Saturday, April 12, 2014

True Detective: Season 1

            This series was generating a buzz among my friends and co-workers, and it came highly recommended to me by a few different people.  So of course I was going to check it out.  (For a television addict like me, it never takes much to convince me to check out a new TV show.)

            So, as soon as the show hit the DVD stores in Cambodia, I bought a copy.
            Although this is only the first season so far, according to Wikipedia (W), each season will be a separate, unconnected story (an anthology show).  So it makes sense to me to review the first season as its own entity.

The Review
          One hour into the show, and it was easy to see why everyone had been raving about it.  There’s a lot to hook you in from the beginning.

            First of all, the acting was great as everyone said it would be.
            And then there’s the dialogue and narration.  It’s often a cheesy move to have characters narrate the story you see on film, but True Detective pulls it off.  Woody Harrelson  and Matthew McConaughey both come off as skilled story tellers as they retell their stories intermixed with their various thoughts on the world and life.

            And perhaps cleverest of all, the story is framed in such a way that multiple questions about multiple timelines are all raised simultaneously.  What happened 17 years ago?  And what’s happening now—why are they being interviewed? And who are they telling this story to?  And what happened in the years in between to cause such a change in both men?
            Once you’re hooked on these questions, you’re hooked on the story.

            And the music—each episode has such great, wonderfully eerie music, from the opening theme [LINK HERE] by the Handsome family to the creepy psychedelics of the 13th Floor Elevators  [LINK HERE].

            The philosophy intrigued me as well.
            Matthew McConaughey is given a lot of great dialogue as a nihilist who believes that there is no God, and that we are nothing but tragic evolutionary mistakes—evolution made us sentient enough to want a purpose in life, but the awful truth is that there is no purpose.
            A lazier show would have contrasted Matthew McConaughey's nihilism with the certainty of religious belief.  But in fact, human beings don’t always fall into the neat categories of belief and unbelief, and in between those two extremes are any number of gradient positions.
            Woody Harrelson represents one of those in between positions.  He’s not religious, but he draws comfort and assurance from the fact that other people are religious.  He is never able to intellectually refute anything Matthew MacConaughey says, but instead only responds by pointing out that everything Matthew McConaughey says is against the cultural consensus: “People around here don’t believe that.” *
            Because other people believe that life has meaning, Woody Harrelson’s character is reassured.  He doesn’t waste too much time thinking about it himself—he’s got other things on his mind, mostly of a carnal nature.

            In fact, one suspects that it’s exactly these distractions which keep Woody Harrelson from ever focusing on the meaning, or the meaningless, of life.
            We humans are biologically pre-programmed with different obsessions at different stages of our life.  A young person is obsessed with sex and with finding love.    Who, in their right mind, when they have a beautiful young female face smiling up at them, would ever stop to ponder the meaningless of life?  What more meaning do you need? 
            (Teenage culture and songs are always obsessing about love, indicating it’s the only thing of importance to that audience.  And, if the preponderance of these themes wasn’t sending a clear enough message, the subtext will often become text, when movies, books, and songs will go ahead and explicitly say that true love is the sole meaning of life.)
            Following the normal biological cycle, the young lovers marry, and then all their emotions, energy, and dreams become focused on their children. And few people waste time obsessing about the meaning of it all while they are obsessing about their children instead.
  (I’m not a parent myself, but the Facebook page of anyone who is a parent can be quite revealing.  So totally is their identity subsumed by their role as parent that they even change their own profile picture to that of their baby instead.  And by the way, here is another case where the subtext can easily become text--people will often explicitly say they find their meaning in life through their children.) 

            Woody Harrelson, with both his family, and his extra marital affairs to distract him, never bothers to get philosophical.
            It’s only when this pre-determined biological track gets somehow derailed that life appears to be pointless and meaningless.  And this is what had happened to Matthew McConaughey.  He had been on the biological track—he had a wife and daughter— but he lost his family, and he was never able to make sense of life again.

           Of course, even given this backstory, one wonders how realistic McConaughey's nihilism is.  Can a person live their lives really believing this?

