There are a couple of shows on TV that quickly gain a large following a few episodes in their first season, thus making it hard to keep an open mind starting to watch them with a little delay - being flooded with first impressions. Although I don't read stuff about anything beforehand, I can never completely avoid those flashy headlines. A review for each new episode on blogs seems excessive, but it's not unusual.
It shows that a series does something right in terms of presentation during the first crucial episodes, being the cool new thing to talk about. I'm not saying it's not OK to be enthusiastic. But it immediately raises more than a few expectations in regards to where a show is heading (and oftentimes before it has found its pace).
The flavor of these last few months appeared to have been HBO's True Detective. It's an anthology crime series, mysterious, with nods to film noir and an eery, almost romantic gloom hanging overhead. I might even go as far as say that I got a little depressed watching it, realizing that there is little happiness to be found for any of the characters, just a nihilistic sense of loss, guilt and regret moving them forward. The title True Detective stems from a factional crime magazine by the same name. Award-winning writer Nic Pizzolatto wrote each of the episodes, and in many ways the concept for the show builds on his 2010 mystery novel Galveston.
It didn't take long for it to grab me. There was something about Harrelson's narration that left me wanting more. A few episodes in I also noticed what I didn't like, namely that it has become somewhat of a stylistic means of expression to have writers argue out what feels like personal beefs over certain topics, to utilize characters as messengers of outrageous dialogue. OK, this is mainly an HBO thing. After nudity and violence, it is about questioning other forms of expression and overcome boundaries, things you weren't allowed to say on TV a mere ten years ago.
People enjoy a writer's defiance. Strangely enough it makes an audience feel empowered. But since it has become a trademark of progressive shows to be anti-establishment, being known for scandalous dialogue can get old. Adding that to the fact that within the last few years it has risen to be a standard to depict main characters moving within the dark grey areas of morality makes it even harder to find a truly new angle. We're forced to empathize with not-all-good people. And even if we find someone who seems OK at first, it turns out the good people have a skewed moral compass as well, and maybe even worse so than those who promote their flaws more loudly.
Since it's such a commonplace, it takes away from some of True Detective's visionary sense. Yes, there is novelty to the show, in cinematic style, production and writing. The show is very ambitious. But aside from presentation and directing toppings as for instance demonstrated in the awesome 6-minute single-take tracking shot during episode 4, the plot is pretty run-of-the-mill. I see an end to this trend of finding new ways to tell old stories, and soon. After a lot of antiheroic types have braced the TV landscape, it's time for the opposite; classic narratives to tell new and exciting stories. As long as stories feel stale, there is no further value in neat packaging (except to ruffle people's expectations).
It would be a refreshing change of pace to empathize with protagonists who believe in something beyond their own rationalization. Like, for example, to create suspense, a story needs a certain element of impulse, even plausible screw up on the part of the characters to create misconceptions and prejudice on the part of the audience, especially in the crime genre. It's true to genre to deflect the audience while they're trying to connect the dots. At least if the plan is to create that one surprise moment at the end that no one suspected, but, in hindsight, wasn't far-fetched at all - the ideal goal of any story, if you ask me.
The mystery part turned out to be a disappointment. It seems True Detective stumbled over its own sense of mystique. The character arcs, well, I see what they were heading for. It ended about halfway between where it started and where it wanted to be. For the next season, there are other quests to be undertaken by an all new team. I think I'll miss Harrelson and McConaughey the most.