Stop Treating True Detective Like a Game

8 minute read

True Detective lives. After two hotly debated seasons followed by an extended period of uncertainty, the crime anthology returns to HBO on Jan. 13 for the first time since 2015. During the hiatus, the network recruited some marquee talent to rehabilitate the shaky franchise. Now the show stars Mahershala Ali, who has won awards for his supporting turns in Moonlight and Green Book, in the psychologically rich lead role he deserves. HBO enlisted low-budget thriller master Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room, Blue Ruin) to direct. And they brought in Deadwood auteur David Milch to assist the show’s creator, Nic Pizzolatto, a first-time showrunner with a bad habit of sounding contentious in interviews.

Those efforts pay off in a solid third season whose structure and style hew close to those of the first. The show is set in a grim Ozark town, populated by white characters who speak a common language of coded racism. Episodes linger on exchanges between Ali’s earnest Detective Wayne Hayes and his partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff). Across three timelines spanning 35 years, Hayes grapples with the case of two missing children.

In that sense, it’s a welcome return to form: before crashing and burning in the California neo-noir of its second season, which for a long time seemed as though it would be the show’s last, True Detective was a smash hit, thanks to the instantly iconic buddy-cop duo of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, reams of quotable dialogue and awe-inspiring visual acrobatics courtesy of director Cary Joji Fukunaga.

Yet it’s also worth remembering that even that story arc had ultimately failed to satisfy its most vocal viewers. Instead of tying up eight episodes of cryptic clues with a bow, Pizzolatto let loose ends dangle, supplying a quick resolution to his baroque whodunit before concluding on a more philosophical note.

There were viewers–myself included–who liked that the show’s conclusion was open-ended. McConaughey’s breakout character, the alcoholic pseudo-sage Rust Cohle, had been a nihilist, talking in opaque aphorisms like “Time is a flat circle.” The finale exposed Rust’s worldview as reductive, and made a case for why a person in so much pain should keep fighting the forces of darkness in a universe where the war between good and evil will remain forever unresolved.

Yet a larger cohort–or at least a more outspoken one–were furious at Pizzolatto for pulling what they saw as a bait and switch. After all, they had spent weeks rewatching episodes, consulting recaps, sleuthing out literary references and comparing notes on the Internet with other obsessives desperate to solve the Southern Gothic mystery based on what they presumed to be a surplus of evidence. By the middle of the season, TV bloggers and a True Detective message board on the mega-discussion forum Reddit had become fully symbiotic, churning out and chewing on each other’s 5,000-word theories as if the show were a massive multiplayer online game. For these viewers, True Detective failed not because of any particular story flaw but because in its final moments, it claimed the right to be an ambiguous work of art–instead of an interactive challenge that fans could win or lose by solving the mystery.

True Detective certainly didn’t pioneer the gamification of narrative television. For as long as there have been cop shows (Naked City premiered on ABC in 1958), viewers have investigated crimes along with their detective stars; for as long as we’ve had sci-fi brainteasers (The Twilight Zone, 1959), we’ve spent hours decoding their subtext. Play-along mysteries have always meant big ratings, from Dallas‘ “Who shot J.R.?” to Twin Peaks‘ “Who killed Laura Palmer?” And fans have always collaborated and competed to anticipate the answers to those questions.

Crucial to these games is serialization, which gives viewers time to scour each episode for usable tidbits–and networks time to maximize hype. In the early 21st century, when prestige TV exploded and serialized stories weren’t just for soap operas anymore, a complex mystery became the mark of a cerebral show. The wildly popular Lost kicked off the modern era of the fan theory, ensnaring its audience in a sticky web of theology, weird science and parallel dimensions.

The backlash to that show’s finale, which not only left many mysteries unsolved but also barely diverged from a simple, seasons-old fan theory, revealed one hazard of gamified TV: an unsatisfying conclusion makes everything that came before it feel like a waste of time. Even when they’re well executed, these plots train us to see every story with an ounce of ambiguity as a puzzle. A subset of Mad Men‘s audience convinced itself that Don Draper would turn out to be hijacker D.B. Cooper. As the last season of Game of Thrones approaches, half a million subscribers to Reddit’s r/FanTheories are pondering such theories as “Samwell is the author of A Song of Ice and Fire.” Over at r/TrueDetective, fans are gearing up for Season 3 by close-reading cast lists and character surnames.

It would be possible to ignore this noise if TV makers resolved to do the same. But Westworld already went off the rails last year, after creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy pranked the Reddit page that had predicted Season 1’s big twists with a false promise to reveal spoilers, then fumbled by trying too hard to stump that commentariat. And last month, Netflix kicked off a new stage in the gamification of TV, debuting a stand-alone episode of its tech-dystopia anthology Black Mirror titled “Bandersnatch.” Framed as a “Netflix Interactive Film,” it unfolds like a kids’ Choose Your Own Adventure novel from the 1980s, offering viewers dozens of binary choices that shape the fate of its hero Stefan, played by Fionn Whitehead. (True to Black Mirror‘s self-reflexive form, Stefan is a teen video-game developer in the mid-’80s who comes to question the existence of free will.)

The result is a technological marvel that’s as dull to watch-slash-play as it is impressive to behold. Stefan’s story can be clever; one path leads him to the discovery that he’s being controlled via a futuristic platform called “Netflix.” Yet the structure makes the story feel unspecific, and the often arbitrary decisions players make on Stefan’s behalf aren’t narratively fulfilling. None of the multiple endings has more emotional resonance than a video-game cutscene–which is especially disappointing when you consider how effective past episodes of Black Mirror have been at inducing existential dread.

Even if “Bandersnatch” doesn’t turn out to be the future of television, its mere existence is a sign of times when games of speculation can drown out wider-ranging conversations about shows whose meaning can’t be reduced to a right or wrong answer. What a shame to spend time collecting the Breaking Bad Easter eggs in Better Call Saul when you could be processing the latter’s ideas about moral philosophy, or to sniff out all of the tiny parallels between fictional tech pioneers in Halt and Catch Fire and real Silicon Valley figures when you can absorb its deeply humanistic message? The right computer program can beat any simple game, but only a person can appreciate the profundity of a narrative that communicates some universal truth.

What’s ironic about True Detective‘s amateur sleuths–an army that includes both critics and commenters–is that they never seemed to realize that the show is about the unquantifiable power of storytelling. It illustrates how memory is a narrative shaped by our subjective interpretations of events, not an objective record of the truth. The show’s first season was, on a structural level, a story told by Rust that winds up revealing how his cynicism has precluded him from seeing the full picture of either the case or his life.

In Season 3, Ali’s Hayes confronts a different narrative dilemma: If he can’t remember crucial elements of a case that shaped his career, his family and his legacy, how can he understand the life he’s lived? Which is another way of asking: How can we know ourselves in the absence of a complete, internalized autobiography?

Memory isn’t the only source of self-knowledge, of course. We can also find it in art that challenges us to see through the eyes of its characters and creators, to compare those perspectives with our own, to weigh abstract ideas that can help us hone our own beliefs. Reducing these works to puzzles is a form of escapism, one that grows more attractive as technology evolves and the stress of living in reality keeps escalating. There’s a lot to be said for a show that makes you more interactive. But sometimes it’s better to be introspective.

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