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COMMENTARY

HBO's 'True Detective' gives Mamie Gummer a chance for extraordinary acting

Jeff Simon

It can't be easy being Meryl Streep's daughter – not if you're a working actress it can't.

Her mother has always known that. When Mamie Gummer, as a child, first appeared onstage with her mother, Streep had her listed under a stage name to avoid the certainty of overweening scrutiny.

The grown-up Gummer is a good and busy actress. But up until now, at age 35, she had yet to appear in anything that blew audiences away. We watch her hungrily anyway. We hope to say to each other "she's Meryl Streep's daughter, can you tell?"

Well, now, finally, we can. The occasion is the new season of Nic Pizzolotto's "True Detective" on HBO which began with two new episodes back-to-back last Sunday.

I'm worried about this one. I've seen the first five episodes of the show's new season and I have grave doubts that all interested viewers will feel compelled to stick with it through the first three episodes to get to the one where Gummer, at long last, does an extraordinary turn.

Her episode was co-written by the show's creator Pizzolotto and my old Nichols classmate David Milch. As good as Gummer's episode is when she's on, that's how oafish it becomes when the series' main character starts seeing hallucinations of Vietnamese peasants in his advancing senility.

Gummer's big scene, though, is an utter virtuoso stunner. She plays the mother of two presumed kidnapped children who, at the ages of 10 and 12, come to bad ends. As their mother was off heaven-knows-where, their alcoholic father said it was all right for the two of them to ride off on their bikes and play.

They never came back.

Some time later, Mahershela Ali, as the lead cop on the case, finds the older one's dead body in a nearby cave posed with praying hands. The daughter disappeared but many years later her fingerprints are found on the shelves of a grocery store.

The show's two "true detectives" (not so; it's fiction merely pretending to be that) are both searching for the missing child, now presumably a grown woman. Mostly they're searching for the truth of what happened in the biggest case of their lives. One especially, played by Ali – the fine actor who is grabbing attention everywhere these days – is haunted by the case.

Gummer's scene is a brilliantly concise portrait of extremes which instill in viewers diametrically opposite emotions in mere seconds. One minute, she is pathetically bemoaning her own acknowledged and hopeless sluttishness as being partially responsible for her children's fates. The next she is screaming vile racist epithets at a sympathetic writer in the ugliest possible way.

The transformation is hair-raising and gripping to watch. You don't like this woman. There's almost nothing to like: she's the very soul of parental irresponsibility, self-absorption and promiscuity. And yet when she mournfully identifies herself as a "whore" through and through, you're ever-so-briefly inclined to pity for her parental sorrow.

And then, as Gummer plays it by changing believably on a dime, she explodes into a tirade that is almost as ugly as tirades get.

I muttered a quiet "wow" to myself. Now there, I thought, is a featured actress in a cable mini-series getting the job done.

She saved the whole thing for me, despite the Vietnam ghosts who showed up later with all the clumsy and cliched inanity to return the episode to static predictability.

Those of us who remember the debut of Pizzolotto's "True Detective" on HBO are apt to give it the benefit of every doubt in its third season no matter how weighty those doubts get. That's because its first season was tremendous as Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson played two Louisiana cops investigating very funky stuff in the bayous. The final episode of the first season was paralyzed by cliches but at least it was well directed. Before that, though, McConaughey was an absolute original, an existential good-old-boy philosopher, a Deep South Cop who had learned more about life than he's able to handle but no more than he can articulate. He travels in misery and can't be silenced.

Something of the same describes Oscar-winner Ali in the new season of the show, which also, as always, dips in and out of time periods. In this case, scenes from many eras alternate, whether it's the contemporary world where Ali as "Purple" Hays plays an old man struggling with senility or the world back in 1980 when the kids disappear and his partner (played by Stephen Dorff in the worst wig ever seen on TV), are the Arkansas state cops who get the case.

The trouble, I'm afraid, is that the first three episodes are off-putting. They're morose and because of Ali's affected Southern accent, hard to penetrate. There's a lot of talk and a fair amount of portraiture – specially the Ali character and his ambitious, true-crime-writing wife (played by Carmen Ejogo).
It's watchable but far from gripping.
Then comes Gummer's electric shock to wake it all up from its torpor.
And finally, at just the right moment, comes episode five to prove that in the newest "True Detective" Pizzolatto still knows what he's doing even though he desperately needed a co-writer to stop him from being so dilatory about getting there. He wasted a lot of time before waking up a plot which seemed to find it all too easy to crawl off and fall asleep on the couch.
My advice for those who were blown away by the first season of "True Detective" (before the total disappointment of season two) is to remember that it was the best HBO crime drama since "The Sopranos" premiered 20 years ago. Stay with it until you get to Episode Five. That's what you've been waiting for. It's a beauty full of dramatic tension and revelation and, at long last, some involving interplay between Ali and his co-star Stephen Dorff playing old men who are trying to solve the insoluble riddle of their own lives.
In Episode Five a great television series is fully, if belatedly, born. That's what great TV looks like.

Should "True Detective" have made us wait that long? Of course not. But everyone who makes the trek to get there will think it was worth it.

In the era that TV executives are, quite rightfully, calling "Peak TV" in the whole history of the medium, there is no question at the moment about what is the most charismatically ridiculous series currently on the air.

'Masked' rubbish

God bless the South Koreans for inventing it but "The Masked Singer" gives us a kind of Monty Python parody of "American Idol" where celebrities compete anonymously in outrageously elaborate costumes.
They come out to sing dressed as a peacock, a deer, a bee, a monster, a rabbit, a raven, a poodle etc. and are judged for their singing ability by the likes of Jenny McCarthy and Robin Thicke. The worst singer of the night has to take off the head of his costume and reveal him-or-herself.
The first week I saw, it was NFL receiver Antonio Brown. The second week – which I guessed – was Tommy Chong. You get the idea. In other words Meryl Streep won't be one of the masked guests. Nor will Mamie Gummer.
Nick Cannon is the host. It's completely ridiculous rubbish. But then it knows it.

Which makes it irresistible.

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