Reconsidering 'True Detective'

This article's very existence is a testament to the argument that originality doesn't necessarily count for much.

True Detective, a show that garnered adoration from crowds and critics alike, wrapped its inaugural season earlier this year. Proving that those at the top are always targeted first, a barrage of think-pieces—much like this one—flooded the blogosphere. A few of them were hatchet-jobs: shameless click-bait designed to accrue hits and the associated advertising dollars by taking potshots at the latest media darling. Most of them, however, were fairly complimentary.

If you've read the piece on eReaders, Lena Dunham, or any other number of contrarian screeds I've uploaded here at LitReactor, you'll know that a great way to get my brain (and hackles) working is for a specious argument to become accepted as Internet-validated truth. Clearly, I have a problem, as the now ages-old XKCD comic can attest to, but I just can't help myself. As True Detective gears up for its sophomore season, with talk of Colin Farrell waiting in the wings, it seems appropriate to go on the record and say that the hype surrounding the show is overblown, but perhaps in both directions. As with the fervor surrounding another of HBO's much-talked about series, Girls, the bulk of critics I've seen crying foul are utilizing less than compelling arguments.

The loudest critical voice that arose in the wake of True Detective's success alleged that the show was sexist, or at least that it reinforced sexist attitudes. The more earnestly explored of these sorts of criticisms tended to address the problems of the police procedural as a genre, acknowledging that while True Detective's depiction of Louisiana State police officers might have simply been erring on the side of realism when it recounted the undeniable misogyny of Martin Harris, the writers' refusal to comment on or subvert this thematic mainstay of the genre amounted to a tacit endorsement.

The first argument has a little credibility, but not much. At the risk of sounding like a (shudder) "men's rights activist", the existence of yet another prime time show driven by male leads doesn't necessarily amount to a sexist enterprise, although one could make an argument that it's symptomatic of a larger, sexist disease that has convinced the globe's men (and women, to an extent), that male heroes are more "relatable". The second charge is more compelling, but if we're being fair, asking the creative staff behind True Detective to single-handedly turn around decades of culturally enforced gendering seems like something of an unreasonable expectation. As I mentioned in my previous critique of Dunham's Girls, the idea that all art must be all things to all people walks a dangerously narrow tightrope between inclusiveness and enforced sanitization, if not de facto censorship. Of course, the team behind True Detective gave this argument loads of ammunition with their abomination of an ending, but we'll get to that later.

I was hooked by the first episode...however, somewhere around episode five, the entire thing seemed to fall apart.

A criticism that holds more water but is less visible (probably because it attaches no hashtagable social causes to its agenda) is one of pacing. Let me put all my cards on the table: I was excited about True Detective. It came highly recommended from more than one friend, I'm a big fan of McConaughey and Harrelson, and the whole "contemporary Southern Gothic" thing that the show was mired in. If I had to wait for Rogen's adaptation of my beloved Preacher, then True Detective certainly seemed like the next best thing. That being said, I was hooked by the first episode, and as the series progressed I found myself more and more fascinated by the slowly unraveling mystery as Rust and Marty inched closer and closer to the truth. However, somewhere around episode five (immediately after the series' cinematic high point), the entire thing seemed to fall apart.


The weakest link in True Detective's swiftly crumbling architecture became apparent as the series staggered and lurched toward its wheezing conclusion: the reveal that the entire bizarre conspiracy that kicked off the investigation in the first place, was a red herring (or at least it was treated with about as much thought as one by the writers). Remember the collusion between the Tuttles, the charter school system, and some horrific child sacrifices and sexual assaults? The reason this entire series got started, the means by which the narrative was complicated and the protagonists challenged? Apparently, all of that was just window-dressing. At least, that's what we've been led to believe.

