True Detective concluded Sunday night with a 97-minute finale. People didn’t like it nor did people like the season. Google “True Detective Season 2” and find a lot of angry reviews by professional critics and amateur bloggers. Head over to a TV forum and read through the comments about it, most of which you’ll find very angry. People’s hatred for the season brought together the online TV community. The most popular episode of the season, the penultimate one titled “Black Maps and Motel Rooms,” was an info-dump. Characters, the mysteries, and everything else became clear because most of the writing was exposition. A week later, critics and bloggers hated the show again. One critic pondered the failure of the season, another listed seven things that doomed it, and another called it “ridiculous.”
Common complaints about the season were the complexity, the convoluted storytelling, lack of engagement with the major characters, the closeted Paul story, unfamiliarity with a character that was the impetus for Frank’s arc, the absence of Cary Fukunaga, boredom, having to remember small details from past episodes, the fifth episode “reboot,” and other stuff, too. I already wrote about the nonsense of criticizing a show for complexity, because I think calling for simplicity’s a not cool thing when executives will pounce on reducing complexity for the sake of the masses who want to sedately sit and watch a story rather than experience, absorb, or even work for a story. I listened to critics discuss the finale on their podcast. Both claimed Pizzolatto “can’t do that,” referring to making minor characters prominent later in the story. The reason? Critics and the audience shouldn’t need to remember something small from five episodes ago to understand something in the last two episodes. One of the critics called for more simplicity.
People piled on True Detective as the season progressed. It became The Thing like Sharknado became a snark-fest on a random Thursday or Saturday night. It exploded after Sunday night. Critics and bloggers rushed to write their lazy, hacky reviews for the last episode, for a show they needed someone else from Salon to smooth out, which they considered an indictment of the show, but what if it’s an indictment against professional critics? Criticism’s a loose, baggy thing; no one’s right and no one’s wrong; good taste and bad taste is a fiction, there’s no such thing, and anyone who says it’s a thing falls under the umbrella of the untranslated Russian word Nabokov popularized in the early 1940s. Professional critics, like academic scholars, have a responsibility to the reviewed work to exert a honorable effort to unpack it, analyze it, understand it, instead of dismiss it as “too complicated” or “too convoluted,” to snark about it, to gang up on the TV show like it’s the loser kid in high school, to work harder.
Critics whinge about the amount of TV content available. They don’t have time for everything, but they need to cover everything. I’d guess every professional critic doesn’t have the time to watch an episode of television two or three times before reviewing it. Readers don’t want to wait, and critics can’t wait. If site x waits two days to post a review, they’ll lose clicks to site d that posted something one hour after the episode aired. I approach reviewing from an amateur perspective. No network or cable/premium channel sends me screeners. My way to achieve the smallest amount of visibility is writing a review really fast and then posting it to Twitter in the hopes I get any new eyeballs. Professional critics receive many screeners. They have the opportunity to watch an episode several times before reviewing. Some do, I’d guess, for the Major shows, in preparation of their overall review. For the episode-to-episode form of reviewing, critics watch, write, and post. The Internet’s littered with first impressions. I’m guilty of what I decry. The entire job of a professional TV critic, though, is reviewing television. They partly or wholly responsible for creating the discussion about TV shows similar to how sports writers invent narratives that people then discuss in bars, in stadiums, and on the commute home.
I read an essay about a weak Nabokov novel. Julian Connolly, the scholar, didn’t use half the essay to snark and bitch about what he didn’t like in the novel. Connolly pointed out the flaws, and he unpacked the themes, charted their development in the novel, followed the patterns of the book, and caressed the divine detail, for a novel he admitted is among the weakest Nabokov composed. I don’t think it’s impossible for professional critics to make half the effort writing about a show they don’t like such as True Detective. Critics have written great reviews for episodes of shows they love, adore, admire, but the claws come out for shows they don’t like. If it’s not worth it and if the most a critic will bring to an episode-by-episode review is snark, bewilderment, or shallow criticisms, don’t bother.
When the two critics basically shouted, “You can’t do that” about Burris becoming a major character in the last two episodes after being on the periphery of the story, I thought about Nabokov’s Lolita. I specifically thought about the reveal of the identity of the man Dolly ran off with, of the following quote,
“Waterproof. Why did a flash from Hourglass Lake cross my consciousness? I, too, had known it, without knowing it, all along. There was no shock, no surprise. Quietly the fusion took place, and everything fell into order, into the pattern of branches that I have woven throughout this memoir with the express purpose of having the ripe fruit fall at the right moment; yes, with the express and perverse purpose of renderingshe was talking but I sat melting in my golden peaceof rendering that golden and monstrous peace through the satisfaction of logical recognition, which my most inimical reader should experience now,”
and they’d hate it. The army of critics would come with pitchforks and torches to the town square. Vladimir Nabokov told his students to read actively, creatively. The only way to actively and creatively read is to re-read. Creative re-watching would benefit everyone writing about TV.
My favorite television reviews were written by Jeff Jensen about LOST. Jeff Jensen took his time writing reviews. He’s still the most creative television reviewer working. He interpreted, he consulted outside texts, he explicated the intricacies of even the lousy LOST episodes, and post-LOST he doesn’t resort to writing shallow reviews, the high school like snark about the least popular TV show in class. He deeply thinks about why he doesn’t like something. Doc Jensen’s someone who would race back to the Hourglass Lake section of Lolita to find what he missed. His review of the True Detective finale is an example of what I think critics are capable.
William Gass, in his essay “Even If, By the Oxen of the Sun,” contemplates consciousness in popular culture. Gass writes that it’s a mistake to compare works in popular culture to works of art because of they produce fads and are surrounded by competition. Works of art “enlarge consciousness like space in a cathedral, ribboned with light” while works of popular culture exist to give “us something to do, something to suffer, an excuse for failure, and a justification of everything.” He wrote the essay in the 1970s, but he could’ve written that last year or this year. It’s true to the culture. True Detective’s a passing fad. 98% of mass entertainment is a fad, something to do, competing for eyes, disposable, and so many reviews (even mine!) are disposable, written to matter for a couple days or week, and then most move on and don’t think about it again. Remember when Serial, the true crime podcast, became a sensation for three weeks? Every entertainment website covered it; people created Serial discussion podcasts; Twitter buzzed about it. It ended. People spent a couple days or a week talking about the finale, but now it’s small-scale, largely forgotten, discussed only by the die-hards on message boards.
Popular culture caters to instant gratification, cheap sensation, simplicity, passivity, because after a challenging, long day at work people want to relax and escape. They don’t want to work. Nabokov told an interviewer that if people had to work a bit reading his books, then so be it, because art is hard. That’s art. Popular culture promises clarity, closure, simplicity, escapism, satisfaction, and True Detective provided none of that. The critics and the bloggers revolted.
Anyone may write any review they want, of course. The angry reviews blur together. No new perspective emerges. The professional critics reiterate the same gripe. They don’t go deeper. They can go deeper with shows they don’t like. A Grantland columnist wondered why Paul’s girlfriend and mother weren’t seen until the end. That’s a feeble criticism to make. Why would the story return to those two? Burris targets them for convoluted, cliché, unoriginal suspense? The critics would’ve torched that too. A lot of great, engaging, well thought, sophisticated discussions happen across the Internet. I think the callous, almost, shallow criticisms reflect badly on critics. I didn’t like the second season, and I felt more disappointed in reading all the reviews.