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True Detective’s problem with true women in the spotlight

As booze-soaked Detective Ray Velcoro, Colin Farrell is the standout performer in the second season of True Detective.


Beautiful, absurd and always capable of surprise, the first season of True Detective was a revelation: a gloomy surrealist noir propped up by compelling police procedural. Like most, I fell in love with Rustin "Time is a Flat Circle" Cohle, even in his dirtbag, chain-smoking, six-pack-guzzling incarnation. The dynamic between world-weary Rust and Woody Harrelson's loose-cannon Marty Hart made for near-perfect viewing, with the writing pushing this unlikely cast to show off their surprising range.

Inevitably showered with praise and awards, the show had many things going for it, but also an undeniable liability – it had a woman problem. In the first True Detective universe, women were mostly showcased via the male gaze, used for run-of-the-mill titillation, or as obvious architectural fodder for "more important" male narratives. Some viewers and critics grew tired of the boring sexposition onslaught that has become status quo on cable television, staying with True Detective solely for Rust's whacked-out musings on life. Frankly, it was a show worth making excuses for.

For season two, the hope amongst some of True Detective' s devotees was that writer and creator Nic Pizzolatto might take the hint and improve representation. The opportunity to revamp was definitely there; the anthology structure necessitated an entire rework, recasting talent and shifting settings from Louisiana to California.

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Yes, the show again put two bedraggled mid-life males in the lead roles (Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn), but the introduction of Michael Hyatt as driven state attorney Katherine Davis and Rachel McAdams as sheriff Ani Bezzerides offered a glimmer of hope that a multifaceted woman might share a smidge of the spotlight. McAdams was a particularly interesting choice – plunging her twee likability into a gritty universe marked a tonal shift for an actress made famous by the sopping sweetness of The Notebook.

Sadly, only a few scenes into season two do we realize we shouldn't get our hopes up. Yes, Bezzerides is front and centre, but when we first meet her she's coming from the bedroom post-sex and sans pants. During the first few episodes, she unfolds like a sort of "complex, troubled woman" stereotype, as if someone penned a checklist of tropes in order to fulfill a mandate.

Woman cop insecure about her position in a man's domain? Check. Obvious daddy issues? Check. A failed marriage and problems with intimacy? Check. Secret unladylike vices? Check.

She's angry at the world, especially men, and saddled with overwrought dialogue like, "The fundamental difference between the sexes is that one can kill the other with their bare hands." She's even shot and lit in a way that suggests "world-worn but don't worry, still pretty," and costumed in the subdued-yet-clingy attire of a hot-but-means-business-lady-cop.

Scenes where she downs a drink at a casino or watches hardcore porn alone in her hotel room scream, "Look how lost, bitter and lonely she is." In short, she's more like a caricature of a complicated woman, still constructed to appease the male-centric drama.

None of this is McAdams' fault, of course – she does exceptionally well with the material she's given, and her performance shines enough for viewers to stick around. It's striking that she's believable even when her character is so poorly developed, especially when it's hard not to think of Old School or Wedding Crashers every time Vaughn is on screen. Yet, against the backdrop of the same old/same old – there are about 10 exposed breasts in the season's first 15 minutes – it's easy to become disillusioned with the progress Pizzolatto himself promised. The aesthetic is quickly established as more lazy nudity, with some cartoonish kink and fetish thrown in the mix. This complaint is not about prudishness, only that women are again a collection of body parts, typical complainers or typecasts.

Farrell is the show's standout as booze-soaked Detective Ray Velcoro, but his descent into addiction and corrupt-cop behaviour is dependent on the fact that his estranged wife was once beaten and raped. Now locked in a custody battle, his son's paternity has long been in question, with her rapist as the possible father. A woman's trauma is merely a device to guide a male character's trajectory, her early appearances taken up by domestic arguments, disdain and disgust.

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It's no different with Officer Paul Woodrugh, played chillingly by Taylor Kitsch of Friday Night Lights fame. The cop is a deeply haunted man whose primary interactions with women include pulling over an actress who offers sexual gratification instead of a ticket, and his (again, pantless) girlfriend who does little more than complain that he's never around.

Career criminal Frank Semyon (Vaughn) gets to show his tender, less sociopathic side through his wife Jordan (Kelly Reilly), but as she dotes and charms, she's more of a conduit for his complexity than a fully fleshed-out character. Even the couple's struggles with fertility are centred on his selfish frustrations, and not her longing.

Toward the end of the season premiere, Semyon sits in a filthy dive bar with Velcoro, the pair downing shots of Johnnie Walker from the bottle sitting between them. After Velcoro calls the waitress "darlin'," Semyon asks if he's seeing anybody. The alcoholic detective says he's no longer interested in "that" any more, while Semyon argues it may be a good idea. "A good woman mitigates our baser tendencies," he says. The throwaway line actually reveals what women are for on the show – tools and props to serve a male narrative, cardboard figures to contrast and illuminate, but who never are the focus.

Although the men are more prominent, it's fair to note that this season doesn't yet have the same depth of character across the board – they're trapped in similar predictability when it comes to motivations and actions. The bar was so high the first time around that True Detective is likely a victim of its own success, only failing by comparison, and becoming an object of gender criticism because it's well worth salvaging.

When True Detective is good, it's heavy, and when it's bad, it's heavy-handed. The more optimistic among us can only hope that as the season plays out, its handful of women can have stories that truly flourish.

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