HBO’s “True Detective” and the State of TV

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As it has been for the past 15 years, television is an ever-evolving enterprise. Since the premiere in 1999 of HBO’s “The Sopranos”, numerous shows have challenged the limits of the medium’s content and format.

The quality of television today has arguably never been stronger and is so vast that it’s difficult to keep up and to categorize all that is out there.

This fact is especially relevant with the announcement of the latest Primetime Emmy Award nominations Thursday morning in Los Angeles.

Entertainment awards are a love-hate proposition: it’s intriguing to see which shows are deemed to be the top of the craft, but at the same time they are utterly and completely meaningless. For every incredibly deserved award a pantheon show like “The Sopranos” or “Mad Men” has received, other all-time greats like “The Wire” have received little to no recognition. The key thing to remember with awards, be they Emmys, Oscars, Grammys, etc., is that voters are not necessarily awarding the best their field has to offer, but what the voters feel best represents their field.

An example: ABC’s “Modern Family” has won the past four Outstanding Comedy Series trophies and is nominated for a fifth this year. It’s a show that is good for a couple laughs each week, but calling it the finest comedy of the last five years, up against competition like “Girls”, “Louie” and “Veep” to name just three, is frankly laughable. It wins because, think about it, what’s the safe choice to represent your academy: shows about vapid twentysomething women in Brooklyn (Girls), an overweight often seemingly depressed stand-up comedian (Louie) and foul-mouth politicians and staffers in Washington D.C. (Veep) or a warm, cuddly, forward-thinking sitcom about parents and their children (Modern Family)?

The Outstanding Drama Series race is generally the most intriguing each year and 2014 is no different. Six shows have been nominated – “Game of Thrones”, “Downton Abbey”, “House of Cards”, “Mad Men”, “Breaking Bad” and “True Detective”. “Mad Men” and “Game of Thrones” were expected nominees, “Downton Abbey” and “House of Cards” could be considered head-scratchers and “Breaking Bad” is the likely favorite to win, but the most interesting case is HBO’s “True Detective,” which starred Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as a pair of detectives investigating a serial killer in rural Louisiana. Just for context, here’s the official trailer:

“True Detective” is in a lot of ways unlike anything else on television. The series is structured as almost an anthology series, meaning that its eight-episode run would include a beginning, middle and end. The series itself will continue into a second season with the same writers, but feature an entirely new cast and storyline.

It is unique narratively as well. Taking place over a nearly 20-year timespan, “True Detective” could be convoluted, dark and just plain disturbing, but was consistently anchored by outstanding performances from Harrelson and (especially) McConaughey.

As soon as it premiered, it was difficult to argue with its quality, but what was surprising was the way it became a pop-culture phenomenon. A ratings and critical success, it exploded over social media and inspired countless memes, most focusing on the intense and seemingly nonsensical monologues of McConaughey’s Rust Cohle. The show’s references to Robert W. Chambers’ 1895 book The King in Yellow sent it to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list. On more than one occasion it threatened to break the HBOGo app with millions of viewers trying to stream episodes at once.

Even once the finale aired, it was still a presence all over the internet with fans speculating on who would be featured in the next season. One of the suggestions:

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Anyone who watched it knew “True Detective” would be a strong contender at the Emmys, but it was widely expected it would dominate the Outstanding Miniseries category. After all, FX’s “American Horror Story,” which also features close-ended storylines over each season, has dominated the miniseries categories since its premiere. HBO threw a curveball though when it announced following True Detective’s run that it would be competing in the much deeper Outstanding Drama category.

The move is nothing short of a sign of HBO’s confidence in the series’ Emmy chances, hubris that was rewarded with 12 nominations, including a pair for McConaughey and Harrelson.

Whether it competes as a Drama Series or a Miniseries is irrelevant. It’s going to win and lose awards. McConaughey, riding his Oscar buzz, is likely to win whoever he is up against, but “Breaking Bad” is likely to be rewarded overall for its amazing final season.

What’s special about “True Detective” being recognized is how different it is and what it could mean for future televison projects. With the promise of eight episodes and you’re out, what’s to stop other big-name movie stars from signing on to this and similar shows the same way they would for a film? We’ve already seen that “True Detective” wasn’t an anomaly when it was followed by FX’s “Fargo”, which starred Billy Bob Thornton, and I’m sure there are numerous other projects in the works that will continue to raise the bar.

Some other notable items on TV’s big day:

*As I stated above, Outstanding Drama nominations for PBS’ “Downton Abbey” and Netflix’s “House of Cards” are head-scratchers. The first two seasons of “Downton Abbey” were solid drama and then it took a dip in the third. I didn’t bother with watching the fourth, but from those I know that did, it’s only dropped further in quality. As for “House of Cards,” I’ll be honest in saying I’ve only watched a couple episodes and wasn’t impressed. Kevin Spacey is hamming it up in a big way with his fake Southern accent and the show’s self-importance is ridiculous. I couldn’t help but wonder as I watched why the characters opposite Spacey’s don’t ask him to lighten up and stop talking like Foghorn Leghorn.

*In the Outstanding Comedy Series category, along with “Modern Family”, the nominees are “The Big Bang Theory”, “Louie”, “Orange is the New Black”, “Silicon Valley” and “Veep”. I can’t imagine “Modern Family” could win FIVE years in a row, so hopefully one of the two best in the category – “Orange is the New Black” and “Veep” – takes the victory, though glad to see HBO’s “Silicon Valley” recognized for a great first season.

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One thought on “HBO’s “True Detective” and the State of TV

  1. I disagree with your take on House of Cards, but everything takes a back seat to Breaking Bad in this category anyway.

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