The right thing to do this week – for a TV column worth its salt – is to say a few more words about “True Detective,” the HBO series that launched a thousand posts and reviews the moment its first episode was broadcast. It was praised as something different, better than the usual TV fare, a detective series that transcends the genre, and as a TV series that merits being treated as literature. Now, after seeing the eighth and final episode, “Form and Void” (cf. Genesis, I: 2, King James Version), we can try to determine whether the series really fulfilled our expectations.
Or can we? It used to be that while watching TV, we had to be in a certain place (in front of a stationary TV set) at a certain time (decided on by anonymous programmers to ensure best ratings). That is no longer true. Not only we can watch TV programs on our laptops, tablets or smartphones, but we can view them at our leisure, thanks to VOD, TiVo, or any other acronym that allows you to tune in.
That is how TV watching, which used to be a “live” event in which you and the show had a fixed, continuing relationship, became an open-ended event. Whatever is broadcast live, can now be watched long after; series that used to be the domain of those who had watched them, who then discuss them freely and openly, now must be mentioned warily in polite company for fear of “spoilers,” since there will always be someone who still intends to watch it. TV programs, which once were ephemeral and fleeting, now have a “shelf-life.”
Personally, I don’t much care about spoilers. You shouldn’t either, for a spoiler is built into the very story of our lives: We all are going to die in the end. But as TV is only one part of our lives (an ever-growing one), anyone who writes about TV had better care about spoiling the eventual viewing pleasure of his readers – if he cares at all about his life.
And that is why whatever I have to say about “True Detective” will have to be said somewhat obliquely, in order to make a point without divulging plot details. So be it.
Unlike many other TV series, this one was not written and directed by a number of different people. All its episodes were written by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cori Joji Fukunaga, and this fact apparently endowed it with a sense of purpose and a touch of consistent style. From the beginning it was clear that the series was not plot-driven (no culprit at the end of each hour on air, and no cutting to the chase). In an era of whodunits (most of them), and howdunits (like CSI wherever) it behaved more like a “where-and-when-is-it” (Louisiana swamps, 1995 and 2012, with lots of scenic tone-setting shots), and “who-investigates-it”: a character-driven story with a duo of partners – Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) – joined in a tango of volatile chemistry.
That in itself was hardly innovative, since having two sparring partners in (investigating) crime is the oldest trick in the book; a series with only one detective is the odd one out in the genre. Having said that, one has to admit that the enigmatic, nihilistic, atheistic, philosophizing Rusty made this viewer care about him more than usual, and the womanizing, down-to-earth Hart benefited from this. But what of it, if we were told early on that Harrelson and McConaughey (who meanwhile received an Oscar) will not feature in the second season of the series? Will it be as successful with the critics (average 8.4 out of 10, based on 59 reviews) and viewers (about 11 million viewers for all episodes, 3.5 million for the final one) without them?
What made viewers and writers speculate about the series were clues, quotations from and direct references to Robert W. Chambers’ classic 1895 book “The King in Yellow” and lines of dialogue directly inspired by the works of the modern-day cult horror author Thomas Ligotti. Pizzolatto acknowledged those influences, but belittled their meaning in the making of the series. He advised those who sought answers in Chambers’ book to read his own novel (he was a college professor prior to TD), or the Bible. Consequently, those horror fans who have not yet seen the last episode should not expect to understand more about how the Yellow King is connected to the mystery Cohle and Hart are trying to solve.
Again, without giving anything away, one can say that the last episode, which rounds out the series, was received – by critics who were not inhibited by spoiler-watchers – as a kind of a letdown, with the end not justified by the means. The series that raised the roof of expectations high, ended pretty much as all series do, with the whodunit element solved and the detectives riding – not unscathed – toward the sunset and out of the series. It does not even end as bleakly as it started: there is a feeble ray of light in Cohle’s otherwise dark world.
So what? Rachel Syme summed it up best in a post on The New Yorker site on March 13: “The disappointment of the ‘True Detective’ finale suggests how we are entering a confusing and precarious time in television’s evolution: we approach a show as an artistic achievement with all the privileges and responsibilities that this brings, when we may have done better to embrace it instead as pleasurable genre trash. (...) If we had accepted ‘True Detective’ as a gothic procedural (albeit one with snappy dialogue and an undeniable woman problem) instead of as the latest incarnation of highbrow TV, then the last episode may not have felt as deflated (or defining) as it did. (...) We have to be careful about the shows we choose to make into Trojan horses, packed with meaning and insight. Sometimes what we are watching contains multitudes, and sometimes there’s nothing inside but air.”
I couldn’t agree more. We will be able to try again with the second season of “True Detective,” which, according to Pizzolatto, will be about “hard women, bad men and the secret occult history of the United States transportation system.”