It's Watchathon Week in Comcast's broadcasting kingdom, and I just happen to be visiting at my parents' house. My Dad likes to watch a lot of TV and considers it sort of a bonding experience, and I never really get to channel surf much in my regular life, so the other day we decided to take advantage of the free premium programming.
I actually picked True Detective out of the bunch, so I feel more than partially responsible for the result. I'd heard great things about it from friends and from the Internet at large. It was with great expectations that I hit the big red button on the remote to begin my journey into the surrealist Southern Gothosphere that houses season 1 of what I can only describe as a forgotten Sherlock Holmes novel penned by a ten-year-old H.P. Lovecraft. If you haven't yet caught on, from here on out I take a widely unpopular stance. It's not out of any misplaced anti-establishment hipsterism seeping into my cortex that I take this stance, but from the pure amount of time I spent criticizing every aspect of this show and cursing its name under my breath. It's the constant stream of scoffs and dialogue rewrites that ran through my head talking now. If you liked True Detective, I'm about to tear it apart, so use your own judgment in proceeding onward. If you lack good judgment, consider calling your parents or a good friend to advise you regarding whether or not to read on. There are also minor spoilers included, or at least pieces that you might be able to put together regarding key plot elements. So go ahead and call now. I'll wait.
Is it Really the Worst Thing in the World, You Ask?
Admittedly, True Detective isn't the worst thing in the world. It's important to be up front about that, and to use perspective in any and all things. We could have been invaded by ant soldiers from another galaxy and subjugated to their swift and ruthless will while True Detective was on TV, and that might have made the day a lot less fun. So there's that. I should also point out that I watched the whole first season in a day, from start to finish. It's possible that the anticipation involved in following the show from week to week like a regular person would have made the experience better, but I doubt it.
Let's tackle this item by item. We'll start with the characters.
Matthew McConaughey plays a character that's a cross between Mel Gibson from the original Lethal Weapon and a defective version of Benedict Cumberbatch playing anything. It's a shame, because there might have been real depth to his character, but instead it felt like a hollow shell with a bunch of random and seriously bizarre attributes stuffed in. At the start, he gives the impression of a wildly naive, idealistic rookie whose expectations have been shattered, forging him into the ragged drunkard whose testimony introduces the show. That should have been fleshed out and played with. Instead, we find out that he isn't a rookie at all, and he's been working undercover in narcotics for years before coming to homicide. It doesn't jive with our initial impression of him, nor does it make any sense that someone so socially awkward and borderline delusional could have survived undercover performing the work he describes later on. Then, there's the issue of his hallucinations. Sometimes, and only very briefly, do they succeed at some sort of eerie foreshadowing or mythological world-building. Mostly they're useless and random and do nothing to further the story, just like the pseudo-philosophical nonsense McConaughey spouts at inapropriate times. That, also, might have been a cool character attribute if done well. But the dialogue in those scenes felt like an eight-year-old had found a Michio Kaku book and tried to turn what he'd read into a coloring book, and another eight-year-old was translating the scribblings into words. It was so mind-bogglingly juvenile that I couldn't believe those lines passed through a single round of editing. If you're going to make someone sound like a jaded, aloof intellectual, then do it convincingly. I actually appreciated some of the discussion in the car about the nature of cynicism, but it was never revisited.
Woody Harrelson's character was completely uninteresting. It's a fine line between making an everyman character who can balance out McConaughey's nonsense, and creating one that's just plain dull. Their personal dichotomy was supposed to serve to highlight the extremes of their characters. McConaughey was unhinged, and Harrelson was playing a normal guy who wanted nothing to do with any kind of alternative worldviews. But somewhere in the middle of making him seem exceedingly normal, the show just lost my interest instead.
Let's try out the plot. Because, I think there was supposed to be one.
I'll begin by saying that I fully realize that one can indeed know exactly what's going to happen in a narrative and still thoroughly enjoy said narrative. That is indeed a thing that happens, and, in fact, more often than not. However, this was not the case. Ten seconds into True Detective, I knew exactly what was going to happen. It was easy to tell where the interviews were going. Turns out, that doesn't even really matter, because everyone forgets about that particular twist about five minutes after the reveal. It was like it never happened. You'd think that if a bunch of policemen suspected someone had been the real killer for 17 years or so, then you probably wouldn't just let that go, but oh well. I've never worked in a law enforcement capacity, on television or otherwise. Actually, I did once play a detective in a community theater production. Maybe that counts. As a community theater detective of the first-rate, I find the law enforcement officials in True Detective to be less than adequately competent.
As soon as you meet the killer, you know who it is. Or you're at least 90% sure, but you're also certain that this couldn't be right, because there are so many episodes left and they'd never be so blatantly transparent. Or would they? They would, and they were. And I spent the rest of the time wondering why they were. The point of a detective story is to keep the audience guessing right along with the main characters -- that's part of the fun. Not only do you know right away what's going to happen, there also aren't any more murders. So we're stuck with two subpar characters who are struggling to figure out details the audience already has for an entire season. If, as an audience, you don't have to guess anymore, then a show needs strong and intriguing characters to keep you interested in their plight. True Detective doesn't have that. Matthew McConaughey plays kind of a loser drifter... and Harrelson is an adulterous douche. And none of the supporting characters are very interesting, either. Harrelson's wife doesn't even really have a character. She has a bunch of cliche reactions to her overstressed cop husband, and serves as a horribly lame plot device involving a foreshadowed falling out between McConaughey and Harrelson.
I don't usually like to speak so harshly about artistic expression of any kind, because I understand how hard it is to create and polish a viewable product. However, if you're making a show that's running on a major network, there's an expectation of quality that really isn't negotiable. The most appealing parts of the show were the atmosphere, the unique setting, and the super creepiness of the killings along with the mythology surrounding it. None of these things were satisfactorily delved into, but sort of used haphazardly as afterthoughts. I think the show really could have been phenomenal if those aspects had been fleshed out more fully.
Overall, True Detective left me with a series of creepy nightmares and an unwillingness to be alone in the dark for longer than a few seconds at a time. I wanted more of that. I wanted the atmosphere and the mythos to overwhelm me, and the characters to be caught in a whirlwind of clusterfuck right alongside me. Instead, I didn't care about them or much of anything they did, and I barely got sucked into the setting -- the only saving grace of the whole thing. Season 2 is being billed as a completely independent narrative, complete with its own characters and setting. I'll most likely check it out regardless of how I feel about season 1, because A.) I'm a sucker for narratives and stories of any kind, and B.) There's always the possibility that season 2 will be so much different that it'll actually be good.