Over-stacking the Narrative Deck: True Detective’s Messy Season 2 by Brad Windhauser
TV shows can fail for several reasons. A project might be overly ambitious, the actors a poor fit for their respective roles, and/or the direction stiff, lacking, etc. In the case of HBO’s second season of True Detective, the main issue is the writing. Of the writing problems, the biggest issue is how the writer(s) opted to stack the narrative deck with as many characters and back stories as they (apparently) could. In so doing, the show delivers a textbook example of how attempts to add too many layers of complexity in order to create depth only manage to create confusion.
I loved Season 1 of True Detective. In fact, we binge-watched it over the course of four days. That season worked for several reasons. The characters were interesting—we had two main characters in which to become invested—and although the plot and murder case were a bit convoluted at times, the writers found a useful way to keep the viewers on track. The framing device of the two detectives being interviewed in the narrative present allowed the writers to clarify what was happening. This season, by perhaps upping the character ante, the writers decided to double the number of principal characters we’re to be invested in (four), increase the complexity of the plot (exponentially), and neglected to provide a framing device that could have kept viewers on track.
Because of these writing choices, every episode this season has caused me to feel like I’m listening to a really animated drunk person tell me a story that contains a lot of interesting details but comes out so jumbled it’s impossible to follow.
Now, complexity in a series can be a good thing. Game of Thrones, for example, pulls this off well; however, that series is smart about how they pace and develop their main plots in a season—they spread them out rather than introducing them and attempting to develop each one every episode. Doing this allows the content to breathe and the audience to better absorb the content. In contrast, this season of True Detective gives you everything at once.
True Detectives’ narrative issues are also compounded because they only use one season to wrap up an entire storyline—shows like Game of Thrones use multiple seasons, with each 10-episode batch moving the characters to a significant place of change by the end. You can tell a complex story in fewer episodes, but this creates a specific structural constraint that writers then need to find a way to work within. In this case, you have eight episodes to fully develop characters and tell a story—you can’t pack more than double the content of Season 1 into your Season 2 and expect to cover what you need to.
In order to best serve the story, and by extension the characters, a series needs to develop content suitable to the structural limitations. That doesn’t mean kill your ambition—it does mean that you need to make choices. Why three main cops—can you get by with two? In this case, probably. If the writers had eliminated the Highway Patrol character, they would have had more room to develop the more important elements of the corruption case they’re investigating—it would also have allowed for less staring contests between characters, which happen every twenty minutes or so.
Think of narrative complexity within structural constraints this way: you’re at a 4-hour cocktail party attended by a lot of people—some of whom are rather interesting. If you attempt to talk to every other person present, you won’t get a deep sense of any one of them—there’s not enough time. However, if you select the right party guests—say two or three—you can really find out what makes them interesting. That is time well spent. When developing any story, you’re creating a timed cocktail party. Who do you want to introduce us to?
Viewers like well-written serialized dramas. We love to become engrossed in them, which explains why binge-watching is a recent phenomenon. With the current True Detective season, I find myself watching for the wrong reasons: I’m learning what not to do when it comes to narrative. Sunday’s season finale might wrap up a lot of these loose ends, but I don’t have high hopes. With this many loose narrative threads, they’ll likely spend so much time ensuring everything has been touched on that there will be little joy in watching things unfold.