I watched the first episode of the HBO series True Detective with low expectations. Very low expectations. The promos made it look like yet another Thomas Harris knockoff; even the standard-issue baroquely defiled murder victim, a woman displayed with antlers bound to her head, was anticipated by Hannibal. The tormented genius detective (Matthew McConaughey) threatened to be a photocopy of Will Graham in Red Dragon, and the idea of pairing him with a stodgy by-the-book partner (Woody Harrelson) went from moldy to mummified round about the first Lethal Weapon flick. The pyramidal twig thingies brought back unfortunate memories of The Blair Witch Project. Somebody even stood over the corpse and said, “He’ll do this again.” (At least he didn’t use the term “unsub.”) Did I say “low expectations”? Try sub-basement, dungeon-below-the-bottom-of-the-barrel expectations.
I hope you haven’t fallen asleep by now, because True Detective turns out to be a master class in bringing fresh, vigorous life to fossilized tropes. A big part of it is the Louisiana setting, all swampland menace beneath merciless sun, with a dash of Flannery O’Connor as the investigation brings in a revival-tent huckster with a pompadour that could have been applied with frosting from a box of Betty Crocker cake mix. But the salty byplay between the two leads gives the show its hammering pulse. Three episodes into this season, McConaughey’s detective is entirely believable as a bunch of shredded nerves that defy all attempts at self-medication, and Harrelson’s good old boy persona is flaking away to reveal a picture of quiet desperation. The framing device — an after-the-fact investigation of how the detective solved their case — promises all kinds of interesting revelations.
The second episode gave me a pleasurable surprise with a shout-out to The King in Yellow, an 1895 story collection by Robert W. Chambers that influenced H.P. Lovecraft and, through him, a host of other horror writers. (You can download it for free from Project Gutenberg.) The title refers to a fictional play Chambers suggests has been banned because of its disturbing power; the play appears only as fleeting excerpts used to introduce the individual stories. The murder victim in True Detective turns out to have kept a diary that refers to the King in Yellow and the city of Carcosa, which also figures in Chambers’ work. Chambers was a fan of Ambrose Bierce’s supernatural stories, notably “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” and he swiped the name Carcosa along with other bits of Bierce-invented nomenclature. Lovecraft, in turn, admired The King in Yellow and emulated Chambers’ technique by salting his stories with vague references to forbidden works like The Necronomicon. The Bierce-invented deity Hastur also turns up, much mutated, in Lovecraft’s weird cosmology, where he has remained. As the saying goes, talent borrows but genius steals.
How all this will play out in True Detective is anybody’s guess. The yellow deity is absent from the third episode, which ends with a glimpse of a meth-cooker as monstrous as anything in Lovecraft. We are almost halfway through the first season, after which — assuming the ratings are good — the series will reset in its second season with a new story and a fresh set of characters. Maybe it will turn out that Cthulhu is slumbering off the Louisiana coast. After the BP oil spill, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit.
ADDENDUM: Art of the Title, one of my favorite Internet time-sucks, has an informative piece on the very cool title sequence for True Detective.