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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Five ways True Detective is changing television

Only midway through it's first season, True Detective is catching audiences off guard with it's unconventional approach to story telling  

From the start, HBO's True Detective has been turning heads. In 2012, the project, which 
already had actors Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, writer Nic Pizzolatto, and director Cary Fukunago attached to it, sparked a bidding war between networks. When HBO won that war, it took possession of a show with huge risks, big concepts, and broader goals that are innovating the way we consume television. 

1. An Anthology Approach

The anthology approach to television is still in its infancy. HBO was arguably a part of that evolution, as the acclaimed 2002 series The Wire relied on a core cast/set of characters throughout the series, but used each season as an opportunity to approach a different angle of an issue, folding in new protagonists each time. FX's American Horror Story became one of the first network television shows to take a more direct anthology approach: each season of the show wipes the slate clean, using a fresh set of characters and a new setting. (Just imagine what this kind of format would have done for shows like Twin Peaks). 

True Detective takes this approach a step further. While American Horror Story relies on key cast members to show up and take on new roles each season, True Detective only has plans to use McConaughey and Harrelson for the single, 8-episode season airing this year. Though writer Nic Pizzolatto is working on a second season, there are no known or publicized plans to bring back the cast associated with the current season, and the actors have hinted that they won't be returning. This is a particularly gutsy move. Rather than creating a show with likable characters or actors that will keep the viewers coming back for more, it's easy to speculate that for HBO, True Detective is more about creating credibility with its audience. The end goal? Don't subscribe because of one or two particular shows you want to watch - subscribe because this is the kind of thing HBO does, and will keep doing. 

2. One Writer. One Director. 

Television is a team effort. A show runner will guide the series behind the scenes, while actors typically become the face and identity of a show. But writing is often done by a group of talents working together behind the scenes, and the departure of one member of the team (unless it's the show runner) may easily go unnoticed. In that same vein, directors are often brought in ad-hoc to shoot episodes and are not necessarily tied to the identity of the show, either.  

True Detective has a single writer (Pizzolatto), who crafted and executed his vision for the season from start to finish. It has a single director (Fukunago), who has helmed every episode. What we're seeing here is consistency in the behind-the-scenes talent, relying on the writer and director, rather than the actors, who will most likely depart before the show's second season, to establish the show's identity. It's an unusual approach, but it allows for so much more: more creative control, a stronger story, a better narrative. It also allows True Detective to attract high-profile actors; it's unlikely Hollywood names like Harrelson or McConaughey would sign on for a show with the potential to run for 5 years. With stronger artistic focus and shorter commitment times, shows like True Detective may help change the perception of "television actors" belonging on a lower rung than movie actors. 

3. TV Made Like a Movie 

For all of the reasons stated above, True Detective already reads more like a mini series or movie than an ongoing television series. And much like a film, the cinematography and location are a constant presence in the series. The imagery is beautiful and haunting, allowing the series to show so much more than tell about where and when these characters live. And rather than relying on sound stages and a studio set, the show is shot on locations that have been carefully scouted by the writer and director. 

This season's 4th episode created a groundswell of good will for the show for, of all things, a technical feat. When is the last time the internet was buzzing not over a plot twist or character death, but instead over the intricacies of a television shot? In a recent interview, Fukunago, who has plenty of experience directing feature films, said he planned on using a single, long shot at some point in the series to create a first-person experience for the viewer. The notorious scene was shot in an actual housing project and runs a full six minutes without a single break or cut, traversing over fences, through houses and between gunshots. It was completely heart-stopping.  

4. A Reinvention of the Procedural 

CSI, Law and Order, NCIS, House, Bones, Criminal Minds: American audiences can't get enough of procedurals, and the ratings prove it. Procedural dramas are successful because they require so little background information. The stories are typically self-contained narratives with a clear beginning, middle and end, allowing viewers to dip in and out of the series as they please without referencing a backlog of 30 episodes. They also satiate the need for classic whodunnits and mysteries. 

The appeal of procedural dramas is also their weakness. There's only so much that can be done in an hour, and character development falls into the background when season-long plot arcs are de-emphasized. On the surface, True Detective fits the procedural drama mold: two detectives, who often butt heads, must work together to solve a crime. But True Detective's self-contained, short season approach breathes new life into a popular, but completely exhausted, genre of television, blowing up the usual 1-hour procedural format into an 8-hour version, which strikes a nice balance between accessibility and quality. 

5. Ideas Outside the Mainstream  

Television's most recent trend is embracing the idea of an anti-hero. Breaking Bad, Dexter, The Wire, The Sopranos - audiences are less interested in being spoon-fed black-and-white narratives with clear good and bad guys. True Detective approaches this in a similar, if slightly more balanced way, with both lead detectives having unique flaws while still embodying basic morals and ideals. 

But there's a chilling darkness lurking in the overall narrative. McConaughey's character, Detective Coehle, embraces (though, arguably, doesn't quite embody) philosophical pessimism, maintaining that human consciousness is nothing more than a tragic mistake. The show also raises themes of antinatalism, a philosophical view asserting birth and reproduction as irresponsible. Antinatalism views reproduction as a negative action humans have the moral the responsibility to avoid, both due to the intrinsic suffering and pain involved with being alive and the depletion of our world's resources due to overpopulation. The ideas are bleak and hard to swallow, but they're also thought-provoking and uncharted territory for a popular television series. 


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