True Detective and Beyond Part One: In Conversation with Barry Forshaw
To coincide with the home entertainment release of the latest crime drama True Detective, this time from the U.S. rather than the continent, The Fan Carpet‘s Paul Risker had the honour to speak with writer and journalist Barry Forshaw.
With True Detective as our starting point, the conversation soon resembled a complex crime scene that spiraled outward to take in all facets of the crime and detective genre…
From British crime dramas Endeavour, Vera and Hinterland, to The Killing, The Bridge, Spiral, Braquo, Salamander and Wallander from the continent, and now True Detective from America, it is proving to be a prolific spell for the crime drama.
Not to forget Breaking Bad and The Wire. We expect some television to be intelligent, but now big ambitious crime dramas are becoming the norm, which of course is a good thing. It’s almost like a golden age at the moment, and it’s interesting if you think about how everything has already been done, and all you can do is come up with some fresh approach. You could say Nic Pizzolatto managed to do that.
Yet we find ourselves continuously retelling these crime or detective stories, amidst what is a fascinating period for modern crime drama that has an international flavour.
Yes it is, but crime fiction can often get away with things that other media can’t. I remember when the Dirk Bogarde film Victim came out in the 1960s about a gay blackmail ring. It was an honest film about homosexuality, at a time when ordinary cinema wasn’t touching the subject. But because it was a crime movie it slipped below the radar. Now if you look at True Detective, you’ll find a bleaker picture of America than you’ll find in any other mainstream series.
Is True Detective a response to the European crime dramas or is it a natural evolution of the American crime drama?
There are two answers to that question. The first is yes, and you’re absolutely right. The influence of the Scandinavian dramas is filtering through, and we are now noticing it in this country. HBO are obviously the market leaders here, but for the right audience not only do not they not need a car chase every five minutes, they would not see that. It’s interesting when you mention Salamander which got a disappointing response. Although it was quite good, it was more of a traditional cop drama where there would frequently be a car chase or a fight. But apart from the finale, True Detective has only the one breath-taking action sequence – the six minute take of the raid halfway through. But for the rest of it, audiences are prepared to dig in and be patient. So given that TV is dumbed down left, right and centre, it shows there is still some intelligent TV out there.
Slow burn drama has come to dominate the landscape of modern television. We perhaps have The Wire to credit for that, which was one of the frontrunners of introducing that slow burn pace to the modern audience.
You have, but also The Killing as well, which was well received by British audiences, but unfortunately was not taken to by the American audiences who had to have their own remake. With The Killing you had to sit down for twenty hours of TV, during which everything moved at a fairly slow pace, just as it does in True Detective. Of course with The Killing unless you spoke Danish you had no choice but to pay attention, otherwise you would not understand what was going on.
Nic Pizzolatto wrote Galveston, which is an excellent crime novel, but it is also a literary novel. I don’t believe he would have been interested in doing a straightforward show, and he insisted on creative control from very early on. But given that this is his debut show, he’s bloody lucky that he got it. Though in hindsight because he had Harrelson and McConaughey on board it allowed him to slightly dictate his own terms.
True Detective may have become the flagship show for America crime drama. Do you think it has displaced The Wire which for a long time was the figurehead show and crowning achievement?
It has, but that might change. The reason why The Wire is so highly thought of as are Breaking Bad and True Detective goes back to the fact that these are not only police procedurals where you have your crime or criminal of the week. You have the complexity of a novel, and you could say that both the central crime and the two detectives are particularly interesting and well done. But the crime is not as important as that central relationship between the two cops, and the way in which their lives are stripped bare for us. We have the one who seems to have gone completely off the rails, and the other one who is the family man. But in fact both are equally screwed up characters, and as it goes on and on we come to see that they are much closer to one another than they might originally have appeared.
But why The Wire remains the benchmark is that it took so many things on. There was the season on schooling amidst the overarching subject of the drug problem in America.
Who knows what will happen in the second season of True Detective, and if it goes off in a completely different direction it will likely have a different cast. But in its own way it could well end up being as ambitious as The Wire.
The most important thing is that True Detective has found an audience, and following the success of the first season it will hopefully be afforded some flexibility in choosing its future path.
They have, though we don’t know yet whether we’ve seen the last of those two detectives, because they both arrive at a point where there is a sense of closure for them. So the question remains as to what you would do with them in the second series? Unlike most TV cops who can come back and do it again next week, they’ve gone on this amazing odyssey that has almost destroyed them both. It’s a bit like with Lisbeth Salander where Larsson wanted to do ten books, although in the end he only did three. But what would he have done in the other seven books? Would he have put her through the wringer every single time? She’s multiply raped and abused, and whilst that worked for three books and gave her this terrific desire for vengeance, at the end of it all even though she’s not healed she is in a slightly better place than she was at the beginning. At the same time this is in a sense true of Matthew McConaughey’s character.
