Thursday, March 20, 2014

TV Round Up: True Detective and House of Cards

This past week, my wife and I finished up the current seasons for True Detective and House of Cards (season 1 and season 2, respectively.) I have thoughts about each, but because I may wander into spoiler territory I'll hide the actual discussion after the break.

Short version: Both seasons were very good, and both shows were definitely worth watching. I have a caveat for True Detective, but House of Cards I'd recommend with no hesitation.

Spoilers of varying degrees to follow, so be warned.

Longer version:

True Detective is a show I quickly fell in love with. It's a show that presents itself in an interesting manner starting from the first episode with the jumps between present day and past events, and the events themselves unfold in a way that is dreamlike; surreal. 

It's also an interesting show because the crimes that are the focus of the investigation aren't anywhere close to the focus of the show. The investigation is more of a vehicle for what brings the characters together and forces them to interact in a strange location. A big part of the entertainment of the show comes from how that plays out. 

Underpinning the character interactions are several questions that the show asks; sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. If human beings are fundamentally flawed (which the show demonstrates consistently,) how can we be redeemed? Is it even worth it? How do you find purpose in a world that is tremendous, uncaring, and utterly unconcerned with what you do with your life? Etc.

Some of the questions asked are reminiscent of undergrad philosophy revelations (and I that from experience,) but the show does a good job of tossing the questions out, then it lets the viewer chew on it for awhile. Whenever it feels like the show is going to go too far in the philosophical direction, the investigation or character interactions come back to the fore to keep things from getting too pretentious.

True Detective also does something that I really appreciate: it highlights the unease and eeriness of what should be a relatively safe location. The small town rural setting is something that should feel comfortable; it's the idyllic American setting. True Detective highlights how that concept doesn't really work out in practice. Small towns can be nice, sure; but they can also be very insular, with their own norms, their own sense of inertia. And of course their own dark secrets, but the concept of a small town with a dark secret has been done a number of times already so I'm not giving True Detective any bonus points for that (though I do give the show credit for making this dark secret interesting.)

More specifically, True Detective captures something I felt growing up in a small town: if you're an outsider (either because you've moved there, or you don't fit in to the norms) everything feels off. Even if you can get along with everyone and be sociable, you're always on the outside. Everything needs to be filtered through the lens of what will be socially acceptable and because you're already starting off on the back foot, it's often best to say very little in any given situation. You can see that transition happen on and off with Cohle, where he's spouting all of his theories and feeling when he's with Hart (who, if nothing else, has an obligation as his partner to put up with him,) and how he conducts himself in the few other social situations we see him in.

True Detective is also an interesting series in general, because it's supposed to follow an anthology format (i.e. each season will be it's own self-contained story.) So for good or for ill, this season is the only time we'll be spending with Detectives Cohle and Hart as they try to unravel the mystery that surrounds them.

For most of the season, I felt that the team did a bang up job. The episodes were interesting, the acting was excellent, and the pacing felt just about right (fast enough to keep things moving, but slow enough to let some things percolate.) The first seven episodes of the season were a fantastic ride, and I'm looking forward to watching them again at some point to catch all the little things I may have missed on my first viewing.

The eighth episode - the season finale - was less great.

At base, it's a decent ending to the season. The major plot points are wrapped up, the characters get a sense of closure and finality, and a show that was pretty bleak throughout somehow managed to end on a positive note.

Viewed in the context of the rest of the season, the final episode feels kind of hollow and out of place. Most of the philosophical underpinnings are swept under the rug or ignored entirely by the way the characters end the series. The revelation of the killer is...not entirely unsatisfying, but it reminds me of a quote from Detective Sommerset from Se7en:
"If we catch John Doe and he turns out to be the devil, I mean if he's Satan himself, that might live up to our expectations, but he's not the devil. He's just a man."
With all of the build up to the finale, nothing short of Hart and Cohle discovering that Beezlebub was walking the earth in man's flesh (as a scarred yokel that did handy work) was going to be a satisfying revelation. I get that. It doesn't make the ending feel any less flaccid (though at least we're treated to a few more wonderfully bizarre sequences before the final showdown,) but I get it.

What I don't get are the threads that are just left dangling. Finding the killer in this case is just a small part of the puzzle; the much bigger issue, it seemed to me, was that there was a cabal of old religion practitioners that were performing dark rituals, which is where the murders were coming from. The people carrying out these rituals have ties all throughout the leadership of the area (and beyond,) so the issue of ritualistic murder isn't likely to stop with the death of Scarface Lawnmowerman (may or may not actually be the character's name.) The writing kind of hand waves that fact by stating that the detectives sent out copies of everything they discovered to every news outlet they could, so I suppose the implication there is that the once powerful family gets laid low by the media outrage.

And maybe that's part of the point of the show: we're all semi-insignificant creatures with a very limited control over our world. No matter how righteous they may be, Hart and Cohle are still powerless to personally effect anything outside of their immediate sphere of influence. To resolve that issue, Hart and Cohle have to give themselves over to a higher power (in this case, the media, which has it's own connotations that I'll leave be,) and trust that everything will work out.

Later, Cohle is personally redeemed by a similar transcendental experience: communing with his dead daughter as he himself teeters on the brink of death instills in him (even if only subconsciously) the notion that there is an afterlife; a place we all go when we die. If there is an afterlife, there is a god (God?) If there is a god, then we are not alone in the universe. If we are not alone in the universe, then our lives are much less bleak and sad. If there is a God, and if that God created us, then we have a purpose, so our lives are not meaningless. Cohle's communion with his daughter resolves all of his character issues in one fowl swoop.

How convenient.

I can't tell if it's bad writing, or if the eight episode timeline was just too tight to resolve anything that happens in the final episode cleanly. If these events could have played out over another episode or two, maybe they wouldn't have felt so forced/convenient/poorly thought out.

In spite of my criticisms, I don't think the season finale for True Detective was bad. Disappointing, yeah. But not so much so that it hurt my overall impression of the season, and not so bad that I wouldn't watch it again. More that the season finale was less than what I was expecting, which caused the season to end on a down note (even though the finale itself was ironically positive.)

Similar to the anime adaptation of Berserk, I'd recommend True Detective to just about anyone. The only thing I might caveat is that the ending is a little unsatisfying, but I don't know that I'd even go that far. Others may not be bothered by it as much, and as I said before it's not like the ending was so bad as to sour my impression of the show as a whole (Dexter!!!!!)

After all those words about True Detective, I have comparatively little to say about the second season of House of Cards. That's because it was excellent pretty much throughout. I'm sure there were little things I didn't like along the way, but overall the arc of the season was very well planned and executed, and my god was it an awesome ride to follow.

I remember thinking when my wife and I finished the first season of House of Cards, "That was good, but I don't really know where they're going to go with this." The second season answered me by calling me a coward for not thinking big enough, slapping me in the face, and then entertaining the hell out of me for the entire running time.

House of Cards also does the viewer the solid of having a fantastic season finale that leaves it primed to come back for one helluva third season. I've learned my lesson about doubting the writers, and at this point I'm eagerly awaiting what happens next in the insane saga of the political career of Frank "John Doe" Underwood.

Two shows, two excellent seasons (give or take.) If you have HBO and/or Netflix, I'd highly recommend checking out those shows (House of Cards is one of the main reasons we've kept Netflix around, though they're getting slowly better in general.) I also have thoughts about Hannibal, but since that may be a combined review of season one/impressions of season two, I'll save that for another post. This one has grown monstrous enough.

In closing:

Vote Frank Underwood/Scarface Lawmowerman in 2016! Southern tradition for a modern America! Sweet tea and wooden stick effigies for every home!

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