With two HBO series ending their first season runs last night, I thought an open thread to discuss both was in order. Mass reactions to both "True Detective" and "Looking" have been somewhat mystifying to me, so I need you as sounding board.
Gross generalities and spoilers ahead. Ready?
LOOKING (episodes 1-4 previously discussed)
"Looking" has been met with quite an endless stream of haterade since it premiered. Especially by the gays who seem to be experiencing representational crises every Sunday. 'Not enough sex'/'shallow and sex obsessed' were frequent complaints at the beginning but how can both be true? Later on 'not enough specifics of characterizations' and 'I hate the characters!' cropped up more frequently and, yes, both of those complaints can be true simultaneously. But are people misreading the emptiness of the characterizations? Aren't all of the characters heading straight towards or already in 'who will I be?' arcs at the moment, which seems like a reasonable target for a showrunner to aiming at in a short first season, right?
Agustín is obviously the most "unlikeable" character on the show, but I don't think his characterization has been non-specific at all - it's just he's an asshole. But assholes on other shows are often worshipped, so I wonder why he is so different for people? Dom just turned 40 and his story arc, which has him switching gears abruptly and atypically in terms of career and romance, is about someone trying to recreate themselves before it's too late. Patrick (Jonathan Groff), the show's lead is not "without personality" so much as he is a passive guy, and I'm not speaking sexually despite letting his boss fuck him over (literally). Patrick's blankness may well be intentional and is arguably somewhat smart for a short first season... you have to leave characters on television with somewhere to go (you've got hours of programming ahead). And lead characters especially are often meant to be our way into a show's world and therefore, except in extreme diva situations (see Sex & the City or Girls), often have less showy and easily categorized personalities. Consider Woody Harrelson's Detective Marty Hart on "True Detective" for a moment. That show couldn't work if both detectives were these sealed off mysterious practically alien characters. The dynamic worked because Marty was enough of an everyman, despite a few well placed details, that we had a way in to seeing Detective Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and were free to bristle along or build slow respect for or worry about him right alongside Marty.
My longwinded point is I think "Looking" is getting better and better. Episode 5, an impressively focused episode which featured only Patrick and his new boyfriend Richie getting to know each other, sexually and otherwise, was the turning point. The show has been improving ever since deepening its characters -- loved everything about the wedding episode but especially the cameo by 80s sitcom star Julia Duffy as Patrick's mother (I hope we see more of her) -- and raising the emotional stakes. That's an excellent place for a show to be at the end of its first season.
First seasons are always about figuring your show out. TV's greatest hits often have first seasons which look really atypical in retrospect. I'm curious to see what this show becomes (that last scene between Patrick and Richie was a heartbreaker) and hope the second season is strong enough to forever vanquish that annoyingly frequent boogeyman presence of "Queer as Folk" in conversations about it. That that dated trash TV is sometimes compared favorably to "Looking" is as horrifying and impossible to fathom as that spaghetti monster with the green ears in "True Detective"
"True Detective" has, unlike "Looking", been greeted rapturously with intense fascination / praise by seemingly everyone on the internet, none of whom seem to be worried about whether it accurately represents miserable Texas atheists or philandering cops or devil worshipping pedophiles. (Kidding!)
I liked both shows but hated the reactions to both; my friend Joe loves to needle me about my anti-TV bias but I continue to maintain that I have no objection whatsoever to TV, just to the public reaction to it. I enjoy a ton of TV shows (mostly on cable). I am 100% convinced that the things people love on television they would never give the time of day in the cinema so I get defensive. People continue to skip artistically ambitious cinema and flock to ambitious television and then complain about the false narrative that they themselves have propagated with their "tv is better than film" and "movies are garbage / all remakes - no new ideas " nonsense. The truth as its ever been: They are different mediums which can look similar in appearance, even using the same faces, but have different DNA and specialities.
The best thing about TV has always been its ability to build long form stories and character arcs... though surprisingly many TV series still don't care about that. But with TV seasons getting shorter and with the short form anthology series possibly rising, the two artforms do seem to be merging. True Detective was roughly 8 hours long. I'm not entirely convinced that it couldn't have been a 3½ hour movie and been even better. Did it have enough substance to fill 8 hours? There was a lot of teasing and many red herrings and too much repetition and running in place. No, nothing as egregious as, say, True Blood where a lot "happens" but almost nothing actually changes in between a season opener and its closer 12 hours later, but still. There was dead space. I love Cary Fukunaga as a visual director (Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre) but even he couldn't find a way to lighten up the often numbing deadweight, visually, of hours of shot/reverse shot interview scenes in a single set. True Detective got more interesting and more baroque in the second half of its season when the gaps between the truth and the "truth" as told became more visible, but my god those first four hours were interminable... or at least they were as one long movie. And that's how I watched it essentially; four hour movies are the original binge watching. Holla!)
I'm slightly perplexed and fascinated by how patient and forgiving people are with television, sticking with shows long after they don't really enjoy them and finding ways to engage with things they wouldn't like in a movie. I can't count the number of times I've heard people dismiss entire seasons of a show they like... "well, __ season is bad/rough but...". What movie would be someone's favorite if they hated whole huge swaths of it? Similarly "True Detective" is a great example of people actually having fun with the artful pretensions of a story but they don't seem to think "pretentious" movies are fun. This is not a condemnation or judgment of the way people watch television, it's just an observation. I think the world would be a better place if people extended this open-minded patience and curiousity to the cinema.
"True Detective" is surely heading to a ton of Emmys for its byzantine plot and heavy-handed philosophizing and showboating performances that added up to... what exactly? I'll admit that the grand guignol finale complete with Ann Dowd (yay!) as a mentally challenged hilbilly living in art-directed horror movie squalor didn't quite do it for me other than terrifying me. It did do that. It seemed like a different show and I'm not sure it earned the 7 hours of buildup, frankly, particularly that weirdly tacked on spiritual redemption for Detective Cohle. Still the show had great moments and that final development gave McConaughey another opportunity to grip his future Emmy tighter. His star turn as Detective Cohle was the most subtle and nuanced overacting I think I've ever seen -- and no, I don't know how you do both at once. But he can! So, I bow down, I guess. My favorite detail of his characterization was how possessed he often looked; all was not well inside that head.
Due to that trajectory of acclaim, I only ask for two things: Can we please not pretend Woody Harrelson is a "supporting" character in this (groan!) once we hit TV's own awards season and can we all take a moment to appreciate how much Michelle Monaghan did with so very very very very very very little here. Seriously, actresses are such good sports. Always in the background but having to drive home important emotional content as soon as the camera and screenwriter remembers that they exist. Last I heard, which might be outdated now, Season 2 of "True Detective" is still a mystery in terms of cast, characters, and locale (McConaughey will not return and neither will Louisiana). But if "American Horror Story" is the new model for this type of thing, can we give Michelle Monaghan one of the lead roles next time? She's earned it.
Did you watch both shows? If so, SPEAK UP.