Is there any TV show more flat-out libertarian than Season Two of True Detective? For that matter, is there any TV network airing more flat-out libertarian agitprop than HBO? There you find hour after hour of spectacular, balls-out displays of the inherent incompetence, greed, and corruption of government—especially when it joins forces with crony capitalists.
Don’t get me wrong. Like many—probably most—fans of True Detective, I admit that I’ve got no real understanding of the plot so far. Yes, I’m interested in finding out exactly who burned out the eyes of crooked city manager and sex fiend Ben Caspere. But as a professional libertarian (gag), I’m mostly just digging the general atmospherics, which are as thick with government pollution as they are with SoCal smog.
Indeed, the True Detective world, filled as it is with crooked cops and perverts in high places and massive, state-funded land grabs and billion-dollar high-speed rail boondoggles, seems ripped right from Ron Paul’s nightmares.
The characters and the actors are incredible, especially Rachel McAdams as Ani—short for Antigone, the first great libertarian heroine who disobeyed the state in accordance with higher law—Bezzerides, the sexually haunted daughter of a creepy guru and sister to a webcam performer (whose studio is mistaken for a whorehouse by the vice squad in Episode 1). Colin Farrell is a classic crooked cop, Ray Velcoro, who abuses his power for personal reasons but also to line his pockets with graft.
But the key character is Velcoro’s paymaster, Frank Semyon, whose dirty fingers have been in every racket a town can offer, from drugs to gambling to booze—all of which flourish under the watchful eye and greased palms of law enforcement. (That Frank is played expertly by Vince Vaughn is kind of the cherry on top of all this. Best-known for comedies such as Old School and Dodgeball, Vaughn is an unapologetic libertarian who introduces Ron Paul to adoring crowds, praises Edward Snowden, and stumps for Second Amendment rights like nobody’s business.)
From a libertarian perspective, it’s perfect that Frank’s big play to “go legit” is to use political connections to get in on the billion-dollar boondoggle that is Jerry Brown’s real-life high-speed rail project. Governor Moonbeam’s sad, never-to-be-completed legacy project is dependent upon huge amounts of federal and state tax dollars and eminent-domain abuse. It has no chance of succeeding at anything other than filling the coffers of politically connected plutocrats and displacing thousands of regular people. Even lefties at outlets such as Mother Jones, who usually gush over rail projects like Matt Damon over low-flow toilets, are calling bullshit on the plan.
But here’s the real genius part of True Detective: The corruption on display in True Detective is bigger than Frank, Cesere, Velcoro, or any single individual and is thus uncontainable. It’s systemic and inevitable in a world where politicians, gangsters, and businessmen form a sort of human centipede that’s impossible to disentangle or rein in. When the government controls who gets to build what where and what sorts of permission is needed to run a bar or a restaurant—not to mention a whorehouse—you end up building graft and corruption into everything. That’s the deepest libertarian insight of the show and it infuses every frame. It also energizes its main setting, the fictitious L.A. suburb of Vinci.
Based on real-life Vernon, California (memorably called “a criminal enterprise posing as a city government” in the pages of the Los Angeles Times), Vinci is the bastard offspring of Dashiell Hammet’s “Poisonville” from Red Harvest and Ayn Rand’s Galt Gulch in Atlas Shrugged.
Hammett’s first novel, which inspired the films Yojimbo and Fistfull of Dollars, is set in a figurative ass-crack of the Rocky Mountains (“an ugly notch between two ugly mountains”) and is populated almost exclusively by lazy, on-the-take cops and civic leaders who are beneath contempt. Rand’s Galt Gulch is the idyllic place where all the productive tycoons, inventors, and entrepreneurs flee to avoid government regulation and outright nationalization. If Galt’s Gulch is swimming in talent, the industrial hellhole that is Vinci is literally and figuratively swimming in open sewage. As the city’s few children play in industrial waste, Vinci’s mayor hangs his hat in one of the most expensive homes in Bel Air, where his son orders around hot and cold running prostitutes.
Given its dark view of human nature and government malfeasance, it makes sense that True Detective is sharing Sunday nights with The Brink, the foreign-policy comedy starring Jack Black and Tim Robbins. Whatever Robbins’s general leftward political commitments may be, The Brink plays like a darker, post-9/11 version of Get Smart, with American fantasies of controlling the world routinely dismissed. (If there’s a more damning way to mock American diplomacy and spymanship than casting Don Adams as a secret agent, it’s to cast Jack Black as a bumbling State Department employee who pimps for Robbins’s satyr-like secretary of state.)
The Brink is the foreign policy equivalent of Veep, another HBO series that shows government at its highest levels as thoroughly unredeemable. Julia Louis-Dreyfus may have helped Los Angeles pass its plastic-bag ban back in 2012, but she’s far more effective in pushing confidence in government to historic lows as Selena Meyer, the laughably incompetent title character in Veep who accidentally ends up in the Oval Office itself.
Of course, it’s wrong to suggest that popular culture dictates or even heavily influences popular opinion rather than reflects it. In this, it’s a lot like politics—it’s not something that is imposed on us but rather emanates from us. You don’t need to go full Hegel to realize that times change and attitudes with them. Never in lockstep or unanimously, of course, but surely it’s no coincidence that after decades of major fuck-ups and dissemblings by politicians (from Vietnam to Watergate to the Church Commission to Iran-Contra to the Clinton impeachment to WMDs and torture to the Snowden revelations), trust in government is not so high. And that our popular art forms would and should be exploring what that all means.
Except when they are denying any responsibility for social ills, Hollywood honchos have forever been insisting that their movies and shows effectively program viewers like robots and make us better human beings. Garry Marshall, the legendary creator of Happy Days, continues to falsely claim that when Fonzie got his library card, local libraries were overwhelmed with new applicants. Joe Biden—arguably the real-life model for Veep’s Selena Meyer, though she is more likely an amalgam of every vice president in U.S. history—got closer to the truth a few years back when he said that Will & Grace “did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody has ever done.”
Popular culture—especially zeitgeisty shows such as True Detective—reflect and inform where we are as a society. At their best, pop culture in all its forms and expressions, gives form to our fears, anxieties, and hopes. It helps to stage conversations that we collectively feel a need to explore. Sometimes the conversations run away from the intentions of creators—David Simon is a self-described socialist yet some of the biggest fans of his masterpiece The Wire are libertarians who see in it an argument against virtually everything Simon himself holds dear—and I’ve got no idea what (if any) politics Nic Pizzolatto, the creator of True Detective, has. The same goes for the folks behind Veep and The Brink (not to mention broadcast shows such as Scandal, which features a White House overflowing with actual murderers).
Which is sort of the point. If Sunday nights on HBO have become skeptical of centralized power, especially political power, and attempts to control people’s lives and property, well, that’s because we’re in something of a libertarian moment (hell, even John Oliver is ragging on stadium deals, like the past 45 years of Reason magazine).
And in a world where leading Democrats such as Hillary Clinton want to strangle the sharing economy, keep fighting the drug war, and bring Edward Snowden to trial, and Republicans such as Donald Trump want to build walls on the Southern border, force employers to adopt intrusive worker-certification programs, and drop yet more bombs overseas, you don’t have to be Vince Vaughn to want join the conversation about just how far you trust the government to do what’s right.