True Detective and Hannibal

February 17, 2014

This contains SPOILERS for everything up to episode 5 of True Detective.  It is also written from the ignorance of not having seen the final three episodes left.  So hello posterity, I hope you’re having a good and hearty laugh.

True Detective 1.02 (2)

If it’s true that in the new age of “sophisticated” television drama, the best ones teach you how to watch it, then HBO’s True Detective is an absolute befuddling mess.  The first season of a planned anthology show (i.e. each season will be self-contained with different characters/actors/directors) is a gorgeously hypnotic investigation of a genre that’s so peculiar in its mannerisms, intelligence, and plotting that half way through, I quite frankly have no idea where it’s going to go or, more importantly, what it’s trying to do.  This could be seen as a fault, of course, but the HBO brand – not to mention the star power and directorial talent involved – has ensured a degree of kindness when it comes to giving the benefit of the doubt.  It is certainly odd, however, that the show premiered within a year from the debut of another serial killer investigation show, also strangely featuring naked female corpses with antlers.  NBC’s Hannibal is quite easily the best network drama on air, and though that’s a pretty low hurdle to jump, it shouldn’t take away from Bryan Fullers twisted, nightmarish achievement. 

The success or failure of either show will ultimately depend on the creative forces behind it and, as both are fairly heavily serialized (one incredibly so), how it all comes together.  Hannibal begins it’s second season in a few weeks time, but it’s interesting how an idea so utterly bereft of imagination managed to pin me down for its 13 week run, and a large part of that has to do with the expectations a network (and a genre) brings.  Hannibal proves itself to be hauntingly macabre from the very beginning, even if it’s a little off-putting when it is revealed that the protagonist, Will (Hugh Dancy), has the strange ability to recreate a crime in his head through a surfeit of empathy.  Though it is in the Thomas Harris novel from which the story originates (it is, so far, a prequel to Red Dragon), it’s no less jarring considering the most famous version of the property, Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs, is rooted in a gritty realism even as it gives itself over to over-the-top flourishes.  The fact that the gimmick (some would say “hook” but I don’t see the difference) in short order plays a crucial role in the arc of the season (Will’s descent into insanity brought on by a hidden disease and the manipulations of the titular Dr. Lecter, played with controlled aplomb by Mads Mikkelsen) is a testament to the intelligence of the writers room.  Like the killer that kicks off the show, virtually nothing is wasted in the world of Hannibal, and its this desire to avoid as many of the tropes and clichés that make every other network procedural on air a total bore that sets it apart.

capture-shrike-3Well, that and the visuals, as there is genuinely nothing like it on TV.  Hannibal embraces the core fun of the property by going whole hog with the eerie visuals and the blood red spatters of Grand Guignol that infuse every episode with an operatic quality.  Like Lecter himself, the show is a traditionally lowbrow entertainment hidden in the guise of a high-class refinery.  It’s patently, deliciously, absurd and yet it manages to be horrific in ways most modern horror films can’t even approach, and it also happens to be psychologically astute when explaining why each character behaves in the way they do – no small feat when the story becomes steadily more intricate and the show gets cagier about what it wants to reveal and when.  When the first season is finished, one gets the distinct feeling that we’ve been guided this way all along, even if we weren’t aware of how it would all play out.

Hannibal is run like in a more traditional US drama manner (show runner guiding the writers room) than True Detective, in which one writer, in this case Nic Pizzolatto, has had sole ownership of the entire eight-episode run.  Bolstering the feeling that it is all one work as opposed to something more episodic in nature is the use of a single director, Cary Joji Fukunaga.  Normally the director of a pilot is tasked with creating the visual style of the show – one that can be easily mimicked by the other directors who function more-or-less as hired hands (this is not true in every case, of course, and there’s actually a fair bit of discussion as to whether it’s true in any sense, but that’s another post for another time).  Fukunaga imports his style from his feature work, notably Sin Nombre and Jane Eyre, and not only creates a distinct visual universe for the show, but four episodes in, has allowed himself to break with the style when necessary without sacrificing the overall unity.  The most talked about example of this is the 6-minute one-shot that features during the botched stash house raid at the end of episode 4.