True Detective's ending is massively disappointing for a number of reasons, but its steadfast refusal to clue its audience in to any details about the Tuttle conspiracy is probably the most maddening. It's painfully annoying to be slowly fed threads of what has been presented as a finely engineered cat's cradle of narrative complexity, only to then be unceremoniously dumped into a dusty bin of tangled twine at the show's conclusion, but the show's creators and proponents would have us believe that the real story of the show was Rust's eventual (and completely unearned, in the context of the narrative) philosophical turnaround. It's much more likely that True Detective's writing staff never anticipated the closed, anthology-concept or hadn't adequately prepared the skeletal framework of the narrative (or both), and clumsily cobbled it together when they realized they had four episodes to tie up approximately four million loose ends. I call it "Damon Lindelof Syndrome": a phenomenon that occurs whereby a writer hooks in legions of fans by throwing out a myriad of half-baked ideas, runs the string out with the promise or implied promise of an explosive conclusion, then refuses to acknowledge his or her inability to resolve the series in a satisfactory manner by claiming that a different route was the plan all along.

How else can one explain the series' sudden shift at around the halfway point into a sudden, desperate race to tie up the story we had been led to believe was the point of all this several weeks beforehand? This rush to the finish line included ludicrous moments, not the least of which was the entire progression of the case hinging on the detectives recognizing a fresh coat of house paint on a random photo and making the necessary mental connections. It's a matter of personal taste, but in my mind, there could be no other excuse for the suspiciously late shift towards the character progression of Rust, whose similarly out-of-left field philosophical conversion comes in literally the last few minutes of the final episode ("If you ask me, the light's winning"), and is completely unearned and incongruous with the rest of the series and his character arc up to that point. It's possible that the writing staff were responding to the notable fan-slobbering over Rust's disjointed and borderline nonsensical metaphysical ramblings, and decided that the runaway popularity of a more R-Rated Hot Topic-esque nihilism indicated an easy out for the problem of resolving the actual story and allowed the writers to pretend they had been writing about Rust and Marty's respective arcs all along.

If this was actually a sudden shift, as I suspect, it's a dishonest and suspect move on behalf of the writers. If it was the plan all along, it's a clinic in bad storytelling and the worst kind of Lindelof-esque shirking of narrative responsibility. As mentioned before, Marty's similarly disingenuous shift from down and out, carousing, piece of shit horndog to an apparently rehabilitated family man happens over the course of less than an episode and reinforces the idea that misogyny is excusable as long as the offender purses his lips and says he's very sorry in the end. Most offensive of all, though, was the notion that the audience's desire for more closure concerning the Tuttles and the grand mystery that had been laid at our feet was somehow satisfied simply with the apprehension of the Yellow King, a narrative scrap thrown to the audience in the hopes that all other (ignored) players in the narrative would be forgotten. For shame, HBO.

The chicken is already in the pot as far as the future of True Detective is concerned. The show is yet another critical and commercial success in the endlessly notched belt of HBO, and creator Nic Pizzolatto will be working for at least one more season, with details of the next entry in the anthology series leaking onto the web at an exponential rate. In the end, however one feels about the gloomy tirades of Rust Cohle comes down to a matter of personal taste, and the same could be said for comparisons between a Neo Southern Gothic police procedural and more exhausting, televised version of something resembling an NC-17-rated Dan Brown novel. I only know that I was promised one and got the other.

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big_old_dave's picture
big_old_dave from Watford, about 20 miles outside London, Uk August 18, 2014 - 6:56am

writerrites's picture
writerrites August 18, 2014 - 7:17am

Unlike so many US shows that use the writer's room approach, TD was a single-writer production. It is closer in spirit to UK productions such as Jimmy McGovern's Cracker, or more recently Neil Cross' Luther. While contporary US productions ask for every loose end to be cauterized, the philosophical tone of the show lends itself to the 'unanswered'. Maybe it was narrative complexity getting away from the writer (singular), but I enjoyed seeing the conventions of a procedural crime show bent in this cross-genre character work.
In terms of the pacing of the story arc, I watched in a single sitting - in that mode the 'third act' of the season didn't feel rushed, it felt like increasing entropy and an assault on order...and so congruent.

Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast August 18, 2014 - 7:46am

Broadly, I agree. It says something that I have the last episode of True Detective and never bothered to watch it, because I had more interesting things to do. Like matching odd socks or something.