            My 12th Bible teacher used to tell us: “There are very few real atheists in the world.  They’re mostly locked away in ivory towers teaching at universities.  For ordinary people, it’s just too depressing a worldview to hold onto for any length of time, and people soon move on to something else.”
            But if the “real atheist” is a rare breed, one wonders if the true believer isn’t equally as rare.  How many people out are truly able to make intellectual sense of their religion?  How many people even try? And how many people simply adopt religion in order to belong to a shared cultural identity?  (Granted this is more of a British phenomenon than an American one, but it's fascinating to me how in certain areas of Scotland and Ireland, support of certain football clubs are related to Protestantism or Catholicism.  It indicates the same urge that causes people to support a football club, that of wishing to belong to a group, also causes them to support their religion.)
            A couple years ago, I was talking to some of my old Christian school classmates, and I confessed that back when we were children I had never really gotten my head around the concept of the Trinity—3 distinct entities and yet 1 entity.  To which they responded: “No one ever fully understands it.”  Imagine then, millions of Christians wandering around America, all professing to believe in something that none of them fully understand. And yet all of them reassured that, even if they don’t understand what they believe, all the people around them believe the exact same thing.  (And this is just to pick one example out of many when it comes to illogical Christian doctrines.)
            There are some Christians who spend enormous amounts of energy trying to make intellectual sense out of their faith but, to paraphrase my 12th grade religion teacher, there are very few of them in the world, and they’re mostly locked away in ivory towers.

            Because real belief is just as rare as real atheism, the nihilist view of Matthew McConaughey’s character can represent a real threat. 
            It is telling how little Woody Harrelson’s character can tolerate listening to McConaughey. His optimism about the world is severely threatened by everything McConaughey has to say, and after listening to only a couple minutes of McConaughey philosophy, Harrelson immediately tries to silence him. After being silenced by Woody Harrelson, the puzzled McConaughey says “A few minutes ago you were telling me I should talk more about myself.”*  To which Harrelson responds, “And now I am begging you to shut up.”*

            A true committed nihilist like McConaughey’s  character may be rare, but the ideas are not.  Everyone, at one point or another, has wondered if life may be just an evolutionary mistake, and if it may all be pointless.  Or is there some purpose after all?  There’s not a single religious person who hasn’t experienced severe doubt from time to time.  (Or for long periods of time—Mother Teresa apparently suffered from severe doubt and even lost her faith for periods [LINK HERE  --and HERE])

            The anecdotal evidence, that is our day to day life experience stripped of all sacred texts and philosophy, seems to support either conclusion at times.

            This is why McConaughey’s dialogue holds so much fascination.
            True Detective is not, of course, the first time the idea of nihilism has ever been raised, but it is articulated well in the show.  (The dialogue is, as my college English professor said in his definition of good writing, not a new idea but, “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.”)
            McConaughey’s  character accurately sums up the awful question many of us have lurking in the back of our minds.  We all have this strong “gene deep”* feeling deep inside us that our lives must have meaning, and yet the anecdotal evidence of millions of people living, working, toiling, fighting, killing, and dying, all in obscurity, seems to contradict this idea.

            All this is all but the first couple episodes for True Detective and it’s a fascinating set-up.  It’s easy to see why the show gained such a following so quickly.

            However, much of the Internet was disappointed by the ending.  And I suppose I must count myself among those who expected more. 
            Traditionally, story-telling norms dictate that the end of the story must be more exciting or more interesting than the beginning.  For writers who start out with an already amazing beginning, it makes it hard to satisfy expectations at the end.  
            So if you’ve started with a beginning you can’t possibly top, then have you failed as a storyteller?  Or is a mediocre ending acceptable if the journey getting there was worthwhile?
            By starting out strong, True Detective raises expectations that the story will just keep getting better and better.  But all the fun is in the mystery, and once the pieces start being filled in, the baseline story isn’t as interesting as you thought it would be. 

            I’m also not sure how I feel about the conversion of Matthew McConaughey's character from pessimistic nihilist to religious optimist.
            The conversion happens via a private near-death mystical religious experience.  It is therefore personally meaningful to McConaughey's character, but meaningful to him alone, and not generalizable to anyone else.  The philosophical questions raised by McConaughey at the beginning of the series are not answered, unless you take it as an answer that the universe will provide us all with some sort of personal religious experience.  (Or, as some people seem to believe, that we should put our faith in other people’s religious revelations if we haven’t experienced them ourselves.)

            To me, this seemed like a cop-out answer. 
            Although, if you wanted to defend the show, I suppose you could argue that this kind of resolution is true to the way things usual happen in real life.  Most people come to faith through some kind of private religious experience, not through logic and reason.

            Final verdict: Definitely worth watching, even if the ending does slightly disappoint.

            The AVclub, as always, is worth reading.  Their episode by episode dissection of the show picks up on any number of subtle points that went completely over my head. [LINK HERE]

*All quotes are from memory, but I think I’m getting the general gist right.

Link(s) of the Day
Noam Chomsky: Democrats are Really Moderate Republicans
From the Daily Show: Haters of the Lost Ark 
From Tom Tomorrow: Science Stuff 

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