Last August, AMC premiered Low Winter Sun, a dark detective show that seemed to demonstrate that the anti-hero genre was out of creative juice. The attempt to launch yet another story about a corrupted detective who we were supposed to root for in spite of his vices was a creative and commercial bust: in December, AMC declined to renew it.
Earlier this month, though, two very different shows debuted in two different venues, and demonstrated that there may be some miles left in a horse that previously seemed destined for the glue factory. HBO’s anthology show True Detective introduced us to Detectives Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), Louisiana cops investigating a possible serial killing, and Fox’s Rake gave us Keegan Deane (Greg Kinnear), a lawyer with a truly disastrous personal life. These two shows are the logical conclusion of fifteen years of shows about difficult men: finally, it seems, we’re ready to admit that men with disastrous personal lives and uneven work records might not be anything more than truly messed up.
Hart and Cohle and Deane differ from many of their Golden Age predecessors in an important way. While Tony Soprano and Al Swearengen faced occasional humiliations and potential losses of control via the machinations of their mothers and the malfunctioning of their bodies, they remained titanic figures who retained their viewers’ respect, if not uncomplicated affection, for the entire runs of The Sopranos and Deadwood. On The Wire, Jimmy McNulty could brandish his detective’s badge to his detractors and himself when he was at risk of drowning in the morass of his professional life. And even after he hit bottom in the series’ second season, McNulty would peel himself out of the car he wrecked in a drunk and up from beneath a scrapple-serving diner waitress and reclaim a measure of dignity. In Breaking Bad, Walter White’s competence was like the meth that he cooked — pure, amoral, and utterly without regard for the consequences of its use. Their competence and their will made it easy to ignore their personal failings.
In True Detective, though, the very premise of this first season is that Hart and Cohle might not actually be very good at their jobs. The story is rooted in the possibility of their failure: the men are being questioned about a serial killer case they believed they closed seventeen years ago because another woman has been murdered, her body posed in a way that’s consistent with the victims from two decades earlier. Cohle’s on the case in the first place because of a disaster in his previous job: after shooting and killing three drug dealers, he spent four months in a mental ward, and was kicked over to Louisiana when he requested a transfer.
In the flashbacks to the investigation, the men sketch pictures of fetishes in fields, eat banh mi, hang around the office trying to avoid getting pulled into a task force on anti-Christian crimes, and meander into prisons and revival meetings into a series of dead ends. They show a genius for talk and for picking at each other, but not for much else. And neither Cohle’s supposed insights, nor Hart’s local knowledge, produce clear breakthroughs. What they discover, instead of revelatory bullet holes in refrigerators like the one that inspired one of The Wire’s most famous scenes, are more mysteries, like a painting in an abandoned church, or writing that’s only made more menacing by its nonsensical nature. In the third episode of the show, it even seems like their investigation into the ritual murders might be a ploy to avoid catching another case.
In the absence of the blinding light of brilliance, the pathetic nature of Hart and Cohle’s personal lives is harder to ignore or discount. Cohle’s the more obvious wreck, devastated by the death of his young daughter and the departure of his wife, poisoned by his exposure to the drugs that he investigated, using with the prostitutes he’s trying to turn into informants, and baiting his partner by flirting with Maggie Hart, cutting her grass. On a date with one of Maggie’s colleagues, when he’s asked what he did in Paris, Cohle confesses that he “Mostly got drunk in front of Notre Dame.”
It took The Wire a season and a half to show McNulty careening into a pylon in a highway underpass, but at least he kept his business to himself. In the very first episode of True Detective, Cohle shows up swaying drunk to dinner with Hart, Hart’s wife, and their two young children, exposed both to his partner, and to those of us watching at home. And in the present day, he’s a disaster: there’s nothing sexy about the man demanding that he be allowed to start his drinking on his day off right on time if he’s spending that day in a police precinct, the man whose face is ruined by drink and whose hair is grown long with lack of care, the former genius who’s made a deliberate choice to squander his talent.
But Hart’s a mess, too, and he’s admitted it by the third episode, telling Maggie: “Work. Home. Cases. Just…I, I get the feeling like, I can see forty and it’s like I’m the coyote in the cartoons, like I’m running off a cliff, and if I don’t look down and keep running, I might be fine. But I think I’m all fucked up.” Maggie doesn’t flatter or soothe him, either: “You are,” she tells him. “Yes you are.”
Some of the source of Marty’s trouble is his relationship with a younger woman named Lisa (Alexandra Daddario). Unlike Tony Soprano and his various mistresses, who almost always wanted more from the New Jersey mob boss that he was willing to give them, Marty’s far more attached to Lisa than she is to him. When he comes to her house bearing handcuffs and making louche jokes about having cake and eating it too, Lisa’s willing to have sex with him, but she’s the one trying to remind him of their boundaries, explaining that she can’t meet a nice guy hanging around the house. Later, when he interrupts her on a date, asking if Lisa’s trying to push him to divorce Maggie, Lisa tells Hart, exasperated “I don’t want to marry you, Marty. That’s the whole point. It’s just run its course.”
When Hart crashes into her house, beating up the man she’s taken home, it’s a pathetic loss of control, rather than some sort of manly act of vigor. And Hart’s inability to handle the prospect that he might not be enough to meet Lisa’s sexual or emotional needs is a welcome reversal of polarity, a small reparation for all the pathetic wives and mistresses who have hung onto our anti-heroes so desperately. In the present timeline, Hart tells the detectives who are questioning him “That’s why I always said Rust needed a family. Boundaries. Boundaries are good.” The insight, and Hart’s absolute hypocrisy in expressing it, are bitterly hilarious, given that in the past, Hart was dreamily asking Cohle if he thought “a man can be in love with two women.”
In True Detective, women don’t enhance the allure of these difficult men: they strip down Hart and Cohle’s illusions, their abilities to demand that they be recognized as whole and normal, much less as the kind of great man Cohle imagines himself to be. Rather than conferring dignity and grandeur on men who might not actually deserve it, True Detective’s trick is to examine both the ordinary pretensions of Hart’s belief that he’s a good family man, and the grandiose delusions Cohle’s built to sustain himself and keep himself apart from the community in which he’s landed. And their problems don’t even have the weight of standing in for a generation the way that Don Draper’s do.
Rake is a much more traditional show: network television, it seems, isn’t ready for a male protagonist who’s bad at both his job and his personal life. And so Keegan is a good lawyer, someone who snaps into grown manhood when he enters a courtroom, shocked awake by the prospect of defending accused criminals, including serial killers and cannibals, who make Keegan himself look like a charming fixer-upper rather than an utter wreck. But outside of the courtroom, he’s even more of a disaster than his predecessor, Doctor Gregory House. House, at least, had an actual friend: Keegan has one of those, too, but he spends more of his time with an exasperated prostitute (Bojana Novakovic) that he pays to talk to him, and in one moment Fox is flacking in trailers, to yank a tooth out of his head with pliers, and the heavy sent by his bookie to beat him up for non-payment (Omar J. Dorsey). And it was one thing for House to cling tight to his misery in solitude, but Keegan’s behavior spills over on onto an ex-wife and teenage son. Like Marty, Keegan’s more repulsive for his ability to do actual harm to the other human beings in his orbit.
“Do you ever wonder if you’re a bad man?” Hart asks Marty in True Detective. “No, I don’t wonder, Marty. World needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door,” Cohle tells him. The assumption that the “world needs bad men” has guided the last decade of television, though not for the reason that Cohle’s offering up to his partner to let him sleep at night. But True Detective and Rake are at their best when they puncture that self-justification.