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Why HBO’s TRUE DETECTIVE is not Shallow

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Boy, does Emily Nussbaum of the New Yorker dislike the female characters in the first season of HBO’s hit series True Detective. In her article “The Shallowness of True Detective,” (dated 3 March 2014 but already available online), she says the female characters are “paper-thin,” though she doesn’t insult the actors playing them, and that “none” has “any interior life.” She then compares them to female characters in shows we should like better, none of which I like at all. The problem with Ms. Nussbaum’s view of the show’s portrayal women seems to be her apparent lack of literary background — like classic noir-crime fiction and Southern Gothic — which is what the show (and its creator’s novel & stories) most resemble.

First of all, let me state most emphatically, that I am a feminist, though I’ve never been to see sexual harassment around every corner. That said, I adore classic and neo-noir-crime fiction, where the emphasis is virtually always on the male protagonists, usually narrated by them, and involves their getting involved with attractive women who are liars, whores, adulterers, predators, murderers, or all of the aforementioned, while said femme fatales maintain innocent exteriors. Don’t get me wrong: the males in noir-crime fiction aren’t angels, by any means, and that’s part of what I like about them: they’re interesting. But so are the women.

Think James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice or Double Indemnity. Think Cornell Woolrich’s I Married a Dead Man, where the heroine is a liar, a murderer, a conspirator in a murder, and an unreliable narrator, to boot. Think anything by Jim Thompson, from The Killer Inside Me to The Grifters, from Pop. 1280 to A Hell of a Woman. Creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto’s novel Galveston has the same kind of characters, though they’re more mature in True Detective. So do his short stories. Pizzolatto doesn’t seem interested in women unless they’re classic noir-crime fiction women, and that means they’re going to be badder than they initially seem.

So, calling Marty’s wife, Maggie — played well by Michelle Monaghan, “the only prominent female character on the show … an utter nothing-burger, all fuming prettiness with zero insides” and “an outline” is ignoring the fact that no other character in the entire show, besides Detectives Martin Hart and Rustin Cohle (Harrelson and McConaughey, respectively) is developed (though Nussbaum does say that the show is only about those two characters, and I agree wholeheartedly with her on that, and she praises the actors’ performances). I didn’t even realize that the two black detectives interrogating/interviewing Hart & Cohle 17 years after their first investigation of the murdered Dora Lang even had names until my boyfriend, reading the credits one night, said, “Who are X and Y?” I had to look them up. They’re those detectives.  Tuttle, Ledoux, Charlie Lange, the other detectives — all male characters — are so cardboard, most of them don’t have names.

In fact, however, Maggie is developed, and not just a cardboard outline. She’s developed along the lines of the females in classic noir-crime fiction. And along the lines of Southern Gothic fiction, like William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, where sister Caddie, who’s not actually in the novel, has her story told by everyone but her: her retarded brother Benji who views her as a  mother figure, her older brother Quentin who views her as a love-worship object, and her younger brother Jason who views her as a whore (even while he wants to sleep with her himself). In True Detective — no spoilers here — what Maggie did to Rust Cohle in episode 6, and what she did to her husband Marty in the same episode, was calculated, cruel, and vicious. It’s also exactly what a noir-crime fiction femme fatale would do. Then she’d maintain her innocent façade. Ditto Maggie and other women in that genre of fiction.

Hart and Cohle are homicide detectives. They constantly see the bodies of dead victims, investigate the DBs (Dead Bodies), as they’re referred to in the show, and so the women and children in the show are objects to these detectives.  It’s a short step from seeing their victims and DBs as objects, to seeing all the women in their lives as objects. That includes Marty’s daughters, who, as teenagers, are clearly separated into the age-old, mutually exclusive Madonna/Whore categories. In classic noir-crime fiction, the woman is usually something to be won or possessed: she, too, is an object, even if she plays the villainous game better than most of the male protagonists in this genre do.

I love the show. Except for the convoluted Ginger-Cohle-Hart combo kidnappping & shoot-em-up scene in episode 4, which detracted from the show’s main forward drive, I think it’s some of the finest writing and acting since the first season of Damages or of American Horror Story. I gotta admit, though, that I also love FX’s Justified, where the women also take a backseat to the male protagonists. (Actually, this season, the female characters of Justified don’t even seem to be in the same car as most of the male characters, but that’s another post for another day.) I like intellectually and artistically challenging drama, and True Detective seems to be delivering that so far (except for the above-mentioned shoot-em-up, which bored me silly, but excited quite a few of the male fans, I hear).

Maggie’s not a “nothing-burger… with zero insides.” She’s just as calculating, deceptive, predatory, vicious, and morally shallow as Harrelson’s Martin Hart and McConaughey’s Rustin Cohle characters are. Maggie, her daughters, and the dead Dora Lange are also a lot more developed than the two African-American detectives re-investigating the original 1975 fetish-murder of Dora Lange, though every female except Maggie is quite a bit less well-developed, even if we’re comparing them to the females in classic noir-crime fiction.

And, I admit it, after all the bare behinds of the women in the show, I did appreciate the chance to get a good look at Matthew McConaughey’s well-developed glutes.

I’ll leave you with the opening credits of True Detective, about which Ms. Nussbaum claims this:

On the other hand, you might take a close look at the show’s opening credits, which suggest a simpler tale: one about heroic male outlines and closeups of female asses. The more episodes that go by, the more I’m starting to suspect that those asses tell the real story.

The opening credits are accompanied by the show’s theme song, “Far from Any Road” by The Handsome Family.

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