On the most recent episode of HBO’s True Detective, Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson), now a private detective, reaches out to a former police contact for information, and they meet in the guy’s Baton Rouge office.
The location isn’t actually specified, as such, but you can tell it’s Baton Rouge because, through the venetian blinds and at a considerable distance, you can see the Louisiana State Capitol on the horizon. It’s blurry as all hell in the scene, but the nation’s tallest statehouse leaps out like a pseudo-Deco sore thumb to those of us who know it well: it looks like home.
Louisiana, as a fictional setting, is tempting for many of the same reasons it’s so difficult to depict. The language is fascinating! (Don’t try to do the accent.) The culture is so lively! (Yeah, so put down your camera.) The plantations are gorgeous and the storms are fearsome! (Go film somewhere else.)
I was born in Louisiana, as were both of my parents and three of my grandparents, and during one of my two trips down there last year I remarked to a cousin of mine how often depictions of the Pelican State simply wilt in the bayou heat. She blushed before confessing fandom for that other La.-set HBO series that starts with the word “True,” although even she admitted: “The accents are horrible.”
True Blood has faults and flaws that make “an unrealistic depiction of Louisiana” seem like pretty small crayfish (bad metaphor — the small ones are sweeter), but it’s indicative of the missteps you see everywhere from The Green Mile to The Waterboy: the clothing and houses look absurd, the food is generic, and yeah, the dialects all sound like they’re from Texas, Alabama, or nowhere at all.
Detective is a considerable step up. True, Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey sound like, well, Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey; they do their Generic South voices, but their characters — deh ain’t ‘sposed to be from ron’ heah anyhow.
The scenery is dead-on. Miles of shitty highway, big, flat skies, and tupelo and cypress trees as far as the eye can see: that is Louisiana. It’s beautiful and lush beyond reckoning — seeds that grew in Katrina’s wake nine years ago now look like 25-year-old trees.
Ditto the drinking culture: It’s still not unheard of to see construction workers with beers in hand, and True Detective opens up many a cold one. You never forget your first drive-thru daiquiri.
But what it really gets right is the buzzing cicada mindset, the way mental itches blossom into obsessions. All that rich, humid green is a breeding ground.
Many a Lafayette- or Shreveport-set story has enjoyed hinting at the voodoo culture and witchcraft that lurks offstage, but few capture the uneasy peace of millions of decent people trying to build their white-columned lives in a place still brimming with old-school prejudice.
Just last week on my walk to work I groaned out loud when an NPR story quoted a Louisiana voter who sounded completely unashamed for listeners nationwide to hear him say “I don’t vote for black people, lady.”
I promise that bigot is in the minority, but we are talking about the deepest of the Deep South here. I genuinely don’t want to know how gay marriage polls in the state currently run by Bobby Jindal.
Make no mistake, the swamps of Louisiana are a jungle most wild, and True Detective treats those woods as dangerous hunting grounds, pockets wherein lurk primeval killers, and their prey this time is women.
The ritualistic murders of the show may not be the Louisiana I know, but the giant live oak tree where the first body was found: I feel like I’ve been there 100 times.
If I were a paid technical consultant for HBO, my main quibble with Detective would be its temperature. Louisiana is literally defined by its heat: it swelters, it bakes, and it goes no where at night. Adults sometimes wear shorts on New Years Day.
Not nearly enough of this series has been spent dodging, fighting, or making small talk about the soggy, miserable heat, which dominates Louisiana for 10 months a year. Shut up about your “humidity,” D.C., you don’t know what you’re talking about.
But this is a minor complaint. I’m as excited as the next guy for the eighth and final episode of New Orleans native Nic Pizzolatto’s catfish-fed noir on Sunday, though I’ll be disappointed to lose the weekly visits down south. It’s a Mardi Gras present.
Like northern restaurants that charge $20 for jambalaya, most depictions of my home state are either missing the point or trying to get away with something. But for this Baton Rouge-born TV viewer, Detective rings true.