Admittedly, the season is only three episodes in. But seeing as there are only eight episodes, and seeing that I've endured three hours of the show to date, I feel like I'm allowed to make broad generalizations about True Detective's second season, at least about certain aspects of the show.
It was obvious from the get go that the show was nodding its head to David Lynch — to "Twin Peaks," that procedural from another world, and to Mulholland Dr. They go out of the way to show us the Muholland Dr sign as our heroes drive. And then there are all those transitional shots of LA from above showing either intersecting, knotty freeways or an electric night time sprawl. Soon enough, so-called weird characters begin showing up followed soon thereafter by a dream sequence and a surreal, creepy performance in an empty seedy bar. The Lynch allusions abound.
And yet to ape the figures of something does not make you that thing. I can dress like a dog but I don't move, smell, hear, or digest like a dog. In fact, as I've been watching True Detective, it's made me think of all the things that make Lynch Lynch which are all, to the last, missing from TD.
I was about to write first of all but, with Lynch, there is no first of all. His films have always already started; time is warped — which is to say, time is time and time isn't linear, despite Hollywood's best attempts to convince us otherwise. What is the beginning of Mulholland Dr. if the ending enables the beginning, the sleep begins the dream — and vice versa?
Anyway, even if not first, there is the route of the procedure in this procedural. What makes Lynch Lynch is that he sees and offers a distinct epistemology in which the road to knowledge is distinctly not an accumulation of evidence. He never gives us 1 + 1 + 1 = 3. One of the great things about Special Agent Dale Cooper is that he sees different kinds of signs, follows paths of intuition, dreams, and synchronicity. He operates with as much metaphysical as physical evidence. This sets the very trajectory of the procedural off its tracks, unhinges it from the narrative arc of discovery.
Now, in the first season of "True Detective," we get a slurred procedural as the road to discovery is secondary, if not tertiary, to the ways of the detectives themselves. Their attempts to make meaning of themselves, and of the world, is their procedure. Not so in season 2, at least to date. So far, all we've seen is the classic "Law & Order" accumulation of witness stories and physical evidence. And few things are as downright banal ("Law & Order," at its best, disrupts this procedure with the mechanics of the law, of what can be considered a crime and what can win a prosecution, offering surprising narrative shifts).
Lynch operates in a world in which knowing is never direct because the line between dream, cinema, and real is always already fluid. Cinema is not a tool to capture the world. Just as dreams are not a reference to waking life but are part of life, existing on their own terms with their own logic and mode of behavior, cinema is not a reference to the real. For Lynch, cinema life is to real life what the dream world is to the waking world: two intimately interconnected worlds, distinct yet intertwined, which taken together forge spectacular ways of knowing and being.
In Lynch's films, cinema — its history, tropes, and mechanics — is constitutive of the film. Cinema — the camera and history — doesn't sit outside the action, removed from the fray. On the contrary, it is folded into the frame which, in turn, breaks the very limits and operations of the frame. Think of the great scene in Mulholland Dr. in which Rita and Betty (their names at the time) come home after the intensity of Silencio to find the key in the handbag. When Rita walks out of frame, she's gone completely— the frame of the screen becomes the frame of space, cinematic space trumping so-called real space.
But this presence of something else within the frame, this presence of cinema, pervades every shot. Lynch rarely, if ever, proffers a simple establishing shot or gives us a conversation with that pretense of objectivity, the reverse shot in which we see one person speaking, the other listening, and on it goes. Not in Lynch. The very perspective of the camera is not objective; it is, indeed, a perspective, the presence of film within the film, the camera folded into the frame through its focus and movement. Look at this famous scene below. Note how the camera slurs and bobs as it moves, as if it had an opinion, a point of view, a way of operating that is not solid, known, or even knowable once and for all.
But in "True Detective," despite all its references to Lynch, the camera remains expository, relaying to us the information as if it, the camera, didn't have a way of going unto itself.
Yes, Lynch has what we consider weird characters. And yes, there's weird music (which is the sound of cinema run through itself, at once historical and mechanical). But they are not just things he sticks into this movies; they are the very fabric of a certain cinema, a cinema that knows in its own way, that operates according to an internal logic that belies ready exposition. You can't be cool just by slipping on a pair of shades. Cool is away of going, not a drape of references.