Let Me Entertain You | True Detective and Truly Good Television

Like so many other bloggers and critics, I have become obsessed with the show “True Detective.” HBO’s newest series starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson has garnered a lot of interest, from high-end papers and magazines to sketchy blogs. No one can deny that it is a very well done show. The acting is brilliant, the cinematography is excellent, and it’s filled with enough riddles and philosophical monologues to make the viewer feel intelligent and stupid at the same time. People are just loving to comment on its mythology: profound or pretentious? Is the show sexist or just showing a narrow perspective? And, of course, whodunit? (You’ll find an array of analytical essays on the show, but I will only recommend this interview and this article for fans to read.)

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, staring off into the distance with serious looks in “True Detective.” Photo courtesy of James Bridges/HBO/EW.

Every once in a while, there is a show that is a must-watch, that critics and your friends just won’t shut up about. It’s “The West Wing,” it’s “LOST,” it’s “Breaking Bad.” The world is changing, and the quality of television is developing to match those of Academy Award-winning movies (ridiculous reality shows excluded). And as these culture-changing shows emerge and die, networks scramble to come up with the next big thing. Thus, we get weird genre twists with one-word titles like the new series “Intelligence” and “Resurrection,” which are produced by famous people and are pretty boring.

So how do some shows get to become part of the cultural landscape, to be referenced and appreciated for decades to come, while other would-be stars remain in obscurity? One hypothesis is that these shows weren’t expected to be that big of a deal. Hell, “Breaking Bad” started out with so few viewers that it nearly got canceled more than once. Maybe because no one was paying that much attention to these shows at the beginning, they got to evolve naturally without network executive pressure.

This is an okay theory, but it’s not my favorite. Here’s my opinion on why people still talk about “The Wire,” why people are talking about “True Detective” so obsessively today: the focus is on character, and character development. What makes a show great is when all of the aspects of making an episode converge on presenting a character. There are a lot of elements: writing, acting, direction, even cinematography should be dedicated to portraying the motivations and actions of a person. “True Detective” is, essentially, just another cop procedural show! The complexity of nihilistic Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and family-man Marty Hart (Harrelson) is what makes the show so interesting to watch. “Breaking Bad” wouldn’t be the cultural phenomenon it is today without the development of Walter White into Heisenberg. “LOST” was pretty darn awesome when it focused on the characters; it was bloated and confusing when it was plot-based.

Too many network executives are focusing on stories with a gimmick, making genre shows with a twist. The secret to an awesome show isn’t how unique the plot is, it’s the characters. If the plot happens to be unusual as well, that’s helpful, but not the key ingredient. Viewers want to be challenged; they want to see characters they can relate to, even if said characters are dark and twisted. Good television is a reflection upon humanity.

Two shows that are currently making my point excellently are NBC’s “Hannibal” and BBC America’s “Orphan Black.” Of the two, the latter has the more intriguing plot, but both shows are incredibly well-written and focused primarily on their characters. They don’t yet have national popularity, but they both do have strong and dedicated cult followings. Hey, that’s all “Breaking Bad” had in the beginning, and I’m hoping these shows soon get the recognition they deserve.

Tatiana Maslany and Tatiana Maslany in “Orphan Black.” It’s complicated. Photo courtesy of BBC America/EW.

I’m loving “True Detective,” and I anxiously await each episode. My mom and I have intense discussions about it on the phone every week. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a show that lasts in the cultural mindset for a while. Maybe the focus on this series will get executives to think more about why it’s so popular. As always, I remain hopeful that networks figure out that it isn’t the formula that makes a show, it’s the characters.