Golden Age Problems: Have We Come to Expect Too Much from TV?

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Nobody expected True Detective Season Two to be quite as disappointing as it was. Sure, Season One had its detractors, but they were wrong—any sane person could see that the ungodly child of showrunner Nic Pizzolato, director Cary Joji Fukunaga and producer/stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson was ‘golden age’ television in peak form. Sadly, whatever criticism applied to True Detective’s first season became obvious to all in its second. Even hardcore fans of the good old days of Rust and Marty turned on True Detective during its sophomore slump, accepting that this time the critics were right: that the show was too morose and self-serious; that the plot was too tangled; that Pizzolato couldn’t write women. And yet…

We’ve all seen bad TV before. True Detective’s stint in California may have been unsatisfying, even occasionally preposterous, but flat-out bad it was not. ‘Bad’ is a term reserved for television lacking TD2’s high production values, its game marquee actors, its musical prowess (forget McConaughey and Harrelson: the one person this show couldn’t afford to lose between seasons—apart from Pizzolato—was composer T Bone Burnett). Nevertheless, the show recently came to an end, and still critics continue to pick the carcass of a season they’re all-too gleefully prepared to deem a failure.

But this was not an unconditional failure. Marlow Stern at The Daily Beast even argues it will eventually be embraced as a “cult classic.” Stern, part of a small band of Season Two fans who—in the face of more vocal opposition—continue to argue its greatness. Truthfully, TD2 was somewhere in between great and terrible, but nuanced critical evaluation has been hard to come by. Undoubtedly, the astonishing, gothically-inclined first season assisted in setting the second up for this kind of fall; Paste’s Shane Ryan recently wrote a piece speculating how differently audiences would have reacted if they’d gotten Season Two before Season One. But it’s also interesting to consider how this season would have been received had it been made for film as opposed to television.

For one, we’d probably have had kinder words to say about Nic Pizzolato, who has gone from boy wonder to figure of fun for loading the second run of his detective show with humorless, quasi-hardboiled, semi-profound dialogue. Almost as though he railed against critics of Season One with too much force, Pizzolato made this season so True Detective-y it sometimes felt like a parody. And whereas Season One arrived fully-realized, Season Two too-often felt undercooked. But take into account the immense feat Pizzolato pulled off for Season Two: in the scant few months between the show’s renewal and the next season’s shooting start date, Pizzolato started from scratch with a new setting, new characters, new story, and singlehandedly wrote eight-plus hours of material.

It’s a miracle True Detective’s California chapter ended up even as half-coherent as it did. But if the same story had, instead, been made for cinema, chances are critics would have been more forgiving of any flaws. Take the reaction to Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four ordeal as an example. This filmmaker was up against insane time constraints and intense pressure from both studio and fans to create something spectacular. He didn’t deliver, and critics have been generally sympathetic. Why, on the other hand, is there such a lack of understanding reserved for True Detective’s author? Both Trank and Pizzolato are clearly talented individuals who’ve failed to do their finest work under impossible conditions—why is Trank deserving of compassion, while Pizzolato is open to mockery?

Imagine the critical response if this dark, mature drama had not touched TV at all, but graced the silver screen in the summer after months of empty blockbusters and substance-free superhero movies. Consider how refreshing the adult-oriented, heavily philosophical True Detective 2 would have seemed then. Consider how appreciative critics would have been that True Detective 2 wasn’t another hollow summer movie, but one that actually encouraged viewers to think, and gave talented actors something to work with. Pizzolato’s writing too-frequently felt stuck at the planning stage in the True Detective sequel, the film’s critics would have observed, but he infused it with interesting ideas all the same. Besides, elsewhere, the sheen on this product was immaculate.

And even when this second season was at its worst, Pizzolato’s surrounding team ensured that it was never less than watchable. Vince Vaughn was out of place, the one weak link in a strong chain of performances, but Colin Farrell gave his best performance to date, and was more-than-capably backed by solid Rachel McAdams and Taylor Kitsch. Meanwhile, location scouts placed them in some of California’s most interesting locales, and T Bone Burnett reliably soaked the show in atmosphere, even when Pizzolato’s writing couldn’t quite manage the task. Such positives, sadly, have either been ignored or underestimated in the face of an overwhelming critical onslaught, by critics eager to play a part in the downfall of someone who just last year was TV’s newest genius.

Rather than viewing cinema as television’s better, it would appear we’ve come to expect more from the small screen than we do from its bigger, older brother. And as the so-called ‘golden age’ of television stretches on, every year looking more and more like it’s set to stay, it seems as though our tolerance for anything but the best has weakened. It’s somewhat understandable: The Wire, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and the like forced other showrunners to up their game, so now we’re living in a time where it seems there’s always at least one great, unmissable show on at any one time.

After the first season of True Detective proved so impressively singular, audiences expected the follow-up to be one such great unmissable. Hyped by high expectations, people tuned in in droves, and were met with something not quite great, but merely average. There’s been an air of entitlement about the ensuing evisceration of the second season; an attitude, no doubt exacerbated by our extreme luxury of choice, that only the finest entertainment deserves our time anymore. It would appear now that, when we put eight-and-a-half hours aside for anything less than the finest, we feel entitled to lash out.

We’re at the point where we’re in danger of taking television for granted, where we risk becoming too used to the finer things. True Detective Season Two wasn’t the finest moment in TV history, but it was far from the worst. Yet as we become ever-more comfortable with picking and choosing the best and filtering out the worst, it seems we’re starting to forget what the worst even looks like.