LOLdunit: Television Mysteries in the Age of Ironic Consumption
Where to begin? There is the series of “pickup lines” as imagined by Rust Cohle, Matthew McConaughey’s character from True Detective, which juxtaposes snippets of his nihilistic worldview with cheesecake pictures of a younger McConaughey from deep in his romantic-comedy years. And there is the image macro of McConaughey and series co-star Woody Harrelson in previous projects together, coupled with more of Cohle’s trademark fatalism. And there is the video of the “truth about Cohle” that mashes up footage from True Detective and Magic Mike. And there is the video that recreates True Detective’s opening credits with cats. And there are the theories, and the middle-finger GIFs, and the mugs. There is always one more rabbit hole to tumble down, one more blending of two disparate pop culture moments, one more series of references. One more connection to hammer into being. True Detective aired its first episode on January 12, and by the time the first season ends on March 9, it will have become consumed and reapportioned by the Internet, the way a smaller organism isn’t so much eaten by a larger one as it is absorbed and broken apart.
Television mysteries are almost as old as the medium. Radio shows like Martin Kane, Private Eye made the jump to TV in the late 1940s, and the four-part thriller Dr. Death was broadcast in 1945. By the time the medium was coming into its own, there were series like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which premiered in the fall of 1955 and ran for eight years before a revival decades later, and The Twilight Zone, which came along in the fall of 1959 and ran for five seasons before receiving its own revival down the road. There have been mystery events on popular series, like the question of who shot J.R. Ewing on Dallas. And there have been modern series that blended mystery with the supernatural, from the surreal dream of Twin Peaks to the alien procedural of The X-Files to the entrancing pile of red herrings that was Lost. They all teased the viewer and wrung every possible drop of suspense and excitement from their stories, and they all had their moments of glory. Yet as different as all those series were, they all relied for their success on something basic and common: excitement and anticipation on the part of the viewer. A sense of wonder, or reverence. And it’s getting easier to stamp that out because of the way we consume media in the online era.
It’s not that obsession with a mystery show is new. The buzz over the J.R. cliffhanger on Dallas was so insane that the episode where the killer was revealed drew what at the time were the highest ratings ever for a series. Ditto Twin Peaks, which became a pop culture phenomenon in the early 1990s with its slow build to the discovery of who killed Laura Palmer. The X-Files was one of the first TV series on DVD and inspired a rabid fan base that took to the Internet to analyze episodes, hunt for clues to series mythology, and write deeply unsettling fiction involving the main characters. Lost somehow took devotion like that to a new level, leaving hints and breadcrumbs for eager viewers as it built a convoluted history for its own quasi-supernatural world over six seasons. These shows, and others like them, were huge draws, and their nature as mysteries inherently led fans to speculate about what would happen. We eagerly watched and DVRd (or taped) episodes and pored over them for ideas about what would happen. We tuned in to get answers, and we always came away with more questions, and we kept coming back for years. Ultimately, we gave of ourselves. Some pockets of those fan communities got weird — just Google and see — but there was beneath it all a sense of devotion to something, even if that something was a silly little TV show that made you happy for an hour a week.
Modern viewership isn’t quite like that, though. Devotion is still present — people are watching True Detective and Breaking Bad and lots of others, and they’re doing it with fervor — but there’s an undercurrent of ironic distance to that consumption that leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Instead of reacting to the show, we make videos about the characters reacting to it on a meta level. Instead of making a joke, we make the show a joke. References become ends in themselves, as if they could ever mean anything other than (e.g.) “Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson worked together before True Detective, and here is a picture of that.” We’re not even coming up with new jokes, either. The gag of McConaughey watching a video of himself is itself just a remix of the iterations of Breaking Bad’s Hank and Marie watching different video clips and reacting in horror, based on a segment from an episode late in the show’s run. We now filter our pop culture obsessions through ironic reactions and references and parodies in a way that keeps us just a few degrees removed. We get to be eager, but we also get to pretend to be eager. This lets us profess our dedication to a show (after all, we’re talking about it) while also being aloof and cool (we’re making jokes at its expense), so we never risk exposure — either the exposure to others that comes with honestly expressing your affection for something, or the exposure to a work of art that acknowledges you might someday become disappointed. It’s a way to live inside a defense mechanism while pretending everything is normal, creating and negating a backlash before a real backlash could happen. It’s an attempt to inhabit multiple emotional states at once. It’s life as defined by ironic exclamation points, unsure of how we feel, just that we feel it loudly.
These reactions are happening all over the place, but they’re particularly common when it comes to mysteries like True Detective and heavily serialized shows that hang their narrative hats on big questions like “How is he going to get out of this?” or “What’s the final twist/reveal going to be?” And this is because big questions always run the risk of having disappointing answers. For every note-perfect ending, there are several more that feel rushed or incomplete. Sometimes every character winds up in just the right place; sometimes they’re fighting over a golden pool of light that grants immortality. Being open and unironic and passionate about something means being alive to the possibility of being disappointed. Maybe the answer to the big questions will be unsatisfying. Maybe the revelation of the killer’s identity will be nonsensical. Maybe it just won’t work out. Mysteries are built on big risks like that, so we defuse the situation by trying to watch and regurgitate the stories with a degree of ironic detachment. Yet in trying to keep ourselves safe, we run a different risk: not being able to feel real happiness or excitement when a story is well told. We aren’t in control of the show, so rather than tune in and wait and worry and wonder, we recycle and joke and tumblr. We make art into content, and then we disassemble it. We never let ourselves get close.
There is no shortcut out of the woods. Diagnosis isn’t cure, and simply realizing that we’re overprocessing ourselves to the point of parody and insignificance doesn’t mean that a switch is flipped somewhere that will make everybody start saying what they mean and meaning what they say. If there’s a start, though, it’s accepting the validity of a given reaction toward a particular work, whether that’s a TV show, movie, book, album, and so on. Loving a show is great. Wondering what will happen, feeling worried about the characters, pining for a certain resolution: that’s what it means to be engaged with fiction, to be fully along for the ride. (And it’s just as valid to feel the opposite: to realize that you don’t like something, so you don’t have to watch it. You’re under no obligation to consume something just because it’s the meal of the day on Twitter.) Caring about something means bringing yourself to it and letting it work on you, and every piece works on a viewer a little differently. But defensively posturing one’s viewership as arch consumerism is just shallow and pointless. Don’t be afraid of disappointment, or ambiguity, or the new. Let’s stop consuming and start watching.