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'True Detective' and the Perils of the Curiosity Gap

By Daniel Carlson | Think Pieces | March 19, 2014 | Comments ()


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No mystery is more alluring than the one that goes unsolved. Stories that find themselves permanently suspended between eerie set-up and absent resolution have the power to stick in our minds for years, even centuries. Consider the lost colony of Roanoke Island, or the return of the deserted Mary Celeste; the unknown destinations of Ambrose Bierce or D.B. Cooper; the identity of the Zodiac or Jack the Ripper; every grim true story of someone or something vanishing without a trace. We tease over these puzzles knowing we’ll never get an answer, and what’s more, that permanent frustration is part of the allure. They are perfectly formed, offering endless opportunities for wonder and speculation and confusion. They exist forever frozen.

It makes sense, then, that the fictional mysteries we tell ourselves — especially through film and television — rely for their inspiration on those kind of perfect puzzles. Locked-room killings, eerie set-ups, bizarre rituals, haunting scenes devoid of clues. Sometimes these stories actually stay in the hazy realm of the unsolved and impenetrable, like Picnic at Hanging Rock or pretty much everything by David Lynch. Most of the time, though, these mysteries take the shape of regular stories. The truth is that most mysteries are only mysterious at the beginning, when all we have are a few scattered clues or haunting images that don’t make sense. Eventually, though, a narrative unfolds, and it always comes down to one of the same three things that motivates every story: money, sex, or power. (Usually a combination.) A missing girl found in the woods, a dead man left by the train tracks, a tycoon shot and left for dead: everything starts in fog and ends in the cold, plain light of day. This isn’t a bad thing, either. In fact, it’s just the way stories go.

A recent example: True Detective, as tightly and enjoyably plotted as you could want a TV mystery to be, started off with horrifying, somehow alluring images of a dead woman blindfolded and bound to a tree in a setting that seemed to mix ritual kidnapping and torture with a sick cult-informed version of human sacrifice. Subsequent plot points introduced weird rituals and belief systems that existed just outside the comprehension of the viewer and of the detectives working to solve these baffling murders: symbols, tattoos, rumors, unnerving stick crafts, mutterings of a mystical “yellow king” and a realm known as “Carcosa.” Everything was just a little hard to comprehend. We could only brush at these things with the tips of our fingers before they withdrew. And in the end, the story wound up where it had to: with a sick freak who liked to abuse kill kids. A monster, absolutely, but nothing otherworldly. It was a sharp, riveting eight hours of television, and it came to an end.

What’s tough about that, though, is we’ve gotten hooked on the mystery. We don’t want to see something get solved as much as we want to cop a continual high on the possibilities. We spend hours theorizing about where the story will go and fantasizing about just how crazy it will be when it gets there, and we do this over and over again for as many TV series as we can make fit the formula. Obsession over these things isn’t new, but the specific face our obsession now takes is, and it has a lot to do with general Internet culture of the past couple years. Specifically: Upworthy.

Hacky, manipulative feel-goodery machines like Upworthy might not look like they have a lot in common with something like True Detective or Breaking Bad, but the sites’ m.o. is always the same: hook users by exploiting the curiosity gap. The curiosity gap is the term for that little tickle you get in your brain when you read a headline deliberately crafted to push you to click by defying your expectations or overpowering your default urge to just skim and move on. When Patrick Stewart talks frankly about his experiences witnessing domestic violence and his advocacy to help stop it, it’s a powerful scene. But rather than address that in the headline of the post, Upworthy will opt for a title that reads “A Brave Fan Asks Patrick Stewart A Question He Doesn’t Usually Get And Is Given A Beautiful Answer.” It’s still technically true, though it’s also a lot less informative and helpful for readers. The goal isn’t to clue you in on what will happen, but to sell you on the mystery of the unknown. What question? Why is the fan brave? How is the answer beautiful? Click, click, click.

In other words, we are conditioning ourselves to seek out mysteries as artifacts. We don’t care about what’s being said, or what the story’s about, or how it might affect us. We just focus on the hit, on the repetitive pleasure of filling the curiosity gap. We get off on mystery as news product, and we do it again and again. We are rats who have finally figured out how to hit that lever and keep those pellets coming. This is pretty bad for long-term health and comprehension, in large part because it teaches us that the only thing that matters is the tease. But it also has the potential to damage us as viewers because we wind up training ourselves to always look for something else than what’s being presented to us. We start to refuse narrative satisfaction because no answer can ever compete with the rush of the gap. We keep chasing that dragon, losing sight of the story in our rush to wonder where it will go.

As a result, we psych ourselves up into a state that’s all about the rush of the mystery and not about the fact that, sooner or later, we’re probably going to find out what happened, and it’s probably going to feel a lot like other stories we’ve seen. It will turn out that somebody slept with the wrong person, or took something that wasn’t theirs, or just went crazy and evil and started leaving bodies in their wake. For every Lynch movie, there are hundreds where things shake out along understandable plot lines. The specifics change, but the core answer to every haunting question is usually the same: Character X got angry at Character Y, and their self-interest outweighed rational thought or societal concerns.

