True Detective and the post-twist world
Note: Spoilers follow for the first season of True Detective.
I’ve written more than once on this blog about how tired I’ve grown of the mechanical twists that television shows keep throwing at their viewers, which substitute a character death or a totally unmotivated reveal for the hard work of patient storytelling. The real problem with the culture of the twist, I’ve found, is that if it persists for too long, it paradoxically discourages audience involvement. When a movie like The Usual Suspects informs us that the plot we think we’ve been following isn’t the real story after all, it’s a delight; extended indefinitely, and with the prospect of repeated fake-outs baked into our expectations into advance, it prevents us from investing anything into the story we’re watching at the moment, knowing throughout that it could all be arbitrarily yanked away. That kind of constant guardedness can be refreshing after a lifetime of watching shows that go through the same tired motions, but it runs the risk of hardening into a formula of its own, and one that robs us of the basic pleasures of giving ourselves over to a long narrative. I like being surprised as much as anyone else, but when it means nothing but one empty reversal after another, the stuff in the middle starts to feel dangerously like a waste of time.
What pleases me the most about the first season of True Detective, which I finally watched this week, is how surprisingly untwisty it turned out to be. For all the obsessive scrutiny of its alleged clues, ultimately, this was a show that didn’t need insane plot developments to keep an audience’s attention. It relied, instead, on two great performances, a boatload of atmosphere, and a deep dive into the conventions of its own genre, presented more or less straight. This isn’t a deconstruction or subversion of noir, but an extended attempt to honor the best of what this kind of story can do, and nearly every scene glows with confidence in its own material. At a time when many shows seem afraid to allow the viewer’s eye to stray for a second, this is a series willing to take its time, to linger on moments and images, and to eschew easy attempts to drum up the suspense. Most series about a serial killer would throw in a few more bodies along the way, or tie the plot into the plight of the next potential victim, but True Detective is content to open with one striking crime scene and then focus most of its efforts on the past. And the fact that it remains so watchable over its eight hours speaks to the level of craft and commitment on display.
The show isn’t perfect. There are times when it seems to check off items on a list of procedural or Southern Gothic conventions essentially at fancy—devil worship, bikers, meth cooks—without any attempt to tie them all together. Occasionally, the endless scenes of Marty and Rust interviewing witnesses and suspects start to feel like an epic episode of Law and Order, and the moments when an old lady or a catatonic victim abruptly blurts out a key piece of evidence can seem a little hacky. Despite some valiant work by Michelle Monaghan, the character of Marty’s wife never feels anything more than obligatory, and she’s really only there to bring her husband into focus. Perhaps most damagingly, for a show that engages in endless existential talk about the nature of evil, it’s oddly complacent when it comes to the darkness it depicts. Once the idea of a family cult devoted to ritual murder and human sacrifice is introduced, it’s taken almost for granted, with little thought as to how such monsters persist over so many generations. If only one killer were involved, it could be written off as an instance of the evil that men do, but the solution that the show presents raises questions that it doesn’t seem particularly interested in exploring.
Still, these are quibbles compared to the largeness of its overall achievement, which represents some of the best television I’ve seen in an already excellent year. More than anything else, it gives us a pair of characters whom I’ve come to know and care about as much as a viewer possibly can, and it refreshingly refused to throw any of it away for the sake of a late shock. And because it kept the stakes so intimate, it feels like a show that could run forever, even if the cast and setting change from one season to the next. A series that thrives on contrivance and surprise inevitably burns out after a few years of increasingly heightened stakes; a show based, instead, on observation and personality, with occasional sequences of breathtaking intensity, can afford to approach the same material from a range of angles, rather than feeling the pressure to top itself time and again. For all its old-fashioned virtues, True Detective feels as much as anything I’ve seen this decade like the future of television, a story that digs into itself over a fixed period of time rather than casting off in increasingly unsustainable directions. And that might be the most surprising twist of all.