I’ve got nothing left to say about True Detective, but I’ve got some comments on HBO President Michael Lombardo’s defense of it.
After weeks of fading interest and critical lampooning, we find ourselves one week away from the True Detective season finale. I take that as a blessing.
At this point I don’t really have anything left to say about any individual episode. “Black Maps and Motel Rooms” is about the same as the rest: it’s senseless, confusing, and just not very good. I’ve seen every single minute of this season, and I’m at a loss to tell you exactly what’s going on. True Detective continues to spiral into a mush of conspiracies, double crosses, secret detectives, and senseless killings, and there’s no keeping up. I honestly wonder if these episodes were originally much longer, and were edited into a meaningless pulp to meet time restrictions.
I can hear the show’s few acolytes telling me that I should’ve paid more attention, but that’s not the issue here. I also cover the equally intricate The Americans for Fellowship of the Screen, and I have no problem keeping that straight. Nic Pizzolatto’s scripts are either too muddled, or he hasn’t made me care enough. At least eight characters died in “Black Maps and Motel Rooms,” including a protagonist, but I’d largely describe the episode as… boring. There’s just no way around it: I’ve completely lost interest.
I’ll leave it to others to recap the show. This week I’d rather discuss comments that HBO President of Programming Michael Lombardo made while defending it to the Television Critics Association on Thursday. Lombardo asserted that he’s satisfied with True Detective’s oft-criticized second season, saying “I think you need to watch the entirety of it. I think the season’s ending is as satisfying as any series we’ve done.” He went on to praise showrunner Nic Pizzolatto and stated that the network was open to a third season of the anthology series.
Lombardo’s claim that it’s wrong to judge this season of True Detective until we’ve seen all eight episodes is, frankly, insulting.
The comparison that Lombardo and the other HBO brass have frequently referenced is to reviewing and evaluating a book after every single chapter, but that’s an incorrect appraisal. Novels are given to the audience as a completed work, and they are to be judged as such. Sure, there are many individual chapters that comprise the entirety of the story, but a reader still holds the entire book in their hands. They aren’t parceled out to the audience a chapter at a time. When a reader finishes a chapter, then he or she can simply turn the page and continue on at their will. Lombardo and crew seem to think that we wouldn’t judge a novel chapter by chapter if that’s how it was delivered to the audience, but that’s exactly what we would do.
We judge media based on how it’s given to us, because we assume that what we’ve been handed is a completed section of the work. We’re given entire films, so we evaluate them as a whole. We get books the same way. But outside of Netflix, television shows are presented to the audience an episode at a time, and we’re forced to appraise them that way. If HBO wanted to present True Detective as one big 8-hour film then we would look at it as one complete piece, but that’s not the model that HBO has chosen.
It’s also disingenuous to pretend that novels aren’t also judged in installments. No one waited to offer their thoughts on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban because they were waiting to see how the entire saga played out. Readers offered their take on each entry of the series because that’s how they were delivered to the audience: as seven separate volumes. It’s those seven separate volumes that are analogous to the episodes of an entire television series – especially an anthology series like True Detective. Lombardo is also keen to forget about the entire existence of serialized publishing. When novels by Dickens, Dumas, Melville, and Stowe were published a piece at a time, that’s exactly how they were received and contemplated by their audiences.
But perhaps what’s most troubling about Lombardo’s comments is his assertion that he’s satisfied by this season of True Detective because he’s seen the ending, insinuating that we’d understand the show’s greatness if only we had access to the finale like he does. It’s a contention that I’m staunchly against. If a book is bad for 20 chapters, that’s just a bad book. No ending is going to save it.
This season of the show has been terrible for a multitude of reasons, offering us neither an interesting story or visual framework. It’s also inescapably rife with suffering. I’m not sure either of these problems is an individual show-killer, but together they don’t leave much reason to watch. True Detective feels like interminable exposure to suffering for sixty minutes each week. It’s genuinely not fun. To say that seven hours of pain is worth it because there’s a nifty ending just feels wrong; great television shouldn’t be something we have to suffer through. HBO’s Game of Thrones is equally bleak, but it offers great performances, stunning set pieces, and a deep, engaging narrative to round out the edges of its pain. There are reasons to watch the show even if you disagree with its tone. True Detective, however, offers none of that.
I also reject that Lombardo would be offering the same comments if this season of True Detective had been positively received. He never stepped into public and told everyone to simmer down until after the finale when True Detective’s first season was the most buzzed about show on television. Lombardo wants to delay criticism. I doubt he’d feel the same way about praise.
Thankfully, there’s only one week of True Detective left. Our long national nightmare only endures for sixty — ugh, ninety — more minutes. What will Lombardo’s excuse be if we still hate it once we’ve seen the second season in full?
Edited to add: If you really do want to make sense of just what is actually happening on this show, I can’t recommend this piece from Slate’s Willa Paskin highly enough.