Today is the day that, each week for the past two months, I’ve spent looking forward to the next episode of True Detective, wondering what will happen next, what questions will be answered, which new ones will be raised. But this week my friends Rust and Marty won’t be around to show me more of their story or their lives. That frustrates, annoys me, even makes me a little sad, like being stood up on a third date after getting to like the girl. But it’s for the best, really. Rust, Marty and I weren’t meant to be together for the long haul. It’s better this way. Television might actually be better this way. With growing popularity of anthology style shows like American Horror Story and now True Detective’s critical acclaim, combined with the binge watching release of Netflix originals like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black, the small screen is poised for a serious reimagining. I’m onboard.
Over the years, I’ve realized that the lifespan of series that aren’t predominantly formatted for stand-alone episodes – shows like NCIS and Law & Order – have only a few years of writing shelf life. Some great shows transcend this theory, but for the most part a great first season is followed by a good second and pretty good third. Then I lose interest, and not for lack not commitment. Maybe that’s just me, but I do see a pattern and even though my love for the characters I become vested in can mask this effect, it’s still there.
It isn’t a secret why this happens to shows after a few seasons. Writers run out of ideas, or new writers are brought in. After the fifth season of True Blood, Alan Ball stopped writing for the show and the stories changed. That change was inevitable. Couple it with the fact that there were now so many characters that should have been written off but hadn’t been, and storylines were stretched thin and disjointed with previous seasons.
True Detective on the other hand, was written entirely by Nic Pizzolatto and directed entirely by Cary Fukunaga. There is continuity present in that structure that is hard to replicate with multiple writers and weekly changes in direction. Still harder is it to keep such continuity over multiple seasons of a series. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, one of my favorite shows for years, specifically for its brand of weirdness, has continued to up the ante each season until one day – for me it was midway through season six – where there was no up for the ante to go anymore.
This happens to countless shows, where writers run out of character arcs and dilemmas, and the stories become rote, repetitive, or just plain weird. This pattern manifests itself in different ways. Sometimes sitcoms will try to take a moral stand or get far too dramatic. Dramas will dig into comedy or cliché in search of plot movers. And sometimes, like athletes who hang on too long, I wish these shows would hang up their proverbial cleats and stop trying for one more ring. It isn’t coming.
Which brings me back to the magic of True Detective. I’m about to start these eight glorious episodes again from the beginning. I might even reserve them for each Sunday night to drag this second viewing out. In the end I’ll want more again, but I know I shouldn’t ask for it. More of these characters and their stories would effectively be less. A second season of Rust and Marty would cancel out so much of this standalone season one magic.
The description I don’t want to give for True Detective, but the one I keep on giving when pressed, is that it’s one big movie. It isn’t though. There is a beginning, a middle and an end, all included with no season ending cliffhanger, no same-bat-time-same-bat-channel. But just because it isn’t a TV series doesn’t mean it’s a movie. What True Detective ends up being is what I think it set out to be from the start: a story. A deep story that finds and attacks its characters’s flaws. Nic Pizzolatto writes like the novelist he is and in treating True Detective’s story that way he doesn’t have to hold back for future seasons and story lines. And as viewers we’re better for it. We’re treated to a deeper story because next season isn’t dependent on this one. I’d thank God, if that is, Rust Cohle believed in him.