Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Girls and True Detective: HBO and the Zeitgeist

TV, even flat body,wide-screen plasma TV, isn't an escapist medium. After all, the signal is broadcast into the familiar environs of your living room. For better or worse, your TV set is part of your household furniture. How can you effectively escape when you are at home, with your children and pets, surrounded by your stuff? For this reason, TV succeeds best when it serves one of two purposes: establishing a stay-at-home familiarity with the viewers or, in the alternative, tellng the truth in a quasi-documentary style, or, at least, seeming to tell the truth. In the first mode, a TV show establishes a formula that is wholly predictable, a narrative terrain that is as well-known to you as the path between your kitchen and your living room and toilet -- this is how sit-coms work and cop shows and most of prime-time dramatic TV. The formula was old even in the early sixties when "Perry Mason," for instance, embodied a four act structure articulated by commercial breaks: murder in the first ten minutes, the accused man consulting with the great lawyer before the second commercial break, a serious set-back and complication in the third act, and, then, Perry Mason extracting the truth on the witness stand from the true murderer as the denouement -- a thousand shows were configured in this way and, to paraphrase Andy Warhol, they were all the same and they were all good. In this mode, the TV show's very predictability guarantees its success -- there isn't anything escapist about the show: it just another member of the household, with familiar characteristics and quirks. The second mode is that of producing a life-like representation of reality -- indeed, a representation of reality that is all the more powerful for being broadcast on the medium of the nightly news, a picture of the truth that is as lifelike and substantial as your easy chair or the lamp beside that chair or your dog resting at your feet. HBO specializes in this kind of hyper-reality: shows like "The Sopranos" or "Veep" function as representations to us of an exotic kind of reality, a glimpse into a world that is fascinating because it seems completely plausible and real: this is how New Jersey mobster live their lives, this is how they speak and this is what a gangland assassination looks like; or, with respect to "Veep" (or shows like "Boss" or "House of Cards"): this is how politicians really behave when they don't think their constituents are watching, this is the truth behind the glossy political ads and all the specious, partisan rhetoric.

