Why Not Have ‘True Detective’ *and* ‘Night Country’?
Plus: ‘First Time Caller’
A minor cultural-ideological skirmish erupted this week when Issa Lopez, the showrunner on True Detective: Night Country, called out the dread “bros and hardcore fanboys” of the show's first season who were, supposedly, review-bombing it on IMDB. Why were they review-bombing the show? Well, supposedly, this was being done at the behest of series creator Nic Pizzolatto, who has very actively distanced himself from the show:
Critics and cultural commentators leapt to Lopez’s defense because there’s nothing critics and cultural commentators hate than the dread toxic fanboys. (See also: The Snyder Cut.1) Meanwhile, Lopez deleted her tweet and walked back the comments, presumably because someone at WBD was like “hey, the whole point of us calling this thing True Detective Night Country was to trick True Detective fans into watching it, let’s at least try not to alienate them.”
My confusion over the whole kerfuffle is this: there’s no reason whatsoever for this series to have the True Detective name slapped in front of it and slapping that name on it represents a capitulation to the incessant intellectual propertying of everything we see on screens large and small.
Look, on the one hand, I get it: There are, undoubtedly, people who tuned in to this show not because it was the new Sunday night program on HBO and not because it starred Jodie Foster and John Hawkes, but because it had “True Detective” in front of it. As Rob Long (Cheers, Kevin Can Wait) noted on Twitter, you take any advantage you can get; it’s practically malpractice not to.
On the other, though: It’s not really True Detective? I mean, yes, it’s an installment of an anthology detective show about a mysterious killing that seems to involve some supernatural elements. But it’s not written by the guy who wrote every episode of the three previous seasons. Ah, but two of those seasons were poorly received!2 Well, okay, then why not ditch the branding entirely? Why not just call it Night Country? HBO has had good luck recently with standalone miniseries about women crime fighters! Mare of Easttown didn’t need to be called True Detective WaWa to amass an audience and win three Emmys, did it?
I guess at least part of my frustration here is the quick invocation of “toxic fan bro review bombers” as a way to convince critics to cape for a piece of intellectual property that, honestly, doesn’t need to be IP at all. I thought we were supposed to be opposed to the endless IP-ization of everything? I thought we wanted original stuff. Why not just, you know, make it an original thing?
Anyway, the show is fine, at least through one episode. More CGI animals than I would like, maybe, and more overtly paranormal stuff than I was expecting, though I imagine some of that has to be a red herring. Jodie Foster is great, as always. I’ll watch episode number two!
But I would’ve given it a shot regardless of the title.
Jason Statham is like an IP unto himself. I really enjoyed discussing his body of work with Peter and Alyssa on this Friday’s bonus episode of Across the Movie Aisle, and I think you will as well.
This week I reviewed I.S.S., a thriller set on the International Space Station that, for reasons I explain, made me think of Oppenheimer. I don’t think it entirely works, but it does signal a vibe shift of sorts.
Vulture’s Second Annual Stunt Awards are here. I was honored to be asked to participate in the nomination process and glad to see The Covenant get a few nods. Still, I imagine it’s going to be a big year for John Wick: Chapter Four.
We discussed this a bit on Across the Movie Aisle this week, but I think it’s kind of a big deal that Peacock aired a playoff game and it did roughly the same viewership numbers Wild Card games did the year before.
VOD Spotlight: ‘First Time Caller’
Author’s note: This space is usually called “assigned viewing” and the assignment is typically something a little older that’s on streaming. I’m going to mix it up in the new year and try to highlight some more recent stuff that’s hitting video-on-demand or streaming networks. There’s an endless ocean of new material out there; hopefully I can help you find something interesting to watch.
First Time Caller—co-directed by J.D. Brynn and Abe Goldfarb from a script by Mac Rogers—belongs to a genre I sometimes think of as “bottle movies.” This, of course, is a reference to the so-called “bottle episodes” of television shows, where budgetary constraints lead to a single-location episode. A clever example of this is Cube, a movie about people trapped in a mysterious prison that takes place almost entirely in one room, though that one room is made to look like many rooms via lighting arrangements. My favorite such film is probably Locke, the Tom Hardy vehicle set entirely in a vehicle as a construction site manager drives to the birth of his mistress’s child; the drama plays out over the phone, as Locke walks his coworkers through the process of pouring concrete and his family through the disruption to their lives he has created.
First Time Caller takes place almost entirely within a single room, a sparsely decorated podcast studio where Brent Ziff (Goldfarb) fields calls from listeners on his live, Internet-based shock-jock show. Hard to pin down ideologically—he traffics in manosphere pickup artist tropes while also understanding most of it to be nonsense; he belittles antisemites and incels interchangeably—his only allegiance is to the view tracker. The higher it climbs, the more ears he has, the more money he rakes in. And no one in the history of his show is poised to grab more ears than Leo “Shorty” Short (Brian Silliman), whose connection with the Earth leads him to make a series of increasingly eerie, and dire, predictions.
I’ll leave the plot description there so as to avoid spoiling anything. More interesting than the plot, anyway, is the mood, the tone. Like Talk Radio (1988, Oliver Stone) and Big Fan (2009, Robert Siegel), Goldfarb and Flynn’s film is at least partly about the way in which talk radio, as a medium—with its faceless callers and listeners, with its dunk-ready format designed to humiliate those who misstep—dehumanizes audience and host alike. But there’s something even sadder about moving that action to the Internet; the very sparseness of Ziff’s “studio” makes his shtick feel less like a job and more like a prison sentence. First Time Caller is at least in part about the deforming nature of isolation and loneliness, how a masochistic yearning for connection leads us to reach out even to those who will use our desires to debase us.
I realize this all makes First Time Caller sound dourer than it is; in fact, it’s occasionally quite funny. I snort-laughed a handful of times. It’s the sort of movie I might have enjoyed seeing with a festival audience; the description of Shorty’s, ah, power is hilarious in the amusingly juvenile sort of way that Amazon’s The Boys is frequently funny. The movie is definitely “talky”—virtually every moment involves Ziff and Shorty’s banter; please don’t complain to me if you watch and get annoyed by movies where people talk a lot—but at a brisk 75 minutes, the duo does not outstay their welcome. Well worth your time if you’re staying in this weekend and looking for something a little different.
It has always been very … curious to me to see which creators get defended from corporate interference and which creators get yelled at for opposing corporate interference. But that’s an essay for another day.
The second is an interesting failure and the third is good, but that’s neither here nor there.