The goal, then, isn’t to let the mere existence of an answer be deflating but to focus on the story as a whole. This is a lot easier to do with movies, where we’re locked in for two hours and can approach the who and the what of the story at the same pace. For instance, films like Seven or L.A. Confidential (to name two wildly different but pretty great Kevin Spacey movies) do a fantastic job at stringing us along with the nuts and bolts of the mystery while also making perfect use of tone, character, casting, and everything else that makes up the feel of a film. We don’t have time to speculate about the otherworldly influences on John Doe or the metatextual ramifications of Rolo Tomasi. We’re along for the ride, and the experience is one solid thing.

Television, though, fragments the who (the revelation of the mystery, e.g., the identity of the killer) and the what (the tone, temper, acting, etc.). We’re steeped in the what every week, but frantically running through it to get to the who. And we do that because we’ve trained ourselves to flood the curiosity gap as much as possible, and because we know that over the course of eight hours, the truth won’t make itself known until the final minutes. Yet the real power of great TV like True Detective is that the final beats of a given plot (say, the moment when the good guys either catch the bad guy or lose him forever) are only part of a much larger and richer tapestry in service of the story as a whole. If a black and white solution is all we want out of a story — just an ID for the killer and then credits — then the answers are always going to leave us wanting more. The whodunit is only ever part of the puzzle.

One way to get around this is to try and compress (though not too much) the amount of time in which we watch series. Maybe, for instance, that means covering something like the first season of True Detective in two or three weeks instead of the longer span in which it was originally broadcast. A compressed viewing plan might force us to focus on the bigger picture and consume the mystery as narrative, instead of falling down rabbit holes. But maybe the best way to beat the curiosity gap is to just stop being curious, at least in the way that can drive us to blind obsession. It’s one thing to be invested in a narrative and eagerly watch to see where it goes. It’s something a little different to just want the rush of the unknown, free of story or character or execution. Maybe the real challenge is to give into the mystery and let it do its work at its own pace. The story will tell us what it needs to.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.



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  • Bennetttt

    I partly agree, but think what is often missed in mystery mazes are stories focused on the true horrors of life we've come to know in the present. True Detective provided aspects of today's modern real life in ways I've never seen. It was uneasy, somewhat shocking because it was identifiable to a harsh real world that usual seems ignored in favor of plot manipulated hijinks.

  • fluxion187

    I feel like True Detectives, with the end resolution not being the ultimate goal but rather a compelling journey, is a classic example of the evolution of the TV narrative form. This style bridges the gap between the older, nearly stand alone episodic form of story telling and the completely serialized dramatic narratives favored in the decade.The present moment is what counts the most in the viewing experience, yet you can binge watch it like a muthafucka.

  • brite59

    True Detective was an interesting post Breaking Bad series, but as with BB, what made this first installment of TD wonderful viewing was the stellar performances of the cast, the visual richness of the experience.I admit, I quite enjoyed getting caught up in all the internetia speculation, but I was not disappointed that all those deep and fascinating theories didn't play out. The series was immensely entertaining and emotive without all the rumblings from the back rows (so to speak). Sometimes you just have to enjoy the moment.

  • John G.

    BB was never as theory friendly as TD. It was good, but for entirely different reasons.

  • Kayla

    I loved the first few episodes. Since most shows I love get cancelled, I went online to read reviews and ratings. Instead I found all of these theories. Theories on top of theories. I had no idea that TD was that kind of show. It seemed so straight forward to me that I thought I had missed something.

  • John G.

    It's not either/or. It was created to be enjoyed on multiple levels.

  • Kayla

    I'm not sure what you mean. What is "either" and what is "or"?

  • John G.

    You had not either "missed something" or not missed something. You had no idea it was that kind of show, because it wasn't strictly that kind of show. It was created to be enjoyed straight, with no internet theories, and with them. It was created to be enjoyed on both levels.

  • Kayla

    Ah, okay. Yeah, I realize that now. It was just surprising because some of the theories were so involved, but nevertheless they were fun to read.

  • kinoumenthe

    I strongly object to the "we" in this article. I don't relate to storytelling that way most of the time and there is a very good chance that a lot more people don't either but just aren't vocal about on it the net.
    I've been completely flabbergasted by the extent of theorising that went on during true Detectives, though I voiced my own -completely erroneous- thoughts on the matter once (which didn't prevent me from enjoying the series or the way it concluded).

  • Cory Chalmers

    All the theorizing made me feel colorblind at an art show. Like I wasn't enjoying it the right way.

  • kinoumenthe

    Well, it made me feel like the people over-theorizing didn't enjoy it the right way :b.
    I'd tend to say it was wrong of me to think that because everybody is entitled to enjoy fiction the way they want, but when you see the resulting outrage at not getting what they wanted, I have to wonder.
    You too have a right to enjoy you own interpretation of a show.

  • John G.

    If you weren't theorizing, then I don't get why you would enjoy it more than any other random thing. It was the fun of theorizing that made the show wonderful for me. It doesn't matter how it ends up. The theorizing before the end was 99% of the fun. I honestly don't understand people who get annoyed or critical of that theorizing. And it was present even at the time. Next to every wild new theory, was always some boring sad dude saying "you guys are nuts. Stop it. What show are you watching?"

