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Review: True Detective

The only charitable thing we can really say about True Detective’s second season is that it’s over, which is a mercy for all and sundry. In the long term, the question of whether the show will get — or deserves — a third season is up in the air. With so much excellent television waiting in the wings, and so many great shows cancelled entirely too soon, it would seem almost unfair to see True Detective back on cable next summer.

True Detective’s first season was highly critically acclaimed. The show explored an interesting narrative structure and pushed at the boundaries of storytelling by announcing that each season would be its own long-unfolding narrative. Akin to Black Mirror, where each episode went in entirely different directions with entirely new characters, True Detective disrupted the television axiom that programmes must include the same characters, barely changing, season after season. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it aired on HBO, a network known for being willing to indulge creators as they experiment with television.

The first season of the show was solid, and it justly earned the praise it received from all corners. The second season, however, was a dubious mess from the start, with many characters underutilised, a great deal of scenery chewing, and puzzling artistic decisions. It wouldn’t be fair to blame the actors for the flop that was the second season: The fault clearly lies in the showrunners, writers, and creative team, who took a strong project and took it in the wrong direction.

Perhaps catastrophically wrong.

HBO provides access to much more funding and creative latitude than broadcast television, and even many cable channels. With short seasons, creators can afford to delve deep into their work without stuffing their programmes with filler episodes designed to fill up blank space, and increased budgets means a more aesthetic, elegant, cinematic appeal — it’s possible to take the time to do television as it can be done, to illustrate the real capacity of the medium. Such programmes also tend to be more appealing to established actors who might be reluctant to do television. It’s not TV, it’s HBO, after all.

To see this potential wasted is beyond frustrating. True Detective proved its mettle in the first season, but dropped everything in the second, illustrating that sometimes the second time ‘round just doesn’t work, becoming formulaic and irritating. Just as second novels sometimes highlight the weaknesses of the author, sometimes second seasons highlight a lack of flexibility and creativity on the part of their creative teams. It almost seemed as though True Detective left it all on the mat after the first season, leaving little to work with on the second go.

Which is deeply unfortunate, because the show had immense potential and the capacity to push other creators to do more with their own work. When shows that break the patterns of conventional narratives do well, it’s an opportunity for creators and fans alike to benefit, as studios are willing to take a chance on new projects. When they fail, it pushes frightened studios back into their comfort zone, leaving people with creative concepts back out in the cold. Even as Netflix and other major streaming sites are pushing the envelope with their original content, networks and cable alike seem reluctant to realise that they need to explore and move past the boundaries with their own programming if they want to keep up, but when shows like True Detective flub up so spectacularly, they create a huge setback.

Over the course of the season, the programme began to bleed viewers, though it still brought in ratings that were respectable for HBO. Viewers also got increasingly fed up. Twitter, the great barometer of successful television in an era when people can’t watch without talking about it and 140 characters makes an ideal broadcasting medium for even the most superficial of thoughts, definitely soured on True Detective. Over the course of the season, viewers and fans went from excitement and solid commentary on each episode to increasing frustration to a stony, bitter silence by the season finale, followed by a flutter of ‘was that it?’ tweets.

To the horror of the show’s viewers, True Detective’s season finale was extended, featuring a whole 90 minutes of agony in which not much of note happened as the showrunners desperately tried to wrap up loose ends and tidy things up. It’s painfully obvious — and painful — when programmes do this, and viewers know it. Most viewers don’t appreciate the insult to their aesthetics, or the suggestions that they can’t read the writing on the wall, and it showed in their hostile reception of the finale.

One of the most unfortunate things about True Detective may have been the waste of talent in the writers’ room, behind the camera, and on set. Hopefully the programme learned its lesson and will utilise the creative talent behind it to better effect on the next round if HBO decides to renew True Detective, which it has suggested it will if creator Nic Pizzolatto can present a compelling breakdown for the season. Tellingly, he doesn’t have any significant projections for the show beyond a third season, suggesting that perhaps he’s running up against the idea wall already, which bodes extremely poorly for a successful third season.

Should the show return next year, it may suffer from a ratings drop as viewers decide not to bother with tuning in again, given the burns they suffered this season. That means building up a whole new audience while recapturing the attentions of the old, which is a tough task.

One thought on “Review: True Detective

  1. I couldn’t agree less. I thought Season 2 was tremendous from about the end of episode 2 onwards. The corruption was utter, total and crushing like the Apocalypse Now of cop shows. Loved it.

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