We’ve seen how these characters relate to the job, and by bringing in an alternative cast from season to season they could create a collage of different personalities that would serve as an interesting commentary on the detective archetype.
Also you could say it is a commentary on America. Now there is a nation that is far more devout than Britain. David Cameron calls us a Christian country, but he took a lot of stick for that recently when a lot of people responded by saying, “This is a secular, a multi-faith country.” You wouldn’t say that about America. The majority of Americans believe in God, and True Detective is a show that locates evil specifically within a religious context. It presents us with the failed revivalist preacher who is a man who’s now kind of destroyed, and who no longer looks at what is life is with any kind of pleasure. Generally religion doesn’t come out of it well, and neither does the American cop system. But then when as it ever? From films like LA Confidential on, we seem to need to see the police institution as corrupt. It is almost as though we expect that now.
I’ve heard it said that in France any crime drama is perceived to be a critique of corruption in law enforcement. Even in this latest run of Endeavour and also in Hinterland the corruption and the dark underbelly of law enforcement is present. It seems to be an international tendency.
It’s interesting, and both Spiral and Braquo are so bleak in their depiction of the French police; particularly Braquo. The heroes are so far off the rails that they themselves are constantly committing crimes that even stretch to murder, and they are the heroes; the good guys. In Britain I don’t think we’ve gone quite so far. Whilst you are right to mention those shows the closest we’ve come to that view was the Red Riding Quartet which painted a bleak picture of British policing, where that corruption is in the very DNA of the police.
Although that was another good British series, in the end you didn’t believe it. It looked like it was set in some alternate universe, and if the Yorkshire police did happen to behave like that then you found yourself starting to disbelieve it in the end. At least in True Detective, the two black detectives although they are not presented as being particularly bright are not necessarily corrupt, and neither are the two central characters. Despite all of the things they obviously do wrong, Nic Pizzolatto regards them as heroes. They are deeply flawed heroes but they are still heroes.
The question these characters are asking day to day is how to serve the greater good whilst not sacrificing your personal morality as well as the moral status of the institution you serve.
The Cohle character does it for some ideological reason, but he’s more concerned with his own quest. He’s a man who doesn’t really function in any other way. The one thing that strikes you as being odd is that he has a relationship during the course of the series. We don’t see much of it, and we find ourselves thinking how does this man sustain a relationship? There is that fantastic line where Woody Harrelson asks him, “What does it mean that you are a pessimist? “He replies, “I’m no good at parties and I’m no good outside of parties either.” [Laughs] He’s someone who can’t function on any normal level, and he’s a philosopher with the bleakest possible view of human nature. I don’t think that Nic Pizzolatto has that view, and whilst the show may be about negative characters in the end it is a show about redemption.
Out of the cynicism can emerge a sense of optimism, and True Detective is in this vein.
Yes, but it’s also got this fantastic visual beauty. I hadn’t seen the series when it aired on TV, but then when I watched the Blu-Rays I thought oh bloody hell. It was just the sheer physical look, and what’s interesting about the look is that Louisiana sometimes looks like another planet. It’s strange and haunting, but it’s very beautiful. I don’t know that we do that so much here in Britain, and I don’t think the French do it particularly either. It is just the Scandinavians who invite you to look at landscape, and that’s what is so innovative about True Detective in which Louisiana is definitely a character in itself.
Louisiana is one of America’s great cities with such an interesting cultural heritage. In one sense it feels like America and yet it feels as though it is a world in itself. With its superstitions it offers a rich narrative landscape that is full of texture, and is the perfect setting for a crime drama.
In True Detective you’ve got all those accoutrements of this strange satanic religion that they keep discovering. The only way you can do that in Britain is in a film like The Wicker Man where you put it on an island. We are a small island and so something like that going on in Britain one be aware of. The difference would be in closed communities such as the Orthodox Jewish community, which famously closes in on itself, and tries to deal with its own problems. Also there was the grooming and so forth with Asian gangs. This was within the texture of Britain, though we didn’t know about it. America is so vast that you are perfectly prepared to believe that some very nasty things could be going on that would go undetected.
That’s why in Britain we enjoy looking towards either the continent or America, because they are landscapes in which we are not required to suspend our belief in quite the same way as for British set crime dramas.
I’m thinking of when I was growing up in Liverpool there was a sense that Britain was a big place, and Manchester which was the city next door was somewhere to visit. It was different back then, and that’s all pretty much gone now. I spent the weekend in Brighton because they have a new crime festival – Dark and Stormy. But Brighton is just an extension of London now. I’ve been in London thirty years, but I still feel like a northerner. I don’t sound like one anymore, though I don’t think I ever did particularly. People in Liverpool tend to hear inflections, but I still feel slightly like an outsider. Maybe that’s what you do respond to, and all cultures are in a sense about outsiders, and the one’s that aren’t are not necessarily the most interesting.
TRUE DETECTIVE: COMPLETE FIRST SEASON IS AVAILABLE NOW ON BLU-RAY AND DVD COURTESY OF HBO