‘True Detective’ and the Death of Television Criticism

Something has gone wrong if critics consider True Detective the best that contemporary television has to offer.

Above: Matthew McConaughey as Detective Rust Cohle in True Detective

When television critics deem HBO’s True Detective a masterpiece, one has to wonder if they’ve watched any other television shows in their lifetime. If they have, they’d surely understand that True Detective is inferior pretentious claptrap compared to past works of art like ABC’s Twin Peaks, HBO’s The Wire, and AMC’s Breaking Bad.

How is it that a show so mediocre could be hailed by Andrew Romano of The Daily Beast as “one of the most riveting and provocative series” in the history of television? How can such a downbeat, dreary work be considered by Alan Sepinwall of Hitfix as “a potentially fascinating shift in dramatic series television”? Surely something has gone wrong if this True Detective is supposedly the best that contemporary dramatic television has to offer.

Even faults that would normally cripple another series (and most films) are considered beneficial for this one, such as when Joanne Ostrow of the Denver Post says it’s not “fun entertainment” and gives it a rave anyway. Similarly, Tom Gliatto of People Weekly acknowledges that “very little happens in the first three episodes”, but this doesn’t stop him from singing its praises.

What has happened to the state of dramatic television and, more importantly, television criticism? When an eight-hour miniseries takes its time to make a point, and isn’t even entertaining along the way, then it doesn’t deserve to be called “Grade A” television. Critics need to get over themselves. I’m not against ponderous pacing and cryptic characterization, but if you only have eight episodes to tell a story, you better hit the ball running in episode one. Not at episode four (the end of it, no less!), as True Detective does, with an impressive six minute long take.

Six minutes of excellence in an eight-hour series is hardly an achievement.

In addition to the meandering narrative, the dialogue is littered with cringe-worthy pop philosophy. For example, when Matthew McConaughey’s Detective Rust Cohle says, “The ontological fallacy of expecting a light at the end of the tunnel, well, that’s what the preacher sells,” one had to wonder if writer Nic Pizzolato has spent more time reading Nietzsche and less time talking to actual people. At least other shows that dabble in philosophy, like The Wire and The Sopranos, are rooted in colloquial speech, so when Tony Soprano or Omar Little make profound statements about the world, they don’t seem to be dictating some writer’s pretensions.

True Detective, on the other hand, fails to capture the vernacular of a specific time and place, which makes Cohle’s philosophical musings about the nature of existence downright pathetic and manipulative. Even humanities professors in the Ivy League don’t sound this self-serious in casual conversation.

Most critics say they admire True Detective, but perhaps they love it more in theory and less in practice. I defy anyone who claims to be riveted or even remotely engaged by this hollow dreck, and I’d even argue that the people who demonstrate their appreciation for shows like True Detective do so because they believe it will make them appear intelligent, just like the film critics of the world who praise punishing bores like Under the Skin. Masochists in the name of pseudosophistication, all of them.

It’s time to wake up. The genre of the hour-long television drama is stale and repetitive, and television critics won’t admit it—or perhaps can’t see it—because it used to be the gold standard. As a result, everyone watches now with their checklists, and if there’s a male anti-hero here and a dark atmosphere there, words like “masterpiece” get thrown around like confetti on New Year’s Eve. Even Orange is the New Black, an entertaining show that I enjoy and find refreshing and subversive, is massively overhyped by critics, who seem to give any show an “A” so long as it’s trending on Twitter.

If the television drama is dead, then the half-hour comedy/drama shows like HBO’s Girls and Veep, Netflix’s Derek, and FX’s Louie represent contemporary television at its artistic peak, precisely because they have broken away from the old-fashioned sitcom format, with its annoying laugh track and irritating need to always be funny. This is where the greatness can be found, as Lena Dunham, Armando Iannucci, Ricky Gervais, and Louis C.K. are doing more with less, and in single half-hour episodes, their shows contain more profundity and vitality than in all eight hours of True Detective.

Will critics catch on when the next installment of True Detective airs, or will they once again confuse boring, pointless nonsense for great television? Who knows, but if True Detective and the subsequent hyperbolic praise bestowed upon it tell us anything, it’s that television criticism can no longer be taken seriously.