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'True Detective' and the Perils of the Curiosity Gap

By Daniel Carlson | Think Pieces | March 19, 2014 |

By Daniel Carlson | Think Pieces | March 19, 2014 |

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.