Entertainment Geekly: Does modern TV fandom actually make it harder to understand TV shows?
Entertainment Geekly is a weekly column that examines pop culture through a geek lens and simultaneously examines contemporary geek culture through a pop lens. So many lenses! This week there are two columns inspired by True Detective, partially because True Detective was a thought-provoking TV show which deserves a significant amount of thoughtful analysis, but mainly because I missed a column last week. Yesterday: A consideration of where the show’s ending fits into the pantheon. Today: A meditation on the show’s meaning, or lack thereof. Spoilers follow.
At the end of True Detective‘s second episode, philosophizing detective and anti-human crusader Rust Cohle has one of his occasional acid-flashback visions. Maybe it’s a hallucination; maybe it’s a misfiring brain neuron; maybe we all create the world for ourselves every time we open our eyes. He sees a flock of birds ascend into the sky. They form a spiral — an echo of the spiral tattoo on the back of murder victim Dora Lange, a symbol of the downward spiral of the accident that is human consciousness, evidence that the wind was blowing kinda weird just then. Maybe the spiral means something. Maybe it just looks cool.
True Detective was a show that looked cool. It was also a show about the battle between good and evil. Spoiler alert: Good won. On one hand, reducing True Detective to this binary equation is unfair. On the other hand, the show reduced itself, concluding its season finale with a long conversation between the two leads about the oldest story in the world, light triumphing over the darkness, stars twinkling in the darkness, good night stars, good night air, good night noises everywhere.
True Detective was never shy about its themes. Or about anything. In the last two months, the show achieved a meme-generation tipping point usually reserved for TV shows deep into their second season, mainly because the talented creative team etched the show’s stylistic and narrative aesthetics into stone almost immediately. In a weird way, you could label what a True Detective episode was after just a couple of weeks. And not in the bad, repetitive, third-spinoff-of-a-procedural way. True Detective had tropes, but they were new tropes, weird tropes, addictive tropes.
This was a show where Matthew McConaughey soliloquized about the lack of meaning in the universe — and he spoke in Voice-of-The-Bemused-Antichrist diction of Werner Herzog narrating a nature documentary, which when refracted through McConaughey’s naturally affable Texan drawl produced a tactile dissonance, a funny-scary grandeur. (“Darkness, yeah!”) This was a show that flipped freely but purposefully between unreliable narrators — you couldn’t trust the storytellers, even as you became enraptured in the story. This was a show that imagined the American landscape as a series of monstrous factories battling monstrous nature. This was a show that loved women — it was stuffed with young actresses made dreamily naked — but also feared women, and the power they cast over simple men. (To some learned viewers, this fear vibed like hatred.)
There were True Detective partisans who called it the finest new TV show of this TV season — to the extent that an eight-episode miniseries anthology premiere is now considered a “TV show,” and to the extent that anyone under the age of 18 will ever even understand the concept of a “TV season.” And there were people who called it overblown. I guess I was somewhere in the middle. The show’s tactile pleasures won me over: The McConaughey/Harrelson dynamic, the narcotic direction by Cary Fukunaga that middle-grounded Michael Mann and Stephen King, the tracking shot that wouldn’t end.
There was a deeper True Detective fandom which took over the internet for most of the last month. Carcosa, The King in Yellow, spirals and circles, “Maggie’s dad is the killer!” I never into that stuff, but I’ve been there before. The Matrix came out right around the point when my parents gave up on restricting my internet time, so half the philosophical concepts I know will always carry a tiny lingering stamp of a trenchcoated kung-fu-kicking Keanu Reeves. I used to mark down the names of any new character on Lost. (At one point in the mid-00s, Wikipedia was basically the word’s de facto Lost fansite). Last year I got caught up in the internet’s game of Mad Men clue tracking: Was Megan going to die? Was Bob Benson the time-traveling son of Don Draper? It was just a game of course; nobody really believed the Bob stuff, and Matthew Weiner was so openly dismissive of Megan theory that the famous spoilerphobe angrily clarified that she was not the show’s spiritual incarnation of Sharon Tate.
