This is not a post about how Elisabeth Moss won’t do an amazing job on True Detective. We know she will: Moss is a veteran of obsessively recapped, Emmy-magnet Prestige TV, and the woman behind two of its most memorable roles. Whoever Moss is potentially playing in the second season of HBO’s anthology series — according to The Wrap, it’s “a tough, no-nonsense Monterey sheriff” struggling with gambling and alcohol abuse — her character will doubtless join Mad Men‘s Peggy Olson and Top of the Lake‘s Robin Griffin on the all-too-short list of well-written female characters on “serious” shows. (The label of “serious” often keeps Olivia Pope and company out of the critical picture, but that’s a conversation for another day.) So why was my gut feeling about the Moss rumor ambivalence, if not outright disappointment?
It all starts with the hallowed, hashtagged status of a True Detective casting. In its first season, the series made a case for the anthology show as an opportunity for more than giving actors the chance to switch it up from year to year; Ryan Murphy had been doing that over at American Horror Story for years, giving Jessica Lange all the capital-A Actress Moments she could ever want. True Detective instead used its unconventional format, and TV’s relatively newfound cachet, to bring in stars and directors who’d previously preferred film. And that brings us to the McConaissance.
Dallas Buyers Club was part of it, yes, but Rust Cohle had a far more profound impact on McConaughey’s reputation than Ron Woodroof. The latter was standard awards bait, a middlebrow biopic with a performance that got McConaughey the statue but wouldn’t have done much to erase our collective memory of Failure to Launch on its own. That took “Time is a flat circle,” which in turn took a leap of faith on the part of True Detective showrunner Nic Pizzolatto: McConaughey’s name recognition may have made him a safe bet for the show in some ways, but his history with featherweight rom-coms made him risky in others. Casting him as a haunted cop with a penchant for Nietzsche required a good deal of imagination, especially if anyone involved in the move had seen Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.
It’s that kind of imagination that’s missing from putting Moss in the role of the show’s first female lead. Picturing Moss as a troubled cop with a past isn’t a stretch at all; replace “alcohol and gambling” with “sexual trauma” in the description above and you’ve got Robin Griffin all over again. In fact, the short, eight-episode run, victimized children, and creepy/gorgeous scenery earned True Detective‘s first season plenty of comparisons to Jane Campion’s excellent miniseries. This viewer’s first impression after watching the pilot? “Oh, I get it: Top of the Lake for straight dudes.”
I’m not bemoaning a great performer landing a role she’s clearly qualified for so much as a missed opportunity. When the McConaissance buzz reached its peak, many were quick to point out that it’d be much more difficult for a woman in her 40s to simply decide she’s done with fluff and move straight to HBO. Moss’ potential hire indirectly gives weight to that criticism: True Detective‘s first female role not primarily defined by its relationship to the show’s men — delinquent daughter, cheating wife, abused sister — will go to someone who’s already well established in the world of quote-unquote serious TV.
The relative conservatism of casting Moss is all the more glaring when compared with True Detective‘s choice of “central antagonist”: Vince Vaughn. Vaughn is to the bro comedy what McConaughey is (or rather, was) to the rom-com; his previous projects run from the genuinely endearing Wedding Crashers to The Internship, a two-hour ad for Google’s insane office perks. Once again, True Detective has given a male actor a chance to take a career down a different path, a path Elisabeth Moss has been on since 2007. She could use some company.
That’s ultimately why Moss’ casting worries as much as it thrills. More fully realized female characters on television is good, but more actresses to play them would be better. Whatever progress is inherent in writing more substantive roles for women will be significantly mitigated if they’re reserved for a handful of tried-and-true players. It’d be reassuring to see Pizzolatto avoid that outcome by extending the same benefit of the doubt to actresses with a background in lighter fare that he has to actors. After all, the female equivalent of Matthew McConaughey isn’t Elisabeth Moss: it’s Julia Roberts, or Kate Hudson, or Sarah Jessica Parker. Consider those the inaugural suggestions for #TrueDetectiveSeason3.