The word "true" appears in the title of the HBO show "True Detective" and, of course, that program is characteristic in its pretense that it is delivering the "goods" -- that is, the actual unvarnished "truth" about crime and poverty in Louisiana, the emotionally ravaged lives of homicide cops, the appearance of crime-scenes left in the wake of a serial killer's rampage. On the basis of the series' extraordinary acting by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, the viewer is almost convinced that the show's narrative is authentic and plausible. But, of course, it's not TV, as the slogan goes, but HBO and an HBO series requires certain things which completely undermine the viewer's sense that the show is true to life. Most obviously, HBO shows seem built to a specification that requires a "Hard R" sex scene every two episodes - the sex scenes must involve beautiful and shapely women and typically feature a female-superior sexual position so that the woman's breasts are exposed to their maximum effect. These sex scenes are generally filmed in bright light so as not to interfere with the audience's voyeuristic enjoyment of the scene. If the actress is sufficiently well-established that she is not contractually required to show full-frontal nudity, the hero will roger the damsel by slipping off her panties and bending her over a conveniently placed kitchen counter. All of this occurs with a maximum of (staged) spontaneity with lots of hard-breathing and moaning. In the sixth episode of "True Detective", the show finally reaches a scene that it has been telegraphing to the audience for five weeks -- Matthew McConaughey has sex with Woody Harrelson's comely, and neglected wife, thus precipitating a colossal fist-fight between our two protagonists at the police station. McConnaughy's tormented Schopenhauer-citing hero lives alone in a stark monastic flat decorated by booze bottles and hundreds of pictures of murdered women taped to the walls -- he likes to squat there alone shining his flashlight this way and that at his gallery of bloated, greenish corpses. Harrelson's wife comes to his door carrying a bottle of booze, enters McConaughey's morbid den precipitating a brief but rambunctious sex scene of the kitchen counter variety. The viewer is immediately struck by the sheer and utter implausibility of the episode: most women are not particularly excited by pictures of sex-murder victims, gory photogrpahs plastered all over the walls and, I presume, that those images themselves would be, as they say, "a deal breaker". The swift and violent sex involving rear penetration and the kitchen counter looks uncomfortable and occurs without any foreplay. Bluntly put, this is someone in Hollywood's fantasy of what sex should look like, but it bears absolutely no resemblance to anything that two people would ever do. Furthermore, after McConaughey's hero has finished with his partner's wife, an encounter involving mutual and simultaneous orgasms, he then calls her a bunch of names and throws her out of his murder-mansion. This is also completely ridiculous -- the lady deserves, at least, a firm handshake in recompense for her services. Then, the wife goes to her husband and,in the most vulgar terms imaginable, taunts him by saying that she has had sex with his partner. Would anyone in their right mind do this? Again the show has slipped into some kind of warped Hollywood-land fantasy. So the aggrieved husband, Woody Harrelson assaults McConaughey at the cop shop and they have a titanic fist-fight. I know cops and have represented them and their departments for 30 years and this sort of infidelity certainly occurs from time to time, although not in the way depicted in the show. Someone slips up and the truth is exposed and, then, the aggrieved husband sulks and cries and there is usually a divorce filing that ensues but the two men don't battle in their workplace like a pair of rutting stags. Finally, heaping insult on injury the head cop suspends the two combatants on the spot -- ignoring conveniently the fact that police are among the most heavily unionized workers in this country, protected not only by contract and arbitration but, also, by police civil service commissions and a panoply of statutes that makes it functionally impossible to ever fire (or even discipline) a cop. Police investigate and contest grievances through their union with a fortitude and determination that they never show in their actual homicide or other criminal investigations. So, once again, the show, despite its gritty surface and clever dialogue and highly realistic sets and locations, is completely fantastic. Since fidelity to truth, and authenticity, are the aesthetic criteria that the show advances as integral to its success, "True Detective" fails according to its own critical canons of excellence -- either it is true to life or it is nothing. I don't want to bad-mouth "True Detective" because, in fact, it is one of the best programs on TV and has some of the most impressive and dramatic dialogue that I have seen and the acting by the two principals is exemplary. But the HBO format ultimately defeats the show --it's too long and the material (a standard issue mad-murderer plot) isn't complex enough for eight hours -- this results in a wholly extraneous episode involving a gang of feral meth-manufacturing bikers that is a compound of the most obvious and stupid cliches and quasi-racism -- there's a fire-fight in a ghetto -- as to almost discredit the show entirely. Fortunately, it's obvious to experienced HBO-viewers that the gunfight in the ghetto involving the angry African-Americans and meth-head bikers is merely a placeholder, an episode that is killing time to fill out the eight shows ordered. The TV show doesn't "jump the shark" because the meth-dealer episode goes nowhere and is completely forgotten when the program reverts to its main themes and primary characters in the fifth episode. With the sex eliminated or filmed discretely in the old Hollywood style -- a clinch and a kiss standing in for penetrative sex and howling orgasms -- and reduced to five hours as opposed to eight, "True Detective" would have been one of the best shows ever broadcast on TV. But, at its full length, and with the salacious sex scenes obstructing the plot, the show is merely very good.

At one point in "True Detective," Matthew McConnaughy describes his theory of space and time. It's gibberish but poetic. He says that viewed from a place outside our four dimensions, all action takes on a sculptural quality, events occupying the space in which they occurred and creating a "flat circle". This monologue is some sort of hybrid between Nietzsche's concept of the "eternal return of the same" and half-baked quantum mechanics. McConnaughy asserts that all times are eternally present and that there is a mystical point of view from which all events can be perceived as occupying positions in space-time that are simultaneous. Curiously, in the fourth or fifth episode of Lena Dunham's sit-com "Girls," a minor character dies unexpectedly. Everyone expects that Lena's character, Hannah, will have some kind of reaction to the man's demise. But she doesn't really respond in any way except self-interest -- the man was her publisher and she's concerned about the fate of a book that the dead man was editing. In other words, Hannah's reaction is completely realistic and authentic -- the man was not a close friend, and, indeed, was a rather irritating fellow and Hannah's response is a polite expression of grief that she doesn't really feel at all. This outrages her friends who want her to proclaim feelings of sorrow of which she is incapable. I mention this episode of "Girls" for two reasons -- first, "Girls," in my view is an HBO show that succeeds according to the criterion of truthfulness, and, second, to make a point about the "Zeitgeist." One of Hannah's friends, the debauched young woman, Jessa, played by Jemima Kirk, says that there is no such thing as time and that all events occur simultaneously and are, forever, occurring or not-occurring: we are always being born, always dead, always not present because not yet born. In other words, on the same night on the same station (HBO) and within a half-hour of programming, the same metaphysics of time is expressed by two characters, a depraved, if attractive and highly intelligent cocaine addict, in "Girls" and a tormented cop in "True Detective." There must be something, as they say, in the Zeitgeist.