Still, it strikes me how much those theories came to dominate the discourse around Mad Men. And it’s striking, now that True Detective is over, how much the greater “mythology” around the show didn’t really have much to do with the final act. The show was not really building up to a deeper revelation; it was building up to a redemptive headbutt.
I won’t go so far as to say that the fan chatter around True Detective was “wrong” somehow. Everyone experiences art and entertainment in their own way. (I never really understood the instinct towards writing FanFiction — but I did spend a year and a half basically writing Jersey Shore FanFiction.)
And the prospect of conducting a post-mortem of a certain TV show’s fandom won’t do anyone any good, since loving a TV show is fundamentally tied up in loving something that is unfinished. Personal Example: Going into Breaking Bad‘s final season, I was sure that the show was building up to a complete perspective shift — that Walter was going to become the new Big Bad, becoming for season 5 what Gus was for season 4, and that Jesse would be the show’s ultimate protagonist. Looking back now, we know that Jesse was barely a factor in the Breaking Bad final act — in the last three episodes, he had fewer scenes than Robert Forster. If I’m Monday Morning Quarterbacking myself, I could point out that I misread the show: I thought it was a show about both Walt and Jesse, but the Vince Gilligan ultimately decided (as is his right) that it was a show about Walt.
(ASIDE: You could extend this backwards to most long-running serialized shows where the cast swelled in the midsection. Lost started out as Jack’s show and ended as Jack’s show — probably to its detriment, since it was always more compelling as a show about Locke. And although The Wire had an ensemble twice the size of real-world Baltimore, it’s striking how its final season re-established the idea of McNulty as Plot Engine — especially considering that McNulty barely appeared in the show’s best season. Conversely, I’ve always thought that 24 extended its life considerably when it recognized that the show needed to belong at least 70-30 to Jack and Chloe. END OF ASIDE.)
The point is, there is no “wrong” way to love a TV show. But isn’t it weird that all of the sound and fury over True Detective wound up signifying not-very-much? And, more to the point, isn’t it weird that much of that sound and fury seemed to take for granted that the show had much more to say than it actually did? I’m not really talking about True Detective here, either. I’m talking about us, and how we go about constructing meaning.
Last year saw the release of Room 237, a movie about The Shining which is less a documentary than an essay crowdsourced to a paranoid-schizophrenic LISTSERV. The movie proffers various theories explicating that Kubrick used The Shining to portray the genocide of the Native Americans, the faked moon landing, the Holocaust, and also minotaurs. Room 237 is a ridiculously fun film to watch and a surprisingly disturbing film to think about. None of the film’s narrators every say that the movie is about a sexually frustrated middle-aged alcoholic who can’t face his own professional failures, and so takes his self-loathing out on his wife and child — possibly because this “theory” is way less fun to talk about than minotaurs.
The problem I have with the Room 237 mode of analysis is the same problem I have with various Carcosa theories. It seems to confuse subtext — what a filmmaker is trying to say, or is saying accidentally without even realizing it — with reducible content. (See also: Every theory which proposes to “solve” the Pixar movies.) And I think it’s having a greater effect on our TV-watching culture than we can readily understand: I think it might actually be obscuring our understanding of these shows.
Brief Tangent: Last year HBO wrapped up two of the most unusual and most hilariously low-rated TV shows in its history: Enlightened and Tremé. Both shows represented intriguing contrasts to True Detective. True Detective was a genre show, built on the hardboiled noir tradition of mournful dudely dudes; you could point out how the series added its own peculiar flavors of occult-Americana mysticism, but True Detective never threw out the detective-mystery playbook the way The Sopranos threw out the gangster-movie playbook.
