There’s Hope for TV; HBO to the rescue

If you’ve ever been in an unfamiliar city and decided to walk around just to see what you can see and then stumbled into a great restaurant, bar, club, museum, etc., you know what a special treat that can be. I remember some years ago I was in Washington D.C. for a conference and while I was walking to the Capitol it started pouring. I ducked into the side door of a building and ended up in the National Archives. This was pre-9/11, so stumbling into such a door did not cause me to be tasered. Rather the guard looked at the puddle I was making and suggested I go sit out the storm on the second floor where new Watergate tapes were being made public that day.

I spent the better part of the afternoon listening to Nixon, Haldeman, Dean, Mitchell, and others plot the most serious crimes against the people until Reagan outdid them with Iran-Contra. There was something incredibly special about hearing these almost mythical figures talking, joking, and swearing like real humans. (Nixon’s potty mouth was legendary!)

I was reminded of that event a couple of weeks ago when I took a rare evening to sit in front of the television and try to find something to watch that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to admit. There’s no doubt that the explosion of cable options has not fulfilled its promise of unique, stimulating, and daring programming that the over-the-air networks either couldn’t or wouldn’t air. That’s not to say some cable pioneers didn’t try. Bravo, IFC, Discovery, the History Channel all at one time gave us legitimate alternatives to the blandness of the network sitcom and cop drama.

But something happened. Something real bad. Networks discovered it was a lot cheaper to create “reality” shows and instead of paying for high-priced talent, they could air aspiring actors stumbling and bumbling their way through life. The litany of atrocious TV shows is long and painful to consider. Outrageous and offensive shows like Jersey Shore, Bridezilla, Toddlers in Tiaras, Sarah Palin’s Alaska, Pregnant and Sixteen, Pawn Stars, Real Life, My Strange Addiction, My 600 Pound Life, Hoarders, Duck Dynasty, etc., all showed the worst of what it meant to live in a country where the arts have seemingly hit rock bottom. That viewers considered any of this stuff “real” says more about us and the garbage we’re willing to consume than it does about those making money off our lack of sophistication.

Now I don’t believe that all television should be high-brow and I know my wife sighs and walks out of the room if she catches me watching Archer, Family Guy, or South Park. Television entertainment has always been a place to go park for a bit and get away from it all without running up a big bar tab. I certainly account for differences in taste and I certainly don’t blame TV producers who keep turning out the shit we apparently want to watch. But in the race to the bottom, I can only hope this generation’s entry into our culture’s time capsule is somehow lost before future generations get to see it.

Beyond a few gems like Breaking Bad, Justified, and Suits, I think it’s fair to say that the premium cable stations are perhaps the last hope for quality programming. Like ducking into the National Archives years ago, I accidently stumbled upon True Detective on HBO a few weeks ago. From almost the opening theme song, I suspected I had found something special. As I watched the first episode as Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey play a pair of detectives in Louisiana trying to solve a murder, my suspicions were confirmed.

I could say plenty about the acting, the filming, the plot twists, and the music which would indicate my fondness for the show, but it’s the characters that make this show pleasingly smart. This is not your typical pair of detective partners. Both are severely flawed people and it is those flaws which create the most compelling drama in the show. The “who-dunnit” aspect of the show is certainly intriguing, and through three episodes, there’s already a lot to chew on. But as Martin Hart (Harrelson), and Rustin Cohle (McConaughey), struggle with the lack of evidence, with each other, and with themselves, the viewer is treated to a drama where the sex, the violence, and the special effects are not the show itself.

As we watch Hart struggle with his college boy passions despite having a wife and two children, and Cohle struggle with the effects of his years as an undercover addict, we get what seems to be a genuine look at struggling people trying to do a very difficult job. Religion plays a big role in the script as well, and the show’s willingness to tackle this touchy subject is another factor in its smartness. It’s far too early to judge whether the plot will remain believable enough to preserve the integrity of the show, but I have high hopes that watching Hart and Cohle wrestle with their demons is going to keep me entertained all season long. True Detective airs on Sundays at 9 pm and repeated throughout the week on HBO.

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