"Girls" seems completely true to life and totally authentic. The characters behave exactly the way that real people behave, although they have slightly better lines than we can contrive in real life. (For all I know, people in New York City are sufficiently witty to pull-off the clever dialogue in "Girls".) "Girls" succeeds in making itself seem completely truthful through the simplest, but most profound, of all devices: the show makes no attempt to flatter its heroine played by Lena Dunham and, in fact, she is continuously shot in the most unflattering clothing or nudity possible. Since Lena Dunham looks like a real woman, the show seems completely authentic -- it is "naked" in the most obvious and ordinary way: we are seeing the "naked truth" because its heroine is willing to appear before us without any artifice of any kind, no artful lighting to make her look seductive or, even, attractive, no disguise, nothing to hide her plump body as she waddles from scene to scene. This technique may seem like a superficial way to establish the program's veracity but it works, and, indeed, works remarkably well. "Girls" seems so truthful to certain aspects of female behavior (and female anatomy) that a male writer really can't describe the show without running the risk of being accused of all sorts of awful forms of politically incorrect "gaze" and misogynistic chauvinism. (My wife, who despises the show and its heroine, has no such concerns -- she calls the heroine "the piglet" and regards her displays of nudity as an example of almost hallucinatory narcissism.) An illustration of the show's weird truthfulness is an episode involving a week-end beach-house party hosted by one of the girls who is something of a socialite, Marnie, the character played by Allison Williams, who is conventionally beautiful. Hannah resents having to spend her weekend at the beach-house somewhere on Long Island, a place that is more elite than the Hamptons. She is skeptical about the agenda which involves the female activity of "healing" by mutual conversation with lots of drinking -- the girls, who have been a bit estranged for awhile, want to patch up rifts that have developed between them and engage in mutual commiseration about professional and romantic set-backs. Hannah, who is often the voice of common sense, distrusts this agenda and, in fact, subverts it by inviting five gay men that she knows to the dinner party, an invitation that essentially thwarts the raison d'etre for the entire weekend. Hannah signifies her discontent with the whole affair by wearing the tiniest and most revealing (and most hideous) lime-green bikini imaginable. Her friends comment on the fact that she is wearing this awful attire when everyone else, includng the beautiful Marnie and Jessa, are discretely covered-up. In one scene, Hannah is stooping over something on the sidewalk outside a frozen yogurt place when the five gay men walk up, and without recognizing her, proceed to make rude, if accurate, remarks about her pear-shaped lower body. Hannah is a little offended but not really -- in fact, she intends her attire to be offensive. Later, we see the women lounging on the beach -- all of them are wearing discrete swim-wear except for Hannah. Her little pallid pot-belly, her elephantine hips, and her inconsequential breasts are all on full display. It's naive and, even, somewhat embarrassing to say this -- but presenting the show's star in this light is a warrant of the show's authenticity, an authenticity that is successfully embodied, as well, in the entire episode. Needless to say, the dinner party goes badly wrong and the women are at each other's throats after an hour or so of alcohol-induced exhilaration -- the imagery of the next morning with the cups and bottles scattered all over the beach house and the gay men snoring is disorderly heaps in the corners of the rooms is startlingly real and indelible. And the silence of the girls as they make their morning coffee, brushing past one another, sulking, their faces swollen by their night of drinking, completely plain and unaffected in appearance, real people just like you and me. I suppose this show is on the way to becoming "Sex in the City" but, at this stage, toward the end of its third season, the show still seems fresh and, most important, true to life.

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