That sequence recently came under fire from a number of writers on the internet, not least of which was ThinkProgress’ Alyssa Rosenberg, who unfavourably compared it to an undercover-sting-gone-wrong in HBO’s The Wire.  I’m not terribly sympathetic to the argument, because even if I don’t know what True Detective is trying to do, I have a pretty good sense of what it’s not, and that is realism.  Still, the fretting over the sequence makes sense, even if the main problem for me wasn’t the representation of poor African Americans as gun-toting drug dealers, but rather the jarring plunge into a different kind of genre cliché.  This is a show that has, from its very first scenes, been obsessed with genre cliché.  Marty begins his interview by listing all the various detective archetypes he’s come across before explaining how neither he nor Rust really fit into any of them.  Rust is as unhinged as any detective, though the eccentric genius is hardly new.  Marty’s down-to-earth man’s man cop is even more familiar, as is his drunken affair, shoddy rationalization, and marriage breakdown.  Giving the benefit of the doubt, there must be some reason to set up such clichés and based on the seeming intelligence of the writer (a former academic, no less), I have to imagine they will pay off in some way.  Even more odd is the excursion into the world of meth dealers and biker gangs, where the notably passive detective genre gets thrown full-tilt into a cop thriller.  Though it was beautifully shot, wrenchingly intense, and a valuable insight into Rust’s past and his character, it felt out of place; it was an exciting diversion from the main thrust of the show, and although it plays into the contemporary rewriting of the story that’s being given in the interviews, I’m not sure it will feel a part of the whole by the end.

The real interest for me, and where I think this show could truly shine, is its appreciation and deconstructive of narrative.  Not that it’s particularly twisty or even that it’s playing fast and loose with story threads to give us big reveals, but rather Nic Pizzolatto’s (seeming) understanding that narrative is how we order the world. What the show (in its music, its atmosphere, and its visuals), like Hannibal, understands is that detective shows are horrors, not mysteries.  The “who” and the “why” are an attempt for catharsis, not the answers to a question.  It’s not about “justice” or a concept so civil, but about understanding the lowest depths of humanity’s treatment of itself.  The job of the detective in fiction is to reconstruct the events and create a narrative that makes sense, because if we can make sense of something we might be able to understand it.  The terrifying reality that burbles beneath the first five episode of True Detective is that it can’t be understood, and it seems that Rust and maybe even Marty might be destroying themselves trying to do so.  The current detectives, it has finally been revealed after being rather obvious for a while, are working under the assumption that Rust is the murderer.  It might be the point or a might be a flaw that this seems utterly absurd to the viewer, and if this whole exercise ends up Kesyer Soze’ing Rust, I’ll be beyond disappointed.  If it’s intended to be a twist, then it doesn’t work, but as a commentary on dueling narratives being created – and the slippery ties to reality that attempting to create them has – it’s central to the theme that’s been the lifeblood of the show.

Only time will tell, of course, but it’s fascinating to watch a show that, 5 episodes into an 8 episode run, really could go either way.  It’s a dense and rich vein to tap, and if it ends up sputtering nonsense I wouldn’t be surprised, but the possibilities are even more exciting.  I’ve been thinking that this show is the second best antlered corpse drama on the air, but I think comparing is unfair because of the wildly different approaches by the writers.  Bryan Fuller is, like Hannibal on his show, having a grand old time setting up his characters like toys and then giving them a nudge to see what happens.  Nic Pizzolatto is, like Rust, interested in digging into what’s already there and finding what, if anything, lies beneath.


3 Responses to “True Detective and Hannibal”

  1. Greg Says:

    the problem, if it can be called such a thing is that there is so little time left to wrap up the story now that it’s bound to be disappointing. or at least that’s what i’m afraid of after watching ep. 5.

    like you said, it’s been pretty obvious from probably ep 2 that the present day detectives think that rust is the killer and that the storyline has taken this long to reveal it in the narrative leaves me quite worried.

    and taken in the context of what’s revealed in ep 5 i don’t think the biker gang sub-arc is a detour at all. after all, the present day detectives don’t know that entire story (thereby fueling their suspicion of rust as the killer) while the audience was fully informed. in fact, that entire “diversion” is what led them to the meth cook and the initial “solving” of the case.

    • chiaroscurocoalition Says:

      I’m not so worried about them wrapping it up. I think there’s more than enough time given how it’s gone so far. Whether it works…well that’s the question.

      I think the biker gang diversion made sense plot-wise – even if it is a bit of a stretch that to find their killer they have to go through an undercover operation – but tonally I’m not sure it matched. I get, on paper, why it’s there. I’m just not convinced it was the best way to do it.

      • Greg Says:

        That’s kind of the point. Like you said, they could just keyser soze that shit and while that’s an ending it would be really shitty.

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