True Detective and the Crisis of “True Crime”

TV Features True Detective
True Detective and the Crisis of “True Crime”

The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. —Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition

In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.
—Robert Penn Warren, “Tell Me a Story” / True Detective Season Three

“Remember”: It’s repeated so often in True Detective’s new season it threatens to lose sense, an imperative that doubles as an incantation. In 1980, following the disappearance of two children in the environs of Fayetteville, Ark., Det. Wayne Hays (the extraordinary Mahershala Ali) urges it of potential witnesses; in 2015, as he sits for an interview with the docuseries True Criminal, he does so of himself. In between, as his wife, Amelia (Carmen Ejogo), prepares to publish her “classic of literary nonfiction” on the case, an Ozark In Cold Blood, Hays finds himself in a deposition, assuring his interlocutor that he couldn’t possibly forget. “What you don’t remember,” the man counters, “you don’t know you don’t remember.” Such circular logic, and language, comes to define both Hays’ reflections on the case and, in Season Three, the series’ reflections on itself: True Detective eats its own tail.

As numerous critics have noted already, including Paste’s Amy Glynn, True Detective’s return to an impoverished, semi-modern South (now foothills, not bayous) and a multiple-timeline structure suggests a desire to recapture the success of its first season and repair the damage of its second—to which series creator Nic Pizzolatto applies the additional meta-shellac of specific referents (strange talismans, posed corpses, disfigured faces, grim crimes) and broader framing devices (True Criminal, Life and Death and the Harvest Moon, television news, Hays’ audiotaped aides-mémoires). The change, or change back, might be best understood, though, through the series’ corresponding shift in literary influences, from H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror to Robert Penn Warren’s epistemological ballads. The latter’s “main obsession is knowledge,” and now True Detective’s is, too.

The question is, to what end? If the season’s self-reflexive streak is its most compelling feature, it is also, perhaps inevitably, its fatal flaw: The distancing effect True Detective uses to scaffold its rumination on the nature of memory and the construction of stories neuters both the mystery—which draws its scant suspense from the chronological chaos—and its emotional impact—which, for all of Ali’s mesmerizing efforts, is as thin as the foliage in an Arkansas winter. Taciturn, tormented detective; his jocular partner and thwarted wife; the devastated parents and their shattered community: Neither the specifics of the case, nor the forlorn realism with which it’s filmed, suggest that True Detective has much of note to add to the “missing persons” trope. The series is so eager to unpack the Truth it neglects the crime.

This is not, or not only, Pizzolatto’s problem, though the first season’s emergence as a pop cultural phenomenon must be considered one of the catalysts: In tandem with the podcast Serial, which debuted later that year, True Detective spurred a boom in “true crime” stories and their fictional imitators. Since Rust Cohle’s (and Sarah Koenig’s) philosophical investigations reached parodic proportions in 2014, there have been countless “true crime” podcasts (Criminal, In the Dark, Someone Knows Something) and “prestige docuseries” (The Jinx, Making a Murderer, The Keepers), “true crime” podcasts that became TV series (Dirty John and its fictional counterpart, Homecoming), dramatizations of real-life crimes (American Crime Story, Mindhunter), and fictional crime dramas obsessed with facticity (American Crime, Fargo, The Night Of, Big Little Lies, Sharp Objects). It’s no surprise that True Detective’s only recourse is to turn in on itself: In the five years since the series premiered, the genre from which it draws its name has been strip-mined to exhaustion.

Of course, the crime drama, true or not, has been an omnipresent feature of American pop culture from the days of Dashiell Hammett through Law & Order and Dateline. My point here is not that the “true crime” wave is new—it’s more akin to the flowering of gangster movies, first developed around the advent of sound, in the 1980s and 1990s—but that, like any wave, it must eventually crest, crash to shore, and recede again, as sure as the moon causes tides. Making a Murderer, once a sensation, returned last autumn to almost no notice, with The Innocent Man faring no better, and this after Netflix scraped the bottom of the “true crime” barrel with Evil Genius and the interminable Wild Wild Country. S-Town attempted to recreate the magic of Serial and ended up as wan Southern exoticism with a coat of “prestige” paint. The list of forgotten (and often forgettable) True Detective/”true crime”-influenced dramas on TV is now so long—Escape at Dannemora, The Cry, The Sinner, C.B. Strike, and that’s just from the second half of 2018—that WGN America scrapped its entire slate of scripted originals in favor of interchangeable Canadian imports. Most telling, perhaps, are the genre’s recent high points—slapstick satires Trial & Error and American Vandal, eager to pop their predecessors’ balloons—and the fact that neither survived past its second season, either.

In this, to come back to Season Three’s particular logic, True Detective is more fascinating for closing the circle on the latest “true crime” craze than for the crime Wayne Hays is so desperate to solve: If the first season’s Southern Gothic represented true crime stories in their classical form, and the second’s snarled freeway Chinatown their modernist one, then this season, retracing the steps of the first, is their postmodern iteration, conjuring up what Jean Baudrillard calls “the discrete charm of second-order simulacra.” (Even True Detective’s critical reception reads as the duplication of a “true crime” trope, one similar to Serial’s: Culture-changing first season; “disappointing” or “misunderstood” second; “comeback” or “resurgent” third.) As Hays, in 2015, tries to remember 1980—and to remember remembering 1980, in 1990—True Detective suggests that it’s necessary to peel away the intermediaries—the docuseries, Amelia’s book—to unearth the truth behind the crime, and in the process colors those intermediaries, like Hays’ memories, as increasingly blurry approximations—even as it absorbs both into the narrative’s bones. “The postmodernisms have, in fact, been fascinated precisely by this whole ‘degraded’ landscape of schlock and kitsch, of TV series and Reader’s Digest culture, of advertising and motels, of the late show and the grade-B Hollywood film, of so-called paraliterature, with its airport paperback categories of the gothic and the romance, the popular biography, the murder mystery, and the science fiction or fantasy novel,” as Frederic Jameson writes in Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism: “materials they no longer simply ‘quote’ as a Joyce or a Mahler might have done, but incorporate into their very substance.”

True Detective’s narrative strategies aren’t prima facie ineffective—in fact, it’s the absence of glaring flaws in Season Three’s crime drama that allows for close reading of the meta-drama—but even at its best, it has the feeling of an intellectual exercise, plucking what ripe fruit remains from a fallow field. It’s as bloodless as the docuseries producer’s description of the project (“I’m interested in the intersectionality of marginalized groups within authoritarian and systemic racist structures”), in that it fails to transform incantation into action, concept into proof. By the conclusion of Sunday night’s “The Hour and the Day,” as it reaches the finest sequence of the season’s first half—itself an unmistakable allusion to the first season’s most famous—True Detective crystallizes the crisis it helped create: This moment of mania for “true crime” stories and their fictional equivalents is nearing its end, its creative energies as spent as a wave that’s just broken.

True Detective airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.

Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.

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