Stop Treating True Detective Like a Game

True Detective lives. After two hotly debated seasons followed by an extended period of uncertainty, the crime anthology returns to HBO on Jan. 13 for the first time since 2015. During the hiatus, the network recruited some marquee talent to rehabilitate the shaky franchise. Now the show stars Mahershala Ali, who has won awards for his supporting turns in Moonlight and Green Book, in the psychologically rich lead role he deserves. HBO enlisted low-budget thriller master Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room, Blue Ruin) to direct. And they brought in Deadwood auteur David Milch to assist the show’s creator, Nic Pizzolatto, a first-time showrunner with a bad habit of sounding contentious in interviews.

Those efforts pay off in a solid third season whose structure and style hew close to those of the first. The show is set in a grim Ozark town, populated by white characters who speak a common language of coded racism. Episodes linger on exchanges between Ali’s earnest Detective Wayne Hayes and his partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff). Across three timelines spanning 35 years, Hayes grapples with the case of two missing children.

In that sense, it’s a welcome return to form: before crashing and burning in the California neo-noir of its second season, which for a long time seemed as though it would be the show’s last, True Detective was a smash hit, thanks to the instantly iconic buddy-cop duo of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, reams of quotable dialogue and awe-inspiring visual acrobatics courtesy of director Cary Joji Fukunaga.

Yet it’s also worth remembering that even that story arc had ultimately failed to satisfy its most vocal viewers. Instead of tying up eight episodes of cryptic clues with a bow, Pizzolatto let loose ends dangle, supplying a quick resolution to his baroque whodunit before concluding on a more philosophical note.

There were viewers–myself included–who liked that the show’s conclusion was open-ended. McConaughey’s breakout character, the alcoholic pseudo-sage Rust Cohle, had been a nihilist, talking in opaque aphorisms like “Time is a flat circle.” The finale exposed Rust’s worldview as reductive, and made a case for why a person in so much pain should keep fighting the forces of darkness in a universe where the war between good and evil will remain forever unresolved.

Yet a larger cohort–or at least a more outspoken one–were furious at Pizzolatto for pulling what they saw as a bait and switch. After all, they had spent weeks rewatching episodes, consulting recaps, sleuthing out literary references and comparing notes on the Internet with other obsessives desperate to solve the Southern Gothic mystery based on what they presumed to be a surplus of evidence. By the middle of the season, TV bloggers and a True Detective message board on the mega-discussion forum Reddit had become fully symbiotic, churning out and chewing on each other’s 5,000-word theories as if the show were a massive multiplayer online game. For these viewers, True Detective failed not because of any particular story flaw but because in its final moments, it claimed the right to be an ambiguous work of art–instead of an interactive challenge that fans could win or lose by solving the mystery.

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How A Star Is Born’s Music Hit the Sweet Spot

There’s a moment in “Shallow,” the standout single from Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born, where Lady Gaga lets go and just roars. It’s chill-inducing to hear for the first time in the movie, as Gaga’s ingenue Ally takes the stage alongside Cooper’s grizzled rocker Jackson Maine, but it sounds just as good playing on the radio, where it’s been in heavy rotation for the past three months. You could argue that it’s that big, cathartic bellow that’s set Gaga, Cooper and their collaborators on a straight path to world domination. Really good soundtracks don’t come around all that often—but when they do, they mark the fastest way to rule the worlds of both film and music in one fell swoop and earn serious award gold along the way.

Which is exactly what A Star Is Born has done. The film has handily beaten the domestic box-office numbers of live-action musicals like La La Land and Les Miserables, raking in nearly $400 million globally. Meanwhile, the certified-platinum soundtrack topped the Billboard chart when it debuted in October, besting recent soundtrack records, knocking down releases from popular artists like Lil Wayne and even topping Gaga’s own previous chart successes as a solo artist. At the 2019 Golden Globes, Gaga and her co-writers took home the Best Original Song trophy for “Shallow,” teeing her up nicely for an Academy Award nomination.

A murderer’s row of musical talent—from rocker Lukas Nelson to English musician and DJ Mark Ronson to country singer-songwriter Jason Isbell—helped build that soundtrack. After watching Nelson perform onstage with Neil Young, Cooper tapped the artist for assistance; Nelson ended up overseeing the movie’s sound and helping Cooper fine tune his character. His band Promise of the Real even became Cooper’s backing group on screen. “He liked the camaraderie,” Nelson says of Cooper’s preference for a band instead of actors. “It’s real, it’s authentic, and people gravitate towards that in life.” That spills over into the music, which Nelson thinks is resonating because of the “organic” sound—a departure from much of contemporary pop radio.

Grammy-winning artist Isbell, a self-described “hard critic,” was initially wary of working on the movie. But he signed on after reading the script. “There was something honest and human about the story,” he says. “There was nothing that made me cringe.” Plus, he had faith in the other artists involved, from Nelson to Ronson to Lady Gaga herself. “It led me to believe there would be a legitimacy to the music,” he says. Isbell ultimately wrote “Maybe It’s Time” for Cooper, a tender, acoustic lullaby that is, appropriately enough, about grappling with change.

But the soundtrack’s popularity still probably comes down to Gaga, who is one of the decade’s most chameleonic artists. Her big-screen debut guaranteed a passionate built-in audience, and she sounds equally at home on the rootsy rock that Ally sings at the beginning of her career as she does on the sleek synth-pop that she performs as she progresses. Yet Gaga’s last album, the folksy, back-to-basics Joanne, underperformed commercially; for some, that persona proved too much of a departure. A Star Is Born reminded viewers of the powerhouse performer that she’s always been within the context of a new character. Plus, there’s her voice. “To have a voice like that in a song that you write is a dream come true,” says songwriter Natalie Hemby, who contributed to Ally’s two big emotional solos—both being put forward as Oscar contenders alongside “Shallow.”

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The Upside Is Just Too Retrograde to Be Funny

The latest entry in the “the black guy and the white guy can get along!” canon is The Upside, in which Bryan Cranston plays Phillip, a rich-guy quadriplegic who hires ex-con Dell, played by Kevin Hart, to be his caregiver. Their start is rocky; they have both class and race differences to overcome, not to mention that Phillip, paralyzed from the neck down after a parasailing accident, has no choice but to use a wheelchair. But Dell will soon introduce the opera-loving Phillip to the joys of Aretha Franklin, even as Dell falls a little bit in love with opera himself. He will also learn to perform what he views as the most distasteful task of his job: changing Phillip’s catheter. After a great deal of protestation, accompanied by a series of exaggerated sour-milk faces, Dell learns that touching another man’s penis–in certain controlled circumstances, at least–really isn’t so bad.

Even if you roll your eyes at this example of retrograde homophobia, you might be able to excuse it, especially in a movie as well-intentioned as this one is. But the scene is strange to watch in the context of the controversy now swirling around Hart, who gave up his gig as the host of this year’s Academy Awards ceremony after it came to light that he’d posted a series of homophobic remarks on his Twitter feed in 2010 and 2011. Hart may yet host the Oscars–although for now he says he won’t. But as Dell, Hart’s anti-penis-touching shtick–the wincing, the flailing arms, the wrinkled nose–is too desperate to be funny, and for a time, at least, it jiggles the movie off its footing.

That’s too bad, but it’s also a by-product of the times we’re living in, an era when our perceptions about performers we generally like may follow us into the movie theater, hard as we may try to leave them at the door. Dell’s phallus phobia notwithstanding, The Upside–a remake of the 2011 French film Intouchables, based on a true story and a huge hit in its home country–is neither great nor terrible. It quavers in that middle ground of pictures you think you might watch on a plane someday, and you could make a worse choice.

Directed by Neil Burger, whose previous film was the 2014 young-adult adventure Divergent, it tootles along cheerfully enough on its stretch of predictably laid-out track. Before Dell arrives, Phillip has soured on life. He employs an efficient schoolmarm type, Yvonne (Nicole Kidman, in a role that asks little of her), to manage his business affairs, but it’s Dell’s appearance on the scene that really kicks his joie de vivre back into gear.

The rapport between Cranston, so superb at being a crab apple that he could probably do it in his sleep, and Hart, a gifted and energetic performer, has some crackle. But even in that equation Hart presents some problems: his lines tend to hit with the snap of a locker-room towel–they don’t leave much space for his fellow actors. And that’s probably the one factor that derails this otherwise efficient picture more than anything. At one point Phillip surprises Dell by playing an Aretha track he’s never heard before, her “Nessun Dorma” from the 1998 Grammys. “The Queen,” Dell observes, “makes everything better.” He’s not wrong–but even she can do only so much.

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