It sets itself up as a buddy-cop show, but you quickly realize they certainly aren’t buddies and they’re pretty shitty as cops (interview the hookers for clues, but then make sure to score some good quaaludes!). But simply breaking conventions, while interesting, wouldn’t make the show great.
It’s a show about American men, and in particular the relationships between them and the (ahem) Platonic ideals of ca. 2014 of masculinity. And those ideals are basically bullshit through and through.
Rust Cohle announces almost immediately that he’s a nihilistic asshole, but a nihilistic asshole who knows he’s a nihilistic asshole. In episode one it sounds like pure bluster, something your standard freshman year roomate/philosophy major would bellow after four too many Jaegerbombs, but by episode five (the current episode, of which there will be eight) you understand that this position is very much an earned one, not a posture or an act. There is true darkness, and to do anything but admit it is to live like a sucker.
My natural sympathies lie with Cohle (I minored in philosophy!), but Marty Hart is arguably the more interesting character. He starts off as the “family man,” the beating heart (get it?) of some ideal masculinity. He sees warped, bizarro shit every day as a homicide detective, but he comes home and plays with his two adorable daughters and takes care of his lovely wife.
Of course, this all goes to shit, even as Hart hypocritically tells the Internal Affairs squad that Cohle’s problem was not having “boundaries” or that a man his age really needs to have a family. Because Hart isn’t just having an affair, and he doesn’t justify it by saying that his job is hard and he needs strange tail to take the edge off, he goes as far as to say that chasing it is the one thing that allows him to have a strong, bedrock family relationship. (And of course, he doesn’t. Early on, everyone can see it’s a sham except for him.)
So to connect the dots — this show gives us two competing portraits of masculinity, and both are terribly problematic, but at least one of them doesn’t actively hurt other people. Cohle embraces all the darkness and “meat” of life, and this breaks him in the eyes of the world, but you earn a kind of (textbook, literally) authenticity. (Or as Cohle puts it himself, “I know who I am. . . . There’s a victory in that.”) Granted, you will also be divorced and live in a shitty apartment with no real furniture by yourself but at least you’re honest with yourself and the world around you.
Or you can go the more conventional route of Hart — you make these crazy-ass, morally compromised, cognitively dissonant decisions (It’s my duty to cheat on my wife in order for her and my kids to love me!) and it all blows up in your face anyway, but at least you have a shot at what could laughably be called “normalcy.” (Although it’s clear that he and his wife have gotten back together, albeit 17 years later, although we also don’t know — yet — what has happened to their two daughters, one of whom seems headed for some type of major trouble.)
I’m assuming in episode six we’ll find out why Cohle and his doctor girlfriend split, but it doesn’t really matter all that much — Cohle has already told us that he thinks human relationships are just illusions that cater to our ego, our deeply buried and cloistered “locked rooms” of consciousness. But it’s clear that he’s been given a last chance to enter the frail, problematic world of messy human relationships, and I’m sure something appropriately apocalyptic will send him back to his long nights of drinking, smoking, and re-reading his serial murderer biographies all by his lonesome.
I’m also convinced Cohle is going to sleep with Hart’s wife. How and why I have no clue, but it seems to me that while she chose the jock-ish”nice guy” early on in life her deeper sympathies may have been for the bad boys, stoners, and punks. The tension in the lawn-mower scene is deliciously palpable, and again, so goddamn American — “I like mowin’ my lawn!” (Yard maintenance as a metaphor for pussy just wouldn’t work in any other country.)
And I don’t really want to think about the fate of Hart’s daughters, both of whom are likeable in different ways but it’s pretty clear that tragedy is looming for everyone involved in the “successful” investigation of the murder victim in episode one.
It’s an absolutely fascinating show. Here’s to more great TV (and film) being written by adults, for adults.