Saturday 17 March 2018

Is True Detective really a masterpiece of our time?

New season: Colin Farrell and Taylor Kitsch in True Detective
New season: Colin Farrell and Taylor Kitsch in True Detective

John Boland

While watching the first season of True Detective (Sky Atlantic) last year, I hadn't realised that I was witnessing a masterpiece.

There I was wondering why this story of two grim-faced cops trying to solve a young woman's murder was so ponderous and slow and pretentious when apparently all the time I was in the presence of a profound work of art. Or so the television reviewer for the London Times informed me this week. "A meditation on truth, male friendship and a meaningless universe" was Andrew Billen's verdict, and lots of other (mostly male) critics concurred, though Emily Nussbaum in the New Yorker was dismayed both by its humourlessness and by a basic misogyny that treated women either as domestic idiots or disposable victims.

Perhaps that's why in the new season which began this week, there's no Matthew McConaughey solemnly spouting Nietschke and no Woody Harrelson dourly prone to volatile violence.

This is a different story entirely, set in a benighted Los Angeles wasteland rather than a benighted Louisiana swamp, and with civic sleaze rather than rural savagery to the forefront.

Mind you, it does have Colin Farrell taking up where Woody Harrelson left off: beating up an investigative local reporter whose story has displeased a criminal businessman and pummelling the father of a boy who had bullied his son, while all the time wearing the kind of dodgy moustache only worn by corrupt cops who've hit the bottle after their wives have been raped and whose sons may not even be theirs.

The criminal businessman, who's trying to go legit, is played by Vince Vaughn in a game of somewhat wooden departure from his usual fratboy clowning, and there's also an agonised motorcycle cop, whose luscious girlfriend crawls around in her underwear when he arrives home and promptly gives him a blow job that he doesn't seem to want.

And perhaps to pacify feminist critics of the first season, the fourth main character is a confrontational woman cop, played by Rachel McAdams, who's told by her hippie preacher father: "You're angry at the entire world and men in particular."

Maybe as the storyline progresses, such clichés will seem less pronounced and the pace will be less funereal than in the opening episode, but so far, there's been nothing to distinguish it from most other crime shows.

Clichés abounded, too, in Ryan: A Legacy (RTÉ1), especially the cliché about how being a bit of a bastard is the only way to get things done if you're to achieve business success.

This profile of the late Tony Ryan began arrestingly, with Denis O'Brien recalling "a frightening kind of figure" when the airline-leasing magnate hired him as his personal assistant.

"Whatever task it was, I just got it thrown at me," he remembered, while Michael O'Leary described his own personal assistant role as "sweeper-up, cleaner-up and bagman".

Ryan himself seemed quite pleased with his reputation for ruthlessness ("a lot of people remember me as a bastard," he confided to a friend at the end of his life, "but I needed to be"). Though it was odd to hear so many of his former executives speaking about his ability to scare the bejaysus out of them at Monday morning meetings, as if it was somehow a badge of honour for them - one of his most admiring colleagues conceding that the job had even cost him his marriage.

No hard feelings, though, because after all this was a men's club (one former female executive was interviewed) where a guy's got to do what a guy's got to do, even if it means craven sycophancy.

And what was depressing about the film was that, nine years after Ryan's death, the sycophancy was clearly still there, with only the son of one of Ryan's oldest friends bitterly describing the treatment of his father as "collateral damage".

I know little to nothing about Tony Ryan beyond his obvious entrepreneurial achievements, but this film could have been more rigorous and less awestruck in its approach and tone.

As it was, Vincent Browne offered the one maverick and unflattering viewpoint, though that was to be expected, as was the entertainment value always provided by Michael O'Leary.

The week's other main profile was of architect Frank Gehry, interviewed by Alan Yentob in Imagine (BBC1).

"Famously provocative" is how Yentob described the Toronto-born, California-based 85-year-old, and anyone who's ever seen images of his work, not least the Guggenheim building in Bilbao, will concur.

Indeed, after this absorbing film I vowed to visit it as soon as possible and would also love to see the treehouse tower that's just been completed in Sydney, his Vitra museum in Germany and his own family house in Santa Monica: buildings that look like enormous fun.

The man himself was fun, too, which is more than can be said of brothers Jack and Stephen Teeling, whose building of a distillery in Dublin is the ongoing subject of Whiskey Business (TV3).

"I'm not the most patient person at the best of times", Jack informed us during this week's third episode. Well, me, neither, Jack. I'm sure you're great guys, but your series isn't exactly riveting.

A fondness for Sheridan is only human

With over six million viewers, the sci-fi thriller Humans has become the most-watched Channel 4 drama since The Camomile Lawn more than 20 years ago, but I thought this week's second episode a big let down after the brilliant first instalment.

I got more pleasure from the opening episode of Black Work (UTV Ireland), though that may have had something to do with the central presence of Sheridan Smith, a player I'd watch in anything.

Here she plays a policewoman in an unnamed Yorkshire city. When her detective husband is shot dead, she learns that he had been working undercover. He'd also been bugging her car, recording her conversations with a male colleague with whom she'd been having a relationship.

Smith, who was so lovely in last year's Cilla and so affecting in the recent The C-Word, hadn't an awful lot to do in this week's opener, and there were elements of the storyline that weren't persuasive (even if for security reasons, would she really agree to withhold from her children the news of their father's death?), but her presence alone means that I'll keep faith with this three-parter.

Indeed, while American crime shows grab most of the headlines and the critical plaudits, British crime drama can be quietly impressive. Stonemouth (BBC2) came and went over the last two weeks without attracting much attention, but I thought it captured all the atmosphere of the late Iain Banks's final novel.

Christian Cooke engagingly played young Stewart, who was returning for a funeral to the Scottish seaside town he'd fled after humiliating the daughter of the local drugs kingpin, played with customary menace by Peter Mullan.

What was winning about this mini-series was the time it took to evoke the milieu into which Stewart returned - the town itself, its streets and bars, and the friends he'd left behind.

And his relationship with Ellie was well caught, too, whether in the gaucheness of their first meeting or in their fragile re-encountering as a baleful father loomed in the background.

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