The dangers of auteur TV: How "True Detective" went from critical darling to laughingstock

A single strong vision can be a wonderful thing for a show — or it can be its downfall

Published July 26, 2015 7:30PM (EDT)

Colin Farrell; Matthew McConaughey in "True Detective"        (HBO)
Colin Farrell; Matthew McConaughey in "True Detective" (HBO)

By now, just about everyone has taken a shot at the current season of "True Detective." It's too dense, too grim, too earnest, too masculine. Its creator is too obsessed with sexual weirdness. It's a rip-off of James Ellroy's novels. And, as we keep hearing, it's not as good as the bayou-set Season 1. There's no consensus -- one IndieWire article wonders "Why No One Can Agree on Anything About 'True Detective' Season 2"-- but critics and civilians alike started, a few weeks ago, to take real pleasure in their dissing of Nic Pizzolatto's show. There's even a whole online discussion of why people "hate-watch" the show, and whether it makes sense, and what they might view instead; these folks don't agree either, but the hatred of this California-set season is taken for granted.

The shortcomings of this season are real. Most seriously, the plot is so dense and complicated that it's easy to lose track even while watching attentively. And it makes it harder to focus on details of character or storytelling or whatever when one unlikely plot twist after another keeps appearing out of nowhere.

But there is so much good in the second season: strong performances, intelligent dialogue, a strong if imperfect sense of place. And Season 1 -- especially thanks to its Louisiana setting, its use of fractured narrative, and the chemistry between Matthew McConaughey's and Woody Harrelson's characters -- is some of the best television in history. So whether you believe that Season 2 is just a bit messy or a major bellyflop, it's worth asking, What happened?

What it may come down to is the limits of something that seemed to define this genuinely great era of high-end television: the heroic showrunner auteur. Instead of being a product made by committee, these new character-driven series were crafted by mavericks and intellectuals who compressed all their experience, all their neuroses, into their storytelling. These smart cable shows were, as journalist Brett Martin laid out in his useful chronicle of the post-"Sopranos" revolution, "Difficult Men," our age's equivalent to the Great American Novel, the serious film. (And of course, the term "auteur" was most famously applied to the work of heavy American filmmakers, and it was the individuality of their vision, in part, that made them major artists in the way that mere craftsmen or journeyman directors were not.)

Sometimes it works: "The Wire" is one of the great documents of our time, and, a lot of that greatness came from David Simon and his decades of journalistic storytelling. Despite some dissipation near the end, Matt Weiner's "Mad Men" chronicled a misunderstood period of American life in a fresh, lively way. Would we have wanted difficult man David Milch to have had a collaborator for "Deadwood"? Probably not -- though we'd have preferred another season or two.

But Pizzolatto, whose roots are in a more purely auteurist form -- literary writing -- doesn't seem to be as suited to pure auteurism. (For what it's worth, even David Simon drew on novelists, including Dennis Lehane, to help write "The Wire.") With the first season of "True Detective," he seemed to have a real collaboration going with director Cary Fukunaga, but that didn't end well. (McConaughey and Harrelson may've had a major shaping role on that first season as well.) With Fukunaga gone, and Pizzolatto's capital sky-high, he brought in Justin Lin, best known for the "Fast and the Furious" franchise — a major stylistic departure. And it still feels like one guy running away with himself and his own bad habits.

A real creative foil might have kept this from happening. A little sunshine might have broken through the noir. A collaborator could have talked him out of one or two of those extra plot twists. We might not have gotten phrases like Episode 5's "blue balls in your heart." (Someone really should have stopped that one.)

The problem with auteurism is that sometimes you get, say, "Taxi Driver" or "The Godfather." And sometimes you get "Heaven's Gate" or "The Bonfire of the Vanities."

Pizzolatto may be a great, open, naturally collaborative guy who does not buy the over-the-top hero worship of his recent Vanity Fair profile. But it's hard to tell from the mix of brilliance and blind spots in the new season.

It's worth sticking with "True Detective": Some of the plot's loose ends finally seem to be coming together, and it may be that Pizzolatto just needed the whole season to lay it all out. For a long time, it looked like Coppola had lost his mind in his endless and troubled Vietnam movie. But "Apocalypse Now," imperfect as it remains, ended up being hailed as a classic.

But those of us who prefer great television to the dubious pleasures of carping about TV's failures beg of this showrunner and the others: Make some friends. Work -- seriously -- with someone else. Listen to your collaborators a bit. Find a McCartney to your Lennon, or vice versa. Find a way to keep from giving in to your worst instincts. We've all got them, but they don't have to take us over. It does't have to happen to a show this good.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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