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Running Down a Dream: Have We Fallen Down the 'True Detective' Rabbit Hole to Nowhere?

By Cindy Davis | Think Pieces | March 6, 2014 |

By Cindy Davis | Think Pieces | March 6, 2014 |

So, it looks like* True Detective will turn out to be just another serial killer story. Before you start screaming about the acting and the writing, and slamming your browser shut, give me just a minute here. I’m not trying to diminish the show’s greatness. Recently I wrote about how we, as an audience, may be left unsatisfied by straight-forward stories because of shows like Lost and Twin Peaks; now I have another question: Just how many tales of serial killers and child abuse do we really want to watch, and how does such a series get around our jaded mindset? By driving people mad?

Nic Pizzolatto is clearly a talented writer with a gift for character and dialogue, and Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson have chewed his words right down to the bone. Had he stuck to that skeleton, we’d still have embraced True Detective, but would the series be receiving the same attention without its perceived theory breeding—what I hesitate to call—misdirection? I know how showrunners can be sensitive to that term, and having contributed to that Lost criticism myself, I can’t say as I blame them. But in the end, are we to believe Pizzolatto didn’t know what he was doing when he threw in certain references? He certainly cultivated Rust’s ambiguity, and the evolution of Marty’s character made Hart questionable as well. Is everyone really buying Pizzolatto’s oh pshaw! interviews? The closer we get to the end, the less I can accept claims we weren’t intentionally led on this philosophical goose chase. Setting aside the supernatural inferences some have made, we’re meant (at different points) to suspect Cohle and Hart—they’ve each been created as unreliable narrators, so it’s up to us (true detectives) to find the truth. The religious asides, sermonizing, the devil traps—an illustrated diary—Cohle’s visions and symbology were a little cookie crumb trail expertly laid and dutifully followed. Pizzolatto knew exactly what he was doing when he threw in Carcosa and the The King in Yellow. There are multiple layers that really go nowhere, but made us feel like we were headed somewhere new. True Detective wasn’t just another set of fantastic actors going over the same old ground, it was deeper than that. To acknowledge these things while the series was running might have been detrimental, so there’ve been statements like this one: “I’ve enjoyed reading people theorize about what’s going to happen because it’s a sign that you’re connecting. But I’m also sort of surprised by how far afield they’re getting. Like, why do you think we’re tricking you? It’s because you’ve been abused as an audience for more than 20 years. “ Why yes Mr. Pizzolatto, perhaps it is, and I guess we shouldn’t complain when someone exploits that “abuse,” maybe chuckling as so many of us trip and fall right down the rabbit hole.

I tip my hat to the writer, even if I sound slightly bitter. In the end, we’ll have gotten eight hours of an engaging, well-acted story we’ve by now seen many times over, but jazzed up as much as such things can be. The unique method of storytelling took us time-traveling (sans blue box, but with the police) over nearly two decades; we felt like we lived through everything Cohle and Hart did, coming out the other side just a little bit worse for the wear. These characters dug straight into our brain stems and took root. In the case of True Detective, we might have made it through without the repeating allusions that sent us off in search of…

After years of police procedurals—from Law & Order to Criminal Minds to Red Riding, Top of the Lake and Broadchurch—we’ve learned that the sexual abuse and murdering of children is that thing that makes us feel our absolute worst; in film and television, it’s the horrific occurrence du jour. And since there’s nowhere left to go from there (except maybe in multiple victims, via serial killer or the involvement of many bad people instead of one), writers have to find ways to draw in the audience. My hope for future True Detective seasons, and these type of series in general, would be for writers who embellish to lean toward more meaningful mythology; if you’re sending us on an egg hunt, we’d like the satisfaction of eventually finding a little surprise hidden in the grass (however distasteful it may be).

I don’t subscribe to the theory that there is no such thing as a new idea, but when it comes to the depiction of serial killers, everyone seems hunting down a new way to serve them up. The best answer may be in series like Hannibal, where Bryan Fuller has created an appreciated distance from reality and elevated fantasy crime scenes to the stuff of haughty galleries. Even though he’s working with well-known material, Fuller takes license—his own means—to get to the end.

As I discovered the other night while watching the debut of A & E’s Those Who Kill, even for a girl who considers herself a connoisseur of dark-hearted series, there can indeed be too much of a bad thing. Great actors don’t guarantee the story will be good and vice versa. Indeed, audiences appreciate new ways to tell some of the old stories, but if you purposely throw crumbs down a stray path, don’t play dumb when we follow them. Give us some credit, and gather them into a pie crust—a small cookie, at least.

“See, I don’t want to destroy that stuff by copping to it.” (Nic Pizzalotto)

*Of course if it turns out Rust and Marty are two halves of the same person, or there is something more than a vast child-murdering cult involving powerful people, I shall have to eat my proverbial hat.

Cindy Davis, (Twitter)

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