True Detective may finally have tipped the scales in favor of TV as the great visual medium of our time.
The HBO drama about a murder investigation in mid-90s Louisiana is as good as anything that has appeared on the big screen this year, and this is a year in which Spike Jonze, Steve McQueen, and David O. Russell all released movies. The acting is superb, the camerawork fluid, and the narrative both measured and tense. It's got the philosophic seriousness of The Sopranos, and some of the grand vision of the Coen brothers with a tinge of David Lynch's darkness. Indeed, True Detective is, more than anything else, an exercise in creepiness — a trip through not only the uncanniness of small-town America but also the strange spiritual landscape of the Deep South.
It's this aspect of the series that's worthiest of note: The idea of the Deep South as an enclave of spiritual oddities and horrors has, after all, been cropping up with conspicuous frequency on television. But never before has it been treated with such gravity.
But where religion fails to convince us, it captivates us still.
As in all good crime procedurals, True Detective begins with the discovery of a dead body. In a quiet stretch of farmland, under a significant-looking tree, a female prostitute is tied up in a kneeling (praying) position, her stomach riddled with stab wounds, a headdress made of deer antlers resting atop her head. The detectives on the scene are Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey). Martin is a burly, churchgoing family man who makes up for what he lacks in intelligence in charisma and moral virtue. Rust, on the other hand, is rail-thin, anti-social, and quite possibly a genius. His monkish apartment is filled with books on criminology — one of which leads him to conclude that this murder was a spiritual, and possibly satanic, act. And we're hooked.
It's difficult to watch the first episode of True Detective without being reminded of two other shows that play on the gothic mythologies of the Deep South: American Horror Story: Coven and True Blood. Whether the setting for a satanic murder or a conflict between vampires and Jesus-loving evangelicals, we're being shown the same South again and again.
But it's coldly rational crowd of spectators that fetishizes and fantasizes about the irrationality of the Deep South — that humid, hostile Petri dish of American superstition.
Anyone who's read Flannery O'Connor knows that True Detective, True Blood, and American Horror Story: Coven are by no means the first representations of the Deep South as a place of fervent religiosity; nor do they take much creative license in doing so. A Pew Forum map of religious beliefs in the United States shows that the Evangelical Protestant Tradition — which claims 26% percent of the nation's population — is concentrated in states such as Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama. Additional Pew Forum maps show that religious practices and habits such as belief in God, frequency of church attendance, frequency of prayer, and the "[viewing] of one's religion as the one true faith" are all heaviest in the Deep South. It appears you don't earn the collective nickname "Bible Belt" by going to church twice and year and praying only when you feel like it. Even Louisiana voodoo traditions are being kept alive in our popular mythology through shows like American Horror Story: Coven.
To this day, the Deep South is infinitely rich in belief. But, in 2014, richness of belief is a rare thing. That same Pew Forum map revealed the other side of the story: 16 percent of us are religiously unaffiliated entirely. A 2008 Gallup survey went further, reporting that, for 34 percent of Americans, religion was not an important part of daily life.
We're faithless people living in faithless times — this we know. But if the hype surrounding these television series (which are by no means the only ones taking religion as a central theme) is any indication, we're far from through with the question of belief.
We're experiencing a "vast frustration of human passion and seriousness since the old religious imagination ... began in the late eighteenth century to crumble."
What draws us to shows like True Blood, American Horror Story: Coven, and now True Detective, then, is not so much our interest in the Deep South itself, but rather a desire to get in touch with a kind of religious sensibility with which we as a culture have lost touch. We — the young, often urban audiences who watch these shows — may pride ourselves on our rationalism, on our distance from the religious ardor that so dominates the history of our country. But where religion fails to convince us, it captivates us still. Belief is simply seductive in a way that science and social consciousness are not. As Susan Sontag once described, we're experiencing a "vast frustration of human passion and seriousness since the old religious imagination ... began in the late eighteenth century to crumble."
We seem to be pining after similar things now — fervor, fate, the concept of a God — and our pining as taken us, in the example of these three series, to the Deep South, a place in our imaginations where faith is still very much alive and valid. The religiosity of this part of the United States makes it an appropriate setting for the dramas and comedies and paranormal fantasies of religion that we seem to be so keen on making and watching. But it's a coldly rational crowd of spectators that fetishizes and fantasizes about the irrationality of the Deep South — that humid, hostile Petri dish of American superstition.
This conflict between belief and pessimism is ultimately what drives the tension at the heart of True Detective. What's really interesting about the series, at least so far, isn't the maybe-satanic murder itself. It's the way the case and its religious overtones play along the precarious spiritual axis between the show's two main characters — the seer (Rust) and the believer (Martin). True Detective may take place in the Deep South, and it may use that part of the country's particular religious character, but, in its attention to both the blindness of belief and the horrors of having nothing at all to believe (equally awful, in their own ways), the show reveals itself to be a much larger and more contemporary project: it's a narrative about faith in America today.