to…

As Homeland wins a record six Emmy awards, we ask what such an award means if it isn’t actually about the relative quality of the competing TV shows.

What do the Emmys tell us about anything? This year, Homeland was the big winner, scooping a record-equalling six prizes, including best actress for Claire Danes, best actor for Damian Lewis and outstanding series. At the same time, Mad Men not only missed out on winning its fifth outstanding series award in a row, but also failed to convert one of its 17 nominations into a win. From this evidence, one might be tempted to imagine that Mad Men has entered its terminal decline, while Homeland represents some creatively inspired bolt from the blue. For someone who has enjoyed Mad Men’s rejuvenated fifth season while slogging through Homeland’s uninspired and overly twisty-turny first season, this interpretation is patently wrongheaded.

It is safe to say that the Emmys are no useful guarantee of quality, and never have been. During its five-season run, The Wire—now frequently described as the best TV series ever—did not win a single Emmy. In fact, it never even made the shortlist of nominees for outstanding series. It took five nominations before The Sopranos—another contender for the increasingly debased title of “best TV series ever”—finally won: In the meantime, it had lost four times to The West Wing. In 2005, Lost beat Deadwood offering definitive proof that standards of excellence were not the metrics being applied in this contest. One could ask then, if the Emmys are no mark of quality, what function do they serve?

Quite practically, the most significant measure that the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences responds to is commercial success. In 2006, 24—almost past its use-by date with critics, but still a ratings juggernaut—won the top award, beating the Sopranos. The Emmys won by Homeland this week are a similar ratification of that show’s popular appeal: By the end of its first season, it had amassed just under twice the number of viewers as Mad Men had secured by the end of its fifth, and highest-rated, season. Giving the top award to a ratings success puts an official stamp of approval on an anointing already carried out by the viewing public. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences is not in the business of alienating its base by making ivory tower gestures to unfashionable and frequently inscrutable works of TV drama. Awards made to shows such as Homeland offer a retroactive assurance that to be a viewer is to be someone with an effortless, unstudied and  instinctual grasp of quality.

Like the Oscars before them, the Emmys were created to bestow a legitimising gloss of respectability on a suspect industry and product, born into an oppressive environment of political witch-hunts and moral crusades. Just as Hollywood instituted self-censorship through the Hays Code and created its own measure of quality via the Oscars as inoculation against the more frightening disapproval of outside forces, television also took institutional measures to affirm its decency and capacity to take care of its own affairs. Part of this initiative involved staging an event that could generate pictures of TV people in evening dress, comporting themselves respectably while receiving shiny statuettes.

Television has long overcome its initial existential insecurity and the Emmys now have a momentum of their own, but these awards stay true to their origins by continuing to publicly proclaim American TV’s opinion of itself. For one thing, the whole event wafts a sanitising air, perfuming some less confounding genre hits, but leaving the irredeemable outlying genre reaches of TV untouched. Game of Thrones can be nominated and is fit to dominate in technical categories, but there is a suspicion that its fantasy-fiction origins eliminate it from serious consideration—or at least until it has an assured audience and has reached its lap-of-honour final season.  The actors of Breaking Bad are also awards-worthy, but Academy voters haven’t chosen to acclaim the show itself, perhaps put off by its subject matter.

Another way in which the awards still speak to the medium’s current anxieties is the impulse to celebrate popular shows that actually draw viewers at a moment when there is fierce competition from alternative broadcasting streams (the Internet) and alternative uses of TVs (gaming).  Homeland’s Emmy could be read as a pronouncement: “Look, here is exciting, popular, quality TV drama. Please continue to tune in!” Perhaps next year—by which time Homeland’s fundamental resemblance to 24 should be even more apparent—this series will no longer serve as a suitable vehicle to advertise television’s implacable currency. A faltering second season, or a ratings success that is confirmed in its predictability may not be able to adequately respond to whatever anxiety will be troubling TV’s digestive system 12 months hence.

Just don’t expect the prize to be awarded to something truly outstanding.

 

Justified: The strong, not-so-silent type.

In an age when “quality” television is celebrated for its literary qualities, ‘Justified’ takes aim a little lower—at entertainment—and bullseyes its target.

Exiled from a prestigious posting in Miami for killing a criminal in a quick-draw gunfight, U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) is transferred back home to Harlan County, Kentucky, forcing an unwelcome reacquaintance with his past, with the greatest discomfort arising from encounters with his ex-wife, Winona (Natalie Zea), his criminally inclined father, Arlo (Raymond J. Barry) and, most significantly, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), a Somerset Maugham-reading troublemaker given to both violence and philosophising.

Raylan is like a movie cowboy in a number of ways. He wears a cowboy hat, regularly finds himself in gunfights and is played by an actor who hasn’t shied away from cowboy parts, including supplying the voice of the very (Eastwoodesque) Spirit of the West in ‘Rango’. Even his friends, enemies and frenemies—in the case of childhood-pal-turned-criminal Boyd Crowder—frequently comment on Raylan’s cowboy traits and trappings, but, like any good cowboy, he does not openly reflect upon his own masculine role-play.

An incapacity for self-reflection has always been an important feature of the movie cowboy, forming part of an overarching reticence that permits only pith of the “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” flavour. Aside from this trademark lack of self-absorption, however, Raylan talks a little too much to be a movie cowboy. He may be strong, but he is definitely not silent. Granted he preserves a laconic air, but he has an obvious weakness for anecdotes, both delivering and receiving. This isn’t too surprising, really, in light of the fact that the character was created by Elmore Leonard, who writes stories populated by characters who enjoy telling stories. In the world of criminal dim-wittedness Leonard tends to describe, it is important for his heroes to be able to amuse at least themselves as they go against the flow of a kind of general atmospheric stupidity.

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Homeland: Smart New Show, Same Old Stupid

‘Homeland’ has been critically praised for its intelligence, but its reliance on weary stereotypes often makes it feel like ‘24’ in drag.

Writing in The Guardian, Rebecca Nicholson has praised ‘Homeland’, a new Showtime TV series, as “a grownup thriller” that “feels like it’s addressing the moment.” The very fact, however, that the series presents a world preoccupied with the War on Terror and still fixated on the possibility of a surprise terrorist attack on U.S. soil undermines fatally the argument that it addresses the moment. In the current reality, our fears centre on the concrete effects of economic stagnation and the ongoing failures of the markets, not on the remote possibilities of terrorist infiltration. The vocabulary of dread has shifted from sleeper cells and jihad to unsecured bondholders, stagflation and quantitative easing. In terms of ideas that trouble the collective psyche, waterboarding has been displaced by the double dip. Moreover, it is eight years since the first broadcast of Adam Curtis’s ‘The Power of Nightmares’ brilliantly uncovered the War on Terror and the great threat of al Qaeda as “a dark illusion that has spread unquestioned through governments around the world, the security services and the international media.” Homeland strives to perpetuate that increasingly shaky illusion, and allies it to other older, equally suspect ones.

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