Enlightened and Tremé were almost impossible to describe in genre terms: I guess you could call the former a workplace sitcom, but the second season didn’t spend much time at work and didn’t always (or even frequently) try to be funny. Likewise, the only way to really describe Tremé was “The Wire without the wire”: It took the metropolitan-ensemble of David Simon’s previous show and ditched the central cops-investigating-criminals structure, with the end result being the first show in history to devote roughly equal attention to the inept bureaucracy of the modern American city and the struggle to balance art with commerce in the modern restaurant industry.
But what’s really interesting about Enlightened and Tremé is how explicit the shows were about their own meaning: The creators had a point. Tremé‘s characters constantly complained about the state of the city around them; Enlightened was literally titled Enlightened. Both show’s themes were complicated — particularly Enlightened, which occasionally seemed to suggest that the pursuit of social justice is partially or entirely an act of vanity. But the ideas were all there. In this sense, those shows were the real descendants of HBO’s Imperial period: That medium-defining TV Renaissance which brought The Sopranos and Deadwood and Sex and the City.
To me, True Detective is closer in spirit to True Blood and Game of Thrones. On a stylistic level, these two shows are much flashier than those earlier shows. The colors are brighter. The casts are younger and prettier. The plots move faster. (Game of Thrones is almost never boring, whereas The Sopranos was occasionally a show about boredom.) But they also have a kind of aggressive internal purposelessness, a sense that the forward motion might be a hamster-wheel illusion. (On The Sopranos, minor events would have major psychological repercussions; on Game of Thrones, everything is treated like a major event, and characters like Theon and Stannis can spend an entire season major-eventing in the shadows of some distant Castle Keep.)
I don’t want to hit this dichotomy too hard. The Sopranos also produced “The Test Dream,” a great hour of television built on about ten Carcosas of PhD-level semiotics. But with the exception of The Russian, you didn’t really watch The Sopranos expecting some lingering mystery to unfurl in the final act. And part of what made the first few episodes of True Detective so fun was the delicate Sopranos-worthy character work. (In my opinion, the best episodes barely even involved the Dora Lange case.)
What concerns me is that, when it comes to TV drama, we now seem to expect that half or more of the experience of the show involves looking forward to The Big Thing That Is Going To Happen. It doesn’t help that, one decade post-Lost, the networks are still making shows that spend half their pilots setting up long-running mysteries, essentially building their narrative foundation out of vapor. But it’s on us as viewers, too. Something in the television medium encourages us to look forward instead of backward; to use an episode as a clue towards a further mystery, instead of as work unto itself. (ASIDE: The Walking Dead doesn’t really have any “mysteries” per se, but it has very savvily turned this fandom model into its Standard Operating Procedure. Its seasons are divided into eight-episode chunks that promise at least One Big Thing at the end of a long run of Not Much Of Anything. At its best, this means the show has the striking confidence to devote whole episodes to barely talkative human beings just kind of meandering around. END OF ASIDE.)
I’m not really sure if there’s any way to fix this. Ultimately, I think True Detective had less on its mind than Tremé. But Tremé could have never inspired the level of viewership engagement that True Detective did, partially because it was less obviously fun (unless you’re a jazz-loving hippie who loves artisanal food), but mainly because it was a closed text. David Simon has a point — he’ll tell you all about it. Until its final episode, True Detective was an open text. Was it about Rust’s redemption or Rust’s corruption? Was Martin a fundamentally good man or a deranged psychopath? Is evil everywhere or does it reside in a swamp-shadowed murder-temple?
This was all fun to talk about — and it doesn’t really matter that, for the most part, the show chose the least interesting answers to those questions. But I wonder if the conversation around True Detective made the show seem more ambitious than it actually was. I wonder what it would be like if we could have those conversations about shows that do have a deeper point beyond “Good vs. Evil.” And I wonder if we’re not all just staring at flocks of birds, marveling at spirals pointing everywhere and nowhere, “everywhere and nowhere” actually just a synonym for “nowhere.”