"True Detective" (HBO, Sundays). The self-contained first season of this anthology show, created and written by novelist Nic Pizzolatto and directed entirely by Cary Joji Fukunaga ("Sin Nombre"), moves into its final quarter. The double act of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as philosophically mismatched Louisiana state homicide detectives, heretofore running on parallel tracks of flashback, is moving into the present tense, and the tense present, as a case long closed creaks back open.
Soon we will have to deal with the "who" in the whodunit, which is to say, we are in some ways edging toward the increasingly familiar -- and one has to wonder if there's any unfamiliar territory left when it comes to murder mysteries -- even as we stumble into the increasingly strange. You will have your answer, and it will be obvious or it will be shocking (the person you scrupulously were meant never to suspect); it will offer closure or deny you that satisfaction; but however it comes, it will be something quite like something you have seen before. Interviews with Pizzolatto suggest that he has faith in his ending, and that he won't be pulling any cheap stunts just to make you jump. But what's made the show so good in any case is not the plot but the performance, and the production, which stays lifelike even when things are at the most eccentric. The otherness of its setting is as much felt as stated.
There has been discussion in the critical back rooms -- Twitter, I mean -- much of it swirling around Emily Nussbaum's New Yorker piece "Cool Story, Bro: The Shallow Deep Talk of 'True Detective,'" which argues, not unreasonably, that the series misses greatness due to "macho nonsense" and the thinness of its often-objectified female characters. Without denying it -- and Nussbaum's good points go beyond "True Detective" to the medium at large, grappling with new freedoms in old-fashioned and clumsy ways -- I would add that macho nonsense is part of what the show's about; that none of the characters beyond the leads are particularly well developed; that the series is, after all, named for a pulp magazine, and may be shooting lower than we suppose; and that the sexual objectification and exploitation have been written into the HBO charter since forever, distressingly. But we have gotten in the habit of taking television as seriously -- all hail the new golden age -- as it often begs to be taken. So … fair enough.
Nussbaum doesn't see enough of substance, interest or intelligence elsewhere in the show to excuse its lapses -- she sees mostly lapse -- but I'm still on board, even as I anticipate the letdown of An Answer: Mystery dies with its solution. There is something thrilling in the execution here -- a little show-offy at times, perhaps, just as McConaughey's philosophical ramblings can seem a bit of a show (on the writer's, not the character's part), but just as often impressive in its reticence. Both leads are most fascinating in the play-like scenes in which they're being interviewed about an old case and one another, scenes in which they keep much back. But there is also a building excitement as their philosophical dialectic turns into productive cooperation. Imperfect television has its delights.
"Review" (Comedy Central, Thursdays). A mock-reality series, based on the Australian "Review, With Myles Barlow," by Phil Lloyd and Trent O'Donnell. Andrew Daly ("Eastbound & Down") plays host-star Forrest MacNeil, who reviews not books, movies or art, but "life" -- "Life: It's literally all we have," he asks, "but is it any good?" -- awarding stars to a host of experiences from "stealing" to "addiction" to "making a sex tape" to "eating 15 pancakes" to "eating 30 pancakes" to "being Batman." It is, basically, the Morgan Spurlock school of experiential documentary taken to even greater and more self-destructive extremes. There is also an echo, both in the premise and the payoff and the earnest blandness of Daly's pseudo-scientific narration, of Albert Brook's seminal mock-doc "Real Life"; and there is something in MacNeil's awkward pretensions, of Steve Carell's Michael Scott. (A phrase like "cigarettes filled with tobacco and alcoholic wine" would have sat well in Michael's mouth.)
It is a comedy that doesn't particularly ask for your laughter -- it is too weird and creepy and sad to expect it -- but it has a certain integrity and a surprising amount of narrative arc. As in a game of "Truth or Dare," MacNeil is helpless to opt out of the experiment -- whatever a viewer asks of him, he must do -- which none of the people in his life ever connect to his behavior, when he turns into a racist or asks his wife for a divorce. (The Australian original is available for U.S. viewing via Hulu Plus.)
"Hudson Valley Ballers" (Above Average/YouTube). Longtime "Saturday Night Live" writers Paula Pell and James Anderson star in this six-episode Web series, which went up in December on Above Average, the YouTube home of Lorne Michaels' Broadway Video. The series finds the two running a "bed and brunch" in the Hudson Valley, that dreamland north of New York City; as the comic and sometimes-surreal embodiment of a friendship, it is a little like "Portlandia," and there, as here, the stars play themselves and put on costumes to play others -- a geriatric theater couple rehearsing a magic act in rocking chairs, a couple of hipsters disdaining their coffee, women in attendance at the Hers-don Valley Fem-posium. (It has a "Twin Peaks" vibe as well.)
All the installments together last less than half an hour, but each has an episodic integrity -- something less than a sitcom, but something more than a sketch. A lot of things happen without seeming to be happening fast. "Truth Basset" (Episode 3) begins with the two being hurtfully honest (when you hold the dog, you have to speak the truth), moves into a choreographic workout ("Paula, your jazz pops have got to be crisper"), incorporates a song, moves on to a walk in the woods, which leads them to a horse ("It's a stallion, we must tame it with our kindness"), horse whispering, jealousy over horse whispering, and then back to the Truth Bassets. ("Looking back," says Paula to James, "I'm glad we were not sexually compatible in college; I'm glad you're my friend." Then she tries to make out with him.)
Paul Rudd and Kate McKinnon star in the first and final episodes as love interests (Rudd: his, McKinnon: hers). He is Tampa St. Pete, first identified as "the local drifter," later as an Olive Garden mural painter and porn voice-over artist; she is "Just Jamie," who, says Paula, dissembling, "just helps me with general things and various stuff and so on and the like." Their breakup -- excuse the spoiler -- is a splendidly overwrought dance of comic melodrama. There is also a disappearing little girl, who is also a doll, and spooky.
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