Sunday 18 February 2018

True Triumph

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in 'True Detective'
Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in 'True Detective'

For those glued to True Detective, the gothic bromance starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in full "McConnaissance" mode, the show's dark charms may have been tempered with a nagging unease. It isn't that we are disturbed by the ritualistically slain prostitutes or meth dealers in gas masks (nowadays grisly flourishes can seem de rigueur for critically acclaimed TV).

Or even by the way Harrelson's chin appears to double in size whenever his character loses his temper. If we are troubled it's because we are asking ourselves the oldest question in television: "are they going to pull this thing off?"

The problem with really good TV is that it doesn't always finish on a satisfying note. In that respect the medium is perhaps unique. Movies live or die by their endings, as do novels (those with an actual plot at any rate). Television is different – as a long-form affair it is possible for a show's creators to obscure the fact that they have no idea how they are going to execute a smooth landing. Worse yet, because the viewer has invested so much time in a favorite series, their expectations regarding the final chapter may build to unrealistic levels.

With True Detective – which finishes its eight episode arc on Sky Atlantic tomorrow night – there's an added complication. To the apparently considerable surprise of its creators, it has become an object of intense fascination. A sizable chunk of the audience has developed full-blown obsession with its baroque Louisiana setting, the shaggy evocation of pulp authors such as HP Lovecraft and Robert W Chambers (whose writings inspired True Detective's 'King in Yellow' meta-villain).

This has resulted in a mini-industry of speculation and obsession. Is McConaughey's character the bad guy? Does Harrelson's family have something to do with the killing at the centre of the story? Is there even a killer? On and on the debate has swirled, fans sharing screen grabs and interview snippets from script-writer Nic Pizzolatto in an attempt to piece it all together.

Or at least that is how it was in the run up to True Detective's finale in the US last month (it returns next year with a different cast and storyline). Ever since, the debate has switched to the particulars of the denouement which has divided opinion down the middle. On the assumption that at least some Irish viewers have decided to wait until tomorrow night's finale on Sky rather than pirate it off the web, we shall refrain from details. However, it is fair to say that as many loathed the conclusion as loved it. Few seemed to judge it merely okay.

Ultimately True Detective risked tripping up on its own cleverness. With so much going on – so many loose ends and half-hinted truths fluttering in the wind – a neat and tiny sign-off became impossible. In this respect, there were parallels with Lost, the castaways drama that felt like the smartest thing on TV until it became clear the producers, including action movie golden boy JJ Abrams, were making it up as they went along. When Lost finally bowed out it in May 2010 it was via the second hokiest final curtain in the book – the 'everybody was dead all along' line (the hokiest being 'it was all a dream').

Then, there is a sense that television simply can't win. Think outside the box and a show is inevitably pilloried for inconsistency. But if punters are given precisely what they expected, they will protest at the sad predictability of it all. That was the fate suffered by Friends in May 2004 (YES – ten years ago) as, by way of denouement, the writers finally packed Ross and Rachel off into the sunset together. Bleerugh howled the universe – how horrifically obvious.

Sex and the City brought down the shutters with a Carrie monologue that confirmed our worst suspicions about the character: here was a protagonist for whom even true love was all about one person: Carrie. "The most exciting, challenging, and significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself," she imparted in her final voice over.

With television, there are never any truly good endings – just degrees of disappointment. Something to bear in mind when you sit down to watch the last True Detective tomorrow night.

The final episode of True Detective is on Sky Atlantic 9pm tomorrow.

Day & Night

Promoted Links

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Promoted Links

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment