Category: television

True Detective and Respecting Your Audience

If anyone who reads this blog (Mom? Maybe?) hasn’t seen True Detective yet and plans on watching it, skip this. I will be doing my best to ruin it.

Still with me? That’s good. Let’s talk about True Detective and its finale. I have some issues with it, as many do, but have recently read some responses on the internet that defend the finale and argue that perhaps people not enjoying it like they wanted was their fault. The gist of the argument is that in an age where everyone has an opinion, and people freely theorize and build on their favorite shows, that the expectations people build often ruin the finale before they’ve even watched it.

Maybe. I’m sure a lot of people feel disappointed by something because it doesn’t live up to the ending that is in their heads. It’s impossible to please everyone, and dissenters are often much louder than those who quietly enjoyed it, even if those who quietly enjoyed something are the vast majority.

I don’t think True Detective had a terrible finale. Just like I don’t think the Lost finale was bad. Nor Breaking Bad. The problem with the True Detective finale, and the reason the people defending it are focusing on the wrong argument, is that it subverted everything it had been about for seven hours. It didn’t respect its audience, and in the end succumbed to what I thought was just poor storytelling.

I’m not necessarily talking about the show not wrapping up its central mystery, although it is related to that. Leaving an ambiguous ending or focusing solely on the character arcs (as Lost tried to do) is fine, if you’re not disrespecting your audience in the way you do it. I personally felt like True Detective hates its audience and Nic Pizzolatto committed some storytelling sins.

As an example, take the hints that Marty’s children were somehow involved with the central mystery. The way his eldest daughter arranged her dolls as if they were in the middle of a rape, the sexual drawings she did, and the extended sequence in the middle of the series with the crown in the tree. If you think that this all happened to show that Marty was inattentive to his family and therefore it’s already been explained, why did it have to be so specific to what was happening with the central mystery? If you explain that by saying that we were experiencing these things from his point of view so it might not actually be what we were shown it is, I say when else has that happened on the show with Marty? There was never any indication that he hallucinated like Rust, or that the case was coloring his personal worldview. So if it was deliberate to make the audience think one thing only to call them stupid for thinking that later, that’s disrespectful to the audience. And if it did have meaning but was never expanded on, that’s bad storytelling.

Another example: Rust’s hallucinations are all but forgotten until they’re needed to create dramatic tension. I don’t think there is a mention of the hallucinations, nor do we see Rust hallucinate, from the third episode until the last one, at which point the audience is reminded of it through exposition and then it happens at the most inopportune moment. Not great storytelling.

Some point to the shows final speeches as to why the storytelling ended up the way it did. That the story is a reflection of how we look at stories, and how we subscribe meaning to things that don’t necessarily have any. This may be true, but at the same time the point of storytelling is to find meaning. We tell stories as a way to find a deeper truth in the things that rule our day-to-day lives. So to create an engrossing story and then say, “Just kidding, there was no point because stories are pointless!” is a slap to the face of your audience.

This is all very negative, yes, but I did love the first seven and a half episodes of the series. It was engrossing, tense, dramatic, and inventive. But man, I wish Pizzolatto would have shown a bit more regard for his audience and the conventions of storytelling.

Dramatic Stakes

Recently my girlfriend and I were discussing the television show Beauty and the Beast. It was something she had just gotten into and she was complaining about the second season of the show. Basically, after a solid first season the show decided to reset the status quo (as television shows often do between seasons or, sometimes, between episodes). This upset her because it felt like the world no longer had stakes.

Dexter is another perfect example for this. Outside of the end of the fourth season each season finale ended with Dexter doing something that would reset the status quo. First season he killed the Ice Truck Killer before Deb could find out his secret. Next season he killed Doakes before anyone could find out his secret. Third season was Miguel Prada. Then came the Trinity season. All bets were off. Finally the show took a chance, moved forward, and it was awesome. But then the fifth season shied away from risks. There was another opportunity at the end of that season to push forward even harder – Deb would finally find out what Dexter was. But the show bitched out, she let him go without learning his identity, and the sixth season was back to square one. I stopped watching after that, but I’ve heard it was steadily downhill.

My point is that as a writer you want to create the most dramatic stakes possible. Write yourself into a corner. Personally I try to put my main protagonist in the worst possible situation by the end of the second act. The reason is not only to keep the audience entertained and guessing (how will [protagonist] get out of this?) but to really see what my protagonist is made of. This is part of the reason I don’t normally outline too far past the end of the second act. The characters are already fairly well established so I like to let them take me where they want to go in the search for a resolution.

Admittedly, this isn’t the easiest route to take. And sometimes it doesn’t work. My last project I completely rewrote the third act, using what I had gleaned from the characters more as a framework than as a final outcome. I think it’s much stronger because of that.

Stories should constantly be surprising. Often that means letting your characters get themselves into impossible situations, then struggle to get themselves out in creative ways. I am a firm believer that the worst thing that can happen should happen. This differs from character to character. One characters worst case scenario might be their mother dying. Another’s might be losing their favorite necklace. Doesn’t matter. It needs to happen. They need to deal with it. And they sometimes need to fail.

Everyone wants a happy ending. I get that. I like them myself, if they make sense. But, and I would say moreso than down endings, happy endings need to be earned. Not necessarily in a pyrrhic way, but earned through the characters digging themselves out of a hole and showing conviction for what they want. If they can’t do that, then either they don’t deserve it or they’re not the character you want them to be and they need to be rewritten.

Breaking Bad was great at this. Every week the stakes would be raised and you would ask, “How is Walt/Jesse/Skyler/Hank going to handle this?” And every week they would find creative ways to solve their problems, or die trying. It was riveting every time.

Don’t think, though, that these things can be random. Just like a happy ending needs to be earned, so too does a character being at their lowest point. If a character’s worst fear is their mother dying, but their mother is happy and healthy all story and then dies randomly it feels cheap. That character needs to be agonizing over a cure for their sick mother, and then what they hoped would cure her is what actually kills her. How does she deal with that? Does she feel guilty? Does she lash out at the unfairness of it? Does she find a way to cope? Those are much more interesting questions than being able to chalk it up to an accident or coincidence.

We all love our characters. That doesn’t mean we can’t get them dirty and let them work to stay clean. That’s entertaining.

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