‘True Detective’ Was a Case Study in the Drawbacks of TV Recap Culture


Now that 48 hours have passed and HBO Go is fully recovered, it’s safe to assume that most of the millions of people attempting to watch the True Detective finale have done so by now. After weeks of anticipation, crazy co-star Oscar speeches, and increasingly elaborate theories from the Internet hive mind, the general consensus (although much of the Flavorwire staff dissents) is that the final hour of HBO’s latest powerhouse was, well… not what fans hoped it would be. And inevitably, disappointment with True Detective‘s final hour translates into disappointment with True Detective as a whole. Nic Pizzolatto’s brainchild is still a wonderful way to spend eight hours, of course, but it’s also a cautionary tale in making any definitive judgements about a show — especially a show like this one — before it’s over.

The most obvious example of the need to wait and see how True Detective actually answered its various open-ended questions is its prominent lack of female characters. Three-quarters of the way through its eight-episode run, Slate’s Willa Paskin advanced the theory that, “When it comes to women, True Detective is undeniably shallow — but I think it’s being shallow on purpose.” Coincidentally, the article ran the same day as two other missives on True Detective and gender: Emily Nussbaum’s New Yorker pan reached the polar opposite conclusion of Paskin’s, while Grantland’s Molly Lambert went as far as to call the show’s few female characters “complex.”

Cue Monday morning, when Paskin pronounced herself “totally snookered” by the show as a whole, but particularly on the gender front: “I wrote a piece a few weeks ago, about how True Detective semi-ignored its female characters on purpose. Now I think it was kind of just ignoring its female characters.” The headline of her official retrospective? True Detective Does Have a Woman Problem. That’s Partly Why People Love It.”

Paskin’s more than entitled to change her mind, especially given that the show’s only female character who could conceivably be called “major” showed up in the finale solely to clutch her ex-husband’s hand and smile sympathetically. But as Tom Hawking wrote on this site a few weeks ago, we were never really going to know how True Detective felt about its women until its eight-episode arc came to a close. Would we learn anything about what was going on with Audrey’s suggestive drawings or her troubled adolescence? Would Maggie grow to be something more than a concerned wife, albeit one with enough agency to instigate a divorce? Would we ever meet any non-Hart family women who weren’t jailbait prostitutes?

The answers to those questions turned out to be no, nope, and nuh-uh (well, we did meet Errol Childress’ mentally disabled half-sister in the finale, but that didn’t help the show’s case much). We didn’t just need the finale to prove or disprove statements like “True Detective doesn’t have a woman problem,” though. It was also essential to evaluating broader claims — like, say, “This is more than just a detective show.”

As an HBO drama with a fiction writer as showrunner and high-wattage leads, True Detective drew near-instant comparisons to the heavy hitters of the past decade’s boom in prestige television. But as a story centered around a single, if multi-layered case, a significant part of its merit was always going to rest on said case’s resolution. Despite Rust Cohle’s insistence that “this is a world where nothing is solved,” a mystery that defines itself by the questions it raises stakes a good part of its appeal on the answers it provides. Compare that to Mad Men, a sprawling series with little driving the central plot beyond “some people do some things at an ad agency, and before you know it, it’s 1968!”

With an unremarkable villain, a showdown scene that went on several minutes too long, and a few major loose ends (I’m particularly bothered by the lack of an Audrey backstory), True Detective failed to fully deliver on those answers. It certainly fell short of earning the lofty rhetoric of both the show itself, in the form of Rust Cohle’s rambling Nietzschean monologues, and critics. Not all of the analysis surrounding the self-enclosed first season came from overnight recaps of individual episodes; forum sites like Reddit had a field day, and plenty of criticism came in the form of longer takes like Lambert’s. But for the sake of convenience, I’m going to refer to the Internet-enabled fandom frenzy that came between initial reviews and post-mortems as “recap culture.”

I’m not against recap culture as a whole; far from it. The collective conversation surrounding shows that practically beg to be close-read are an important part of what makes the premium TV boom so damn enjoyable. We run a lot recaps on this site! I’ve even written a few! But recap culture isn’t perfect, and True Detective is the perfect example of some of its flaws.

The act of criticizing a show as it airs is inevitably a fraught one. Plenty of creators have complained about fans passing judgement before they’ve seen the way a story plays out. At face value, this argument doesn’t have much merit: viewers experience TV on a week-by-week basis, and they (as well as the critics who write on their behalf) have a right to evaluate shows based on that experience. But just as it’s important to take into account the entertainment and food for thought a series is able to bring to the screen week to week, it’s equally important to withhold any final judgments until a show has revealed its endgame.

True Detective‘s disappointing ending doesn’t diminish Matthew McConaughey’s “locked room” monologue or Cary Fukunaga’s jaw-dropping tracking shot. Rather, it’s a reminder that those components are part of a whole we haven’t seen yet. In that respect, it joins the ranks of Lost, another mystery that couldn’t deliver despite having its fair share of high points, and American Horror Story: Coven, another miniseries whose strong start didn’t amount to an equally strong finish.

I’ll still read (and write) recaps, and I’ll still obsess over the next season of True Detective, “secret occult history of the US transportation system” and all. But I’ll hold off on any claims that True Detective is on par with The Sopranos until it’s able to give us its very own version of a Members Only jacket and a cut to black.