HBO"s True Detective features Detectives Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson). It's a cop show like no other.
My wife and I are loving it. It's gritty and bleak, yet so marvelously acted and philosophically intriguing, we eagerly look forward to new episodes.
Rustin Cohle breaks new ground for broadcast television. I've never heard a major TV show character speak about religion and the meaninglessness of existence in such an honest, philosophically-sophisticated way.
Here's an example from the episode we watched a few days ago. Cohle and Hart are following up a lead in their investigation of a grisly ritualistic murder, which might be connected with an evangelistic preacher.
After arriving at a tent revival in rural Louisiana, they engage in a fascinating back-and-forth. Hart (Harrelson) is no saint. He believes in God, though, and defends religiosity. Cohle (McConaughey) has a dark perspective on life.
Watch the video of the tent scene, which, a bit over half way through, includes a flash-forward glimpse of an interview session with Cohle many years later. (The detectives are investigating another murder.) Cohle obviously has changed in appearance a lot. His worldview, though, doesn't seem to have altered much.
I found the initial dialogue in the tent revival scene so interesting, I transcribed it. Here it is.
Cohle: What do you think the average IQ of this group is, huh?
Hart: Can you see Texas up there on your high horse? What do you know about these people?
Cohle: Just observation and deduction. I see a propensity for obesity, poverty, a yen for fairy tales. Folks putting what few bucks they do have into little wicker baskets being passed around. I think it’s safe to say that nobody here is going to be splitting the atom, Marty.
Hart: You see that, your fucking attitude. Not everybody wants to sit alone in an empty room, beating off to murder manuals. Some folks enjoy community, the common good/
Cohle: Well, if the common good got's to make up fairy tales, then it’s not good for anybody.
Hart: I mean, can you imagine if people didn’t believe, what things they would get up to?
Cohle: Exact same things they do now, it’s just out in the open.
Hart: Bull-shit! It’d be a fucking freak show of murder and debauchery, and you know it.
Cohle: If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward, then brother, that person is a piece of shit, and I’d like to get as many of them out in the open as possible.
Hart: Well, I guess your judgement is infallible, piece-of-shit-wise. You think that notebook is a stone tablet? [Cohle habitually carries around a large ledger-size notebook for his detective notes.]
Cohle: What’s it say about life? We get together, tell yourself stories that violate every law of the universe, just to get through the goddamn day? What’s that say about your reality, Marty?
Hart: When you get to talking like this, you sound panicked.
A Wall Street Journal piece, "The most shocking thing about HBO's 'True Detective,'" persuasively argues that Cohle's philosophizing is virtually identical to a weird fiction work by Thomas Ligotti. The piece includes this speechifying by Cohle in another True Detective scene.
I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in human evolution. We became too self aware; nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, a secretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody’s nobody. I think the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.
The bold-faced lines are almost exact reflections of Ligotti's writing.
[Update: just came across a video of the great Episode 1 scene where Hart decides to ask his new'ish partner, Cohle, what he believes in. They've just started investigating the grisly murder. I love Hart's "And now, I'm begging you to just shut the fuck up!" line. Watch below.]
I don't feel anywhere near as bleak as Cohle does about human consciousness or the meaning of life. Yet almost always my wife and I find ourselves resonating more with Cohle, than with his partner, Hart.
It's refreshing to see something closely akin to our worldview being prominently featured in a major television show. The Wall Street Journal piece ends with:
As my friend and colleague Marshall Crook suggested in his review of the second episode, the series could end up “as bleak as it gets” following the lead of Chambers and Lovecraft — even if there is no supernatural element, and there doesn’t appear to be — as well as a philosophy similar to Ligotti’s.
Yet, it could also be revolutionary television. Millions of viewers are hearing Cohle’s worldview weekly, and many might just find that it makes some kind of troubling sense.