When the dust settled on the season finale of True Detective last year, we observed a somewhat schizophrenic postmortem online. Folks hailed it as some of the best television they’d ever seen, but nevertheless went on to criticize the show for being yet another sympathetic exploration of flawed, middle-aged white males. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but they weren’t wrong! Over eight hours, HBO presented a pulpy crime drama in which the subtext - the many ways in which men dominate, subjugate and otherwise destroy women - crept like kudzu over the show’s entire landscape. And we loved it. We ate it up, we were sad when it was over, and we recognized that, though it played in the familiar white male sandbox, we had never seen anything quite like it. Afterward, a conversation started. What if season two of True Detective explored female characters with the same insight, intelligence and craft on display? Wouldn’t that be something pretty groundbreaking? Don’t female protagonists deserve that same level of quality programming? Isn’t it time?
The answer, of course, is yes. But during that conversation, another question popped into my head: What if Nic Pizzolatto doesn’t want to do that?
Let’s stop here and point out that this is a purely rhetorical question. This is in no way based on actual evidence or anything. It’s just a hypothetical scenario I’ve been wondering about since we got word months ago that two or three more white guys were in talks for lead roles in season two of the show. But let’s say a person created a television program, executive produced it and wrote every single episode himself - no staff writers, no real outside input; it’s a show that is unquestionably his. We’re talking about maybe as personal a vision as we’ve ever seen in the form of a TV series. Imagine if audiences demanded that he graft certain social and political priorities onto his vision? And then imagine if the author of that vision came out and said “I hear what you’re saying, but writing about women isn't really my strong suit.” Or what if he even said “I support this concern, but that’s not what I have in mind”?
What do we do then? This is not Marvel Comics, where the recent embrace of equality and diversity is a positive, much-needed example being set at a huge corporate level. Of course, HBO is also a profitable branch of an enormous corporation, but what made True Detective stand out last year was its singular vision and execution. Nic Pizzolatto is the show; the show is him. Is it appropriate to suggest, in the name of progressiveness, in what way a creative artist needs to change what they're doing? If not, then what? Do we demand HBO give this person’s very autonomous creation to someone more in line with a progressive ideology? Do we decide that the need for change trumps this - or really, any - artist’s vision?
In an overwhelming percentage of mainstream genre fare, you could simply write a great character and then cast a woman in the role, and you’re off and running. We’re hearing about that happening more and more, and it’s exciting to see those lines being erased. But True Detective’s through-line, short-term memory critics notwithstanding, was its somewhat damning gaze upon the ugliest facets of the male psyche, infesting everything from the crimes driving the story, to the institutional fixtures explored in the narrative, to its two damaged leads. You couldn't cast the Marty role with a female and say, as an artist, the same things that were said with that character. And for all his above-the-fray cosmic observations, in the end the character of Rust was no less a commentary on his gender. Grafting a different social agenda onto this particular piece of content would change the very things that made it worth discussing.
The counter-argument might be that we've had plenty of stories about troubled white men, that a sympathetic portrayal of corrupt cops is culturally tone-deaf. Those arguments are pushing a non-artistic agenda, a well-meaning tail trying to wag a dog, and it will most likely never result in quality content. Change is needed in the form of giving new voices an equal platform and by allowing for truly diverse representation, not by breaking into an ice cream shop and demanding the manager start making necklaces. That’s to say nothing of the fact that the ugly misanthropy in True Detective is kind of the point, in a number of ways. It's maybe not just about the men in the story, but also the man telling the story. There's an anthropological value to mining what middle-aged white guy Nic Pizzolatto is saying about middle-aged white guys, and forcing his hand to write about something else feels destructive. Saying the show is sympathetic toward misogynists is like accusing Paleolithic cave paintings of being anti-bison. Calling for more representation in Pizzolatto’s story is starting to feel like we're demanding a thing be a different thing.
Is season two’s Ani Bezzerides a character written in response to the vocal detractors of the Rust & Marty Power Hour? We’re only one episode into season two, so it’s too early to say (not that that stopped the dozens of think pieces filed Monday morning). Ani's certainly got a lot going on, based on her exposition-heavy first appearance. She’s definitely going to be under a microscope in a way Rust & Marty never were. Will women viewers feel as if Pizzolatto is tapping into something ugly and real with Ani, the way I felt watching Marty and Rust last year? It’s easy to imagine she exists as a response to season one criticism; if that’s the case, whether Pizzolatto succeeds with her or not, there’s a real good chance she’ll only ever function as a target for agenda-driven detractors, splitting the aim of their slings and arrows between the “be careful what you wish for” and “damned if you do/damned if you don’t” circles. A no-win situation.
I find myself wondering if True Detective is actually more progressive than people realize, but in a different way. It seems to me its existence is very good news for anyone calling for singular, distinctive voices in filmed narrative fiction. If you want a culture that allows a voice to tell the story they want to tell, without outside agendas or pressures, True Detective is in your corner, isn't it? Stripping away the specifics for a moment, isn't that exactly the kind of climate that needs to be nurtured in order to effect any real, legitimate change regarding what’s foisted upon us by media conglomerates?
I’m not here to tell you an answer one way or another, because I don't know for sure! And there’s not some closeted MRA agenda peering out from behind these questions. It’s just this very specific example - a show that made the splash it did due to one artist’s very specific vision, and is now being tasked with a progressive mission it might not be interested in, or even qualified to execute - that makes me wonder if we need to find a balance between the two very important agendas of always working toward giving the less heard an equal voice, and not becoming the kind of culture that forces artists to take requests.