I once read a pretty accurate analogy of how True Detective (2014 – Present) is presented to audiences. It went something a little along the lines of ‘it’s a lot like a book that gets lost in the detail during the thick middle of the book. Zigzagging and trying out a few stylistic tricks, before settling back down to solve each plot, severing others in passing, while leaving many others to dangle in the air for further discussion’.
The analogy does set itself up to sound like a stereotypical detective/cop show, yet the innovation of the narrative is not only in the solving of the case, but also within the nature of Hart and Cohle’s relationship as detective partners.
For a show that is widely regarded as complex narrative television, True Detective relies on many of the conventions commonly associated with mystery and detective genres. These include, but are not limited to: the unwelcome task force who threaten to take the case away, the detective who can’t balance his work and home life and the haunted cop with a dark past. None of these conventions are new to the genre, though the series is able to subtly erase the distinction between the conventional types.
To set the scene, the first season of True Detective hosts the mismatched partnership of Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) who work together to solve a psychopathic killer mystery.
An example of the distinction from the conventional aesthetics of detective mysteries lies in the screened episode (S01E01) at the lecture. We observe Cohle saying odd things such as “I contemplate the moment in the garden, the idea of allowing your own crucifixion” and even “unmistakable relief in their eyes…they welcomed their deaths” (S01E03) in a later episode. No detective talks that way, conventionally speaking, especially as a server of justice; talking about death in this way seems so trivial to Cohle.
The show contains moments, both brief and prolonged, that encapsulate a variety of established genres – drama, thriller, detective, mystery and comedy to name a few. Multiplicity of genre is a feature of narratively complex television, as outlined by Jason Mittell in his publication “More Thoughts on Soap Operas and Television Seriality” (2009).
It’s impossible to nail down a narratively complex show as being independently one genre. In the case of True Detective it would be possible to find evidence to back up a plethora of claims: “It’s a murder mystery”, “It’s a dark comedy”, “It’s an exploration of the numbing nature of murders within the South of America” etc. I think the reality is that it covers all of these subjects, and more. That’s what I like about “high-end” programming. There’s something for everyone.
A device used to help differentiate events that become entangled within narrative complexity, has been identified by Mittell as “major kernels” and “minor satellites” (2012). ‘Major kernals’ specifically relate to the cause-and-effect chain of events within a plot. For example, the satanic totems can be considered major kernals within True Detective as audiences assume it is an object to keep an eye out for, and it may further the “larger arc of a plotline” throughout the series.
Minor satellites on the other hand are “inessential” to the plot, in the sense that there may be an element highlighted within the show that serves no further purpose toward the narrative complexity: such as Cohle’s consistent lack of detective clothing, always dressed as the outsider.
One could consider this purely a stylistic decision to further illustrate how Cohle is not your typical detective but I firmly believe that, tying back to the point that the series is able to subtly erase the distinction between conventional elements of a cop show, there is room for further interpretation. That Cohle is in fact a major kernel portrayed as a minor satellite so that serial viewers can “attune themselves to look for…apparent satellites that might eventually turn into kernels in later episodes” (Mittell, 2012).
At the end of the day, if the narrative complexity of a television show is able to keep audiences guessing as to who is responsible for the next move or what could be the next possible outcome, then audiences will continue to binge watch these quality texts until they’ve uncovered every last secret. Fight-Club style.
Mittell, Jason. “More Thoughts on Soap Operas and Television Seriality.”, Media Commons(2009): n. pag. Web. 19 Sept. 2012, cited 26/09/2014, <http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/content/more-thoughts-soap-operas-and-television-seriality>>
Mittell, Jason. “Complexity in Context”, in Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling, 2012, n/d, cited 22/09/2014