Doing the Job: How "True Detective" Is Screwing With Buddy Cop Cliches

Doing the Job: How "True Detective" Is Screwing With Buddy Cop ClichesImage via HBO.

HBO's True Detective is flipping all kinds of Lethal Weapon-esque Buddy Cop tropes. What do these new positions say about the American male in 2014?

“We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self.” - Det. Rustin Cohle

"Past a certain age, a man without a family can be a bad thing." - Det. Martin Hart

By a happy accident, I had 20 minutes to kill channel-surfing prior to the pilot episode of HBO's True Detective six short weeks ago and found myself halfway through a basic cable showing of Lethal Weapon. Not only did it remind me of a more naïve time, in which it was possible to watch Mel Gibson without feeling profoundly icky, but it also served as a useful primer for the Buddy Cop Movie tropes True Detective was about to smack upside the head with a big red toolbox.

Specifically: an exploration of masculinity through the contrast of an emotionally disturbed live wire with a unique skill set and a slightly older stable family man, supported by women who are wives, daughters, or prostitutes but little more, and one in particular whose death serves solely as a plot driver. All of this is relevant to a particular interest of mine: how American men perceive themselves through TV and movies.

The show features two pairs of cop partners, one in 1995 and one in 2012.  Calling either of them proper buddies is dicey, though that’s more apparent with Detectives Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Hart (Woody Harrelson). Based on the dialogue in the show to date, we still don't know the black cops' names—though they're credited on IMDB as Michael Potts' Detective Maynard Gilbough (older, box-man, divorced) and Tory Kittles' Detective Thomas Papania (younger, father of three). Their anonymity is tempered by the fact that they're basically audience surrogates, which is a fascinating choice given HBO's subscriber base.

We're getting the 1995 story along with them, though it's obvious that they know some things that we don't. By the fourth episode, it's also becoming clear that we know some things that they don't, which is possibly even more interesting. The interaction between them, while subtle, reveals that theirs may be a more overtly professional relationship than Marty and Rust's, but it's not without friction: Gilbough clearly pulled rank on Papania in the matter of Rust's nothing-snooty beer run. That said, they work well together, based on the near-telepathic communication that seems to be going on with all those significant glances. 

Lethal Weapon (both movie and series) can be loosely summarized as the reintegration of Sgt. Riggs (Mel Gibson) into society and sanity via exposure to Sgt. Murtaugh (Danny Glover) and his family, along with a bunch of pyrotechnics. So far in True Detective, Rust’s interaction with Marty’s family has mostly exposed a lot of live-wires in all their lives, while Marty has been busily lighting pyrotechnics of his own making and 2012 Rust mostly seems to have been reintegrated with Lone Star tallboys. There may be some creepy parallels developing between Rust/Marty/Maggie (played by Michelle Monaghan) and Charlie/Reggie/Dora, in terms of partners overstepping boundaries regarding wives or soon-to-be ex-wives.

Regardless, the show is not exactly a ringing endorsement of matrimony or domestic spheres in general. There are more broken marriages than whole ones by a country mile, and husbands seem to be hazardous for wives and possibly daughters and granddaughters. Charlie Lange (Brad Carter) is mostly of interest to us because he’s Dora’s ex who may well have gotten her killed. It’s not clear who exactly was driving the car that hit Rust’s daughter. Marty’s eldest daughter learned about graphic depictions of sex from someone who probably wasn’t a classmate. Even the ostensible benefits of marriage, pounded into our heads ad infinitum by Marty’s carrying-on, are rendered questionable from the first scene of the show by his conspicuous lack of a wedding ring in 2012.  

As far as 1995 goes, I haven’t seen this many carefully composed shots centering on wedding bands since the Kay commercial that interrupted Riggs’ suicidal ideation:

But not one in the sex scene with his wife, just his mistress, Lisa (Alexandra Daddario).

He should have gone to Jared.  

(Side note: Marty, you silly man. You couldn't even get the handcuffs on Lisa first, and you really thought she was going to passively accept your radio silence after you went full Gibson on her date? I winced at Rust’s “crazy pussy” line, but then I recollected who was delivering it: a guy who is three months out of a mental institution and hallucinates on the job. Carry on, Mr. Pizzolatto.)

Second only to wedding ring shots: dick references, loaded with even more queasy inferences about the fragile state of dudeliness in Louisiana circa 1995. For all the testosterone on the show—and there’s enough in a single episode to solve the nation’s Low-T problems—there’s an equal amount of nervousness regarding its source. Never have I been so happy for TV to tell rather than show an audience Burt’s experience in the shower at Angola, unless it was two episodes later with Rust’s description of a proto-narcocorrido punishment. Of interest to those of us who have managed to stop wincing: the conflation of genitals and face with identity and the removal of both resulting in death.

And then, of course:

The law says you cannot touch! No no no no no. 

It probably isn’t an accident that all three scenes involve the Taxman himself, Matthew McConaughey, resurrected from the rom-com sepulchre of People’s Sexiest Man Alive notoriety. His role is the inverse of the original Sexiest Man Alive, Mel Gibson, and his trajectory as Riggs, which reveals some fascinating things about what y’all define as masculinity in 2014. While prettiness is no longer an impediment to badassery, especially when wearing a grass-stained undershirt, what we once assumed were indicators of manly grit and resolve may instead be obsession or neurophysiological damage. Marriage and fatherhood is more likely to be a swamp of poorly-expressed male neediness than a solid foundation, and addiction takes significantly more than dog biscuits to overcome. Halfway through the locked room of this season, one thing is clear: what we think to be true is likely as illusory as a prostitute’s turnaround in a revival tent.

La Donna Pietra (@ladonnapietra) is a Duke City denizen with opinions about pop culture, gender, and ice cream.

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Tags: true-detective, hbo, lethal-weapon, matthew-mcconaughey, woody-harrelson
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