    I'm watching the show that created the space for all these people to be having this much fun between episodes.

  • kinoumenthe

    I said "over-theorizing" and resulting in being completely disappointed in what they were getting. You don't seem to belong to that category AND you're putting word in my mouth I didn't say.
    You enjoyed it, I enjoyed it, good for us. What the fuck does it matter in which way we did ?
    Seriously.
    I was answering someone who seems to have been negatively affected by the side-show, no criticizing you.

  • Apophenia: the experience of seeing patterns or connections in random or meaningless data.

    We want things to make sense. To have meaning. To be more than random accidents on the highway of life. So when we make our fiction, we build that in -- even when our experiences in real life tell us that it's not the case.

    So we build mountains out of conjecture. Then get mad when the mountains were never there. It's human nature.

  • John G.

    in a sense, it's all meaningless data. Fiction, by being man made, can have meaning. Life, the universe and everything is a meaningless collection of random acts.

  • I think the very nature of fiction itself is an exercise in nailing meaning to life, to existence. Even if you were to write a purposefully meaningless narrative, the very act that created it has given it inherent meaning. The two words, in my head anyway, occupy the same space: narrative = meaning.

  • Daniel, I agree, in part. But the truth of the matter is True Detective simply wasn't as good as its ambition implied. It wasn't structured cleanly enough. The mysteries that served the backbone of the story weren't developed with enough care. The thematic impact of the mystery on the supposedly more important story of these two men wasn't done with enough thought.

    Se7en is a perfect film, and not just because of the great atmosphere and all that. The film has a fascinating thrill ride mystery which is thematically tied to the struggles of the two main characters. Then the twist in expectations at the end serves to bring both elements of the story together literally in a way that enhances the themes even more while also providing intense narrative satisfaction.

    True Detective turned out to just be another "woe is the life of the asshole manly man" story grafted onto a boringly generic—though at first interestingly structured—serial killer tale.

  • Mrcreosote

    So, here's my problem with movie/TV serial killers. Every one of them is an urbane genius who plans 15 steps ahead, and has a complete knowledge of topiary, culinary technique and metallurgy. True Detective had a surly hoarding inbred janitor-who was still hard to find, due to his family, his knowledge of the land, and his job, which existed as part of everyone's background noise. I'm sorry if woe is the life of asshole man tires you, but two squeaky clean detectives effectively researching the case, and going home to functional families is less noir detective, and more....well, probably real life. I prefer the fact that the mysteries were not these little interlocking boxes, but a messy bumpy sprawl that ended at one of the creepiest places I've ever seen on television. Stop making the series what you want-You want HBO to reboot Arli$$ again?

  • I think you're slightly missing my issue with the show, because in theory I agree with you. I even agree that it was a potential strength of True Detective that the mystery had a natural messiness to it. The problem is that by then end (particularly how it is "solved") I lost the impression that the mess was entirely purposeful. It felt thoughtless. Like there were all these strands that Pizzolatto had dreamt up but didn't quite understand how to tie together in a truly meaningful way. And that doesn't mean that every question needed to be answered, but it does mean that the fact of asking the questions feels like it has meaning. By the end it didn't feel that way at all, at least to me.

    The counterpoint I use is LOST, which (a bunch of structural missteps in the final season aside) but did so much to use the craziness of the plot to inform the redemption of the characters that I found the ending quite beautiful and emotional. With True Detective, which actually did answer a lot more than LOST ever did, I was left with "okay, that was it?" And that applies to both the resolution of the case and the arcs of the characters.

  • John G.

    If by "answer" you mean Lost gave us a "fuck you that's why" answer, then I agree.

  • LOST answered some stuff, and actually quite a lot more than most people give it credit for. A lot of stuff it also answered by falling back on spiritual mumbo-jumbo, which is fine or a "fuck you" depending on how inclined you are to accept such things in the story. But all that is beside the point for me as the series succeeded in the crucial areas of character.

    True Detective had one and one half compelling characters and even then I didn't feel invested enough in them to be satisfied by their ending.

  • Pete Arado

    Well said. I've found that 9 times out of 10, stories are far simpler than people think - we come up with these crazy elaborate theories and ideas about what's going on, for whatever reason. As long as the story is engaging and creative, I'm fine with simple.

  • John G.

    I completely disagree with this, Daniel. Exploring the potential of the mystery IS the whole point. It does not matter at all how it really ends. It only matters that you are given enough time to explore at will, but not too much time so that you run out of exploration terrain.

    Lost is a perfect example. It was too long, and people became far too attached to their pet theories. The anthology format, therefore, is the perfect format for this type of radical engagement with entertainment. It has a definite end, and then we tell a whole new story. True Detective would not be helped by shortening its run, like you suggest, or lengthening it either (at least not too much). You need enough time to catch an audience, and then enough time for them to explode online with theories and analysis, and then before it's worn out its welcome, you end it.

    Of course, it also needs great characters and good dialogue, or it's just gonna be shit at any length.

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