As for Rust Cohle's 'philosophy', the *really* annoying thing about the whole 'Did-Pizzolatto-plagiarise-or-didn't-he?' scandal in a teacup, is that I bought Ligotti's Conspiracy Against the Human Race some months ago with the happy sense of having just discovered an interesting author that no one else had heard of. Literary smugness now ruined. Thank you internet.


Pretty Spry for a Dead Guy's picture
Pretty Spry for... August 18, 2014 - 9:35am

I agree wholeheartedly with the pacing problems. My general reaction to True Dectective was, "There's nothing here I didn't see done better in L.A. Confidential or don't see done better in Hannibal, a network(!) show that is routinely more aesthetically, dramatically, and, yes, philosophically accomplished than the best moments of True Detective."

Aud Fontaine's picture
Aud Fontaine from the mountains is reading Catch-22. Since like, always. August 18, 2014 - 4:10pm

Okay, maybe I just watched the show wrong, but I thought the whole point was that they didn't apprehend the Yellow King. I mean, they got the incestuous freak, yeah, but I thought the Yellow King himself was that skeleton in robes we see for a second in the cave. That they could never apprehend him because he's a symbol, driving the Tuttle conspiracy and the sick rituals and all that and apprehending that one creep was just their one move, their one tiny speck of light in the dark, their one victory that would hopefully start them down a road to more light and victories. The way I saw it was that while it was somewhat of an end for Rust and Marty, it was just the beginning for the attack on the Carcosa conspiracy. That's my take though. I could be wrong and popular opinion seems to say that I am but fuck it. Considering how long it's taken me to reconcile my opinion, I don't figure I'd forgo it on your account, Internet.

Bob Pastorella's picture
Bob Pastorella from Groves, Texas is reading murder books trying to stay hip, I'm thinking of you, and you're out there so Say your prayers, Say your prayers, Say your prayers August 18, 2014 - 8:59pm

Okay, maybe I just watched the show wrong, but I thought the whole point was that they didn't apprehend the Yellow King. I mean, they got the incestuous freak, yeah, but I thought the Yellow King himself was that skeleton in robes we see for a second in the cave. That they could never apprehend him because he's a symbol, driving the Tuttle conspiracy and the sick rituals and all that and apprehending that one creep was just their one move, their one tiny speck of light in the dark, their one victory that would hopefully start them down a road to more light and victories. The way I saw it was that while it was somewhat of an end for Rust and Marty, it was just the beginning for the attack on the Carcosa conspiracy. That's my take though. I could be wrong and popular opinion seems to say that I am but fuck it. Considering how long it's taken me to reconcile my opinion, I don't figure I'd forgo it on your account, Internet.

Actually, I agree with everything you said. So the show didn't follow a formula? Didn't have a nice tidy ending? I say, BRAVO! They did the show that they wanted to, and didn't make any apologies for it not being what everyone thought it should be, and they did it successfully. Not to mention the show kinda opened the door a little wider for an appreciation of Weird Crime, so yeah, Thanks indeed. 

Elda Oreto's picture
Elda Oreto from Naples is reading The Raven by E.A.Poe August 19, 2014 - 11:10am

I have just finished to watch True Detective.
And I agree with mostly part of this article:

1) The episodes are incredibly slow. It would be because the author thinks to build a sort of suspense. But they don't. It is just a vary slow narrative. Just in the last 2 minutes of each episode present an high-pick 'action' moment who should push the audience to watch the next episode. But after that you have just looked at 58 minutes of macho, inconclusive research of who is supposed to be a serial killer, you have to make a big effort to continue and watch it.
2) The show is sexist? Well, this is not the problem. The problem is that the Male Detective Figure depicted are an unbelivable and unrealistic portrait of the reality. In a pretty childish fantasy, the two male carachters are 'how a man would project himself in a male perfect world', in which the  female characters, the real poor raped, prostituted, abandoned, used, sexually abducted, wicked women in the fiction are just a shallow projection. The men would like to look good on the wickness of someone else, they would like to be lonley heros but actually they are not, not even in Louisiana!
3) Halfway the story crumble completely. So all the Tuttle politic scandal  fade away and the focus turns out to be a maniac who lives in the jungle and that they find out by accident looking at a picture by accident…Shouldn’t a detective story be built on an investigation based on a research of evidences which bring to the murderer? Otherwise fine. Just don’t call it True Detective but Horror Story.

