‘True Detective’ Faces Modern Television’s Timing Condundrum

March 14, 2014


Something important happened during the season finale of HBO’s “True Detective” last Sunday night, and it had nothing to do with the show itself.

Well, it did and it didn’t. No spoiler alert necessary, at least.

The crime drama, which stars Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey each at the apex of his craft, was HBO’s most watched debut season since “Six Feet Under” in 2001. A whopping 11 million viewers tuned in for eight episodes of intense action, haunting plot and riveting dialogue. If you haven’t seen it, find a way. Now.

“True Detective” aired on Sunday nights, and each week, it was appointment television followed by very crucial post-game analysis at the watercooler on Monday mornings. From there, viewers were left with a full week of anticipation, pining for the next chapter in the story of maligned Louisiana detectives Marty Hart and Rust Cohle.

To kill time between episodes, viewers started to theorize (like any true detective would). They took to message boards and social media to test hypotheses and share observations. Critics even joined in the fun. Suddenly, the “True Detective” plot was being driven by the masses and interpretation of the narrative became a plaything. In many ways, this choose-your-adventure charade became more entertaining than the actual show.

Andy Greenwald, a critic at Grantland.com but hardly a fan of the series, argues impatient viewer behavior mostly worked to the show’s favor: 

“Part of what makes TV — and particularly weekly TV (Netflix, take note!) — great is the way fan excitement and investment rushes to fill in the spaces between the episodes, the gaps in the logic. When shows are young, we carry them on our shoulders like kids at a parade. When they stumble, we carry them across the finish line like a marathoner with a sprained ankle. I just wonder how many Cthulhu-worshiping obsessives are disappointed this morning now that it’s been revealed that [REDACTED!]. That True Detective didn’t dream as big as its m-brane theorizing fans is no great sin, nor is it a great surprise.”

This habit of making a weekly show a “hobbyhorse” (as Greenwald puts it) never would have or could have happened if “True Detective” was, say, a Netflix series that viewers could consume in one fell swoop a la “House of Cards.”

Instead, during the course of binge-viewing, the tension would have carried from one episode to the next without interruption or nerding around on the Internet. Viewers would have been so engulfed in the plot, they would make no time to propose theories and explore hidden meaning that just wasn’t there. Had “True Detective” gone the “House of Cards” route, we would certainly have a greater appreciation for what the show was instead of what we wanted it to be.

Unfortunately for “True Detective,” each Sunday night episode became the equivalent of ping-pong balls being plucked for the $300M lottery jackpot. What will happen next? took a backseat to Was my theory correct? 

And in the end, when it wasn’t, viewers were disappointed. I fell into that camp. Without giving too much away, several viewer theories suggested plot twists more ambitious and imaginative than what the finale ultimately delivered. The week between each episode may have caused it to spoil.

As if creating a successful television series wasn’t hard enough, here’s the new conundrum for showrunners in 2014 and beyond: Release a show all at once through a digital partner like Netflix, Hulu or Amazon, or release it episode by episode, week by week, through a television network?

Viewers — fickle since the dawn of man — have become an even more unpredictable target. The bar has been raised so that a successful show not only requires a great story, but now it must be told at just the right pace. Regular scheduled programming has become anything but regular, and as with any good crime drama, the plot has thickened.