4)I personally like a lot the POV of the murderer, psyco or not, I think is always one of the things that make people thrill the most!Of course, here the villain is segregated to a small role just in the last two episodes.

5) More than disappointing the ending is terribly condescending.


I am surprised that I watched until the end. Maybe I was hoping that something would happen in the end. But I was wrong.

Doug Zeigler's picture
Doug Zeigler from Binghamton, NY is reading Patient Zero by Jonathan Mayberry September 4, 2014 - 11:01am

I rather like that this was not as formulaic as most shows, and left questions unanswered and untidy. As far as the pacing, doesn't it speak to our sensibilites as viewers that we NEED things to move fast, to push storylines obviously farther? The slow, almost smoldering pace was a welcome change for me. 

The one thing that bothered me? Rust doing an about face on his life philosophy. So much was made of his railing against the religious underpinnings of the deep south, isolating him ever more so, that it felt completely disingenuous and, well....wrong.

I've heard that Jessica Chastain will be the lead of Season 2, which hopefully will help limit the  mysandry and allow the narrative to be broader. I'll definitely be watching.

Ryan Peverly's picture
Ryan Peverly from Ohio is reading The AEgypt Cycle by John Crowley September 7, 2014 - 8:29pm

Ah, the pretentiousness of it all.

Aud Fontaine's picture
Aud Fontaine from the mountains is reading Catch-22. Since like, always. September 9, 2014 - 6:44am


Misandry is a hatred of men.

Amber Rose Fonzen's picture
Amber Rose Fonzen September 9, 2014 - 5:25pm

I agree wholeheartedly with your critique and I struggle with this notion that the creator was TRYING to avoid formula and wanted to have an untidy ending that left viewers with tons of questions. Writers write, or are supposed to write, for their audience.  

I don't believe there was ONE viewer watching this who said 'I don't really care how this ends. Don't need to know who that Yellow King is.' .... by episode five every single blog, every online commenter was making predictions.... and why?

Because if we don't find out, we just wasted eight hours watching and god knows how many more gathering the ridiculous crumbs this writer scattered about while he attemped to develop a complex plotline he ultimately could not deliver. 

In the end, it's just an underdeveloped piece and it feels like unfinished artwork. 

The show had great character development but heck if I could follow the progression of it, seriously. Rust's timeline was all OVER the place. 

The only thing I can think is that maybe Nic wanted the viewers to feel like the detectives felt: you work so hard to figure out the mystery and who did it... but sometimes, your efforts are for naught. 

Don Gillette's picture
Don Gillette from Nashville is reading Ladies Night - Jack Ketchum September 17, 2014 - 8:48am

When fully 85% of sworn law enforcement personnel in this country are men, the cries of sexism and misogyny directed against True Detective are just so much politically correct horseshit. Anyone who's been in the Armed Forces, law enforcement, or even the high school or college locker room knows it exists, so let's stop trying to pretend that it's such a horrible, ghastly blight on society when it's depicted in entertainment.

Speaking of entertainment, I can't help but wonder why we're look at television shows as if they were re-writes of Finnegan's Wake. These things are lashed together, scripted, and filmed in less time than it takes most people to write their weekly shopping llist. They're not cerebral, deep, dark psychological vignettes--they're entertainment. As with anything on HBO, if subscribers have to think too much, they'll change the channel.

I enjoyed True Detective. I would have ended it differently, maybe started my wrap-up a little sooner, but it wasn't my vision to end--it was Nic Pizzolatto's. I don't know Nic Pizzolatto, but I know he had the energy, drive, talent, and ability to put together a series that I enjoyed and looked forward to watching every week. So pissing on him for his plot choices and progression seems to smack a bit of childish jealousy to me. If this were something as ludicrous as television's handling of Under The Dome, I could understand it, but True Detective was quality work. 

sinha's picture
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