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‘True Detective’ Is TV’s Most Stylish Show. Does That Make It One of Its Best?

'True Detective' Is TV's Most Stylish Show. Does That Make It One of Its Best?

Among other things, I use Twitter to run ideas up the flagpole; sometimes the result is a satisfying discussion, and other times instead of a salute, I get back the equivalent of a middle finger. “Proposal: Film culture as a whole would be improved if we agreed not to be impressed by long tracking shots” was one of the latter. Notwithstanding a few faves, the reaction was overwhelmingly negative, with several people pointing out how hard tracking shots are to choreograph and stage, and what an an accomplishment it is when they turn out well. All of that is true.

I just don’t care.

Allow me to rephrase: As someone who’s fascinated by the filmmaking process, of course I appreciate the way a long, elaborately choreographed take comes together, like the bravura tracking shot in Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice, or when an exceptionally agile cinematographer like 12 Years a Slave‘s Sean Bobbitt is able to find a series of perfect moments on the fly. But as a critic, the degree of difficulty concerns me not at all. Unless you’re an Olympic judge or the filmmaker’s mom, what matters is not how hard a given shot was to achieve but how well it works, how it serves the meaning of a scene or distracts from it — a dilemma Robert Altman brilliantly explored in the deliberately self-conscious opening shot of The Player.

My initial misgivings were prompted by the reaction to the six-minute shot that closed Sunday’s episode of True Detective, “Who Goes There,” a logistical tour de force following undercover Detective Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) as he raided a drug house with a group of mean-looking bikers. It’s a nifty stunt, especially on TV, where budgets rarely allow for such time-consuming spectacle (although now that it’s possible to use CG to turn many shots into the illusion of one seamless one, it’s hard to know which department deserves our kudos). But it’s also a shot that, rather than heightening the tension, took me out of the action, to the extent that I was as concerned with when director Cary Fukunaga was going to cut as whether Rust would escape the shootout unharmed.

Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz bristled a little, as I did, at the attention lavished on this particular shot, especially the way it eclipsed some of the show’s other, at least as daring, aesthetic choices:

It’s a mistake to praise the shot simply for existing, for a couple of reasons. TV directors, whose work tends to be devalued generally, stage moments just as complex fairly often and critics don’t pat them on the backs for it. In fact, the attention paid to this one instance makes me inclined to devalue the shot just a little bit. It suggests a certain “Look at me, ma!” obviousness deployed in service of getting TV critics who don’t normally pay attention to style to notice it here. It’s a showstopper in the literal sense. While impressive in every department (camera acrobatics, choreography, lighting), that tense climactic sequence took me out of a drama that had otherwise been totally immersive. 

For Indiewire’s Allison Willmore, the shot epitomized the show’s fondness for flash over depth:

We’re now halfway through the story, and it has yet to cohere as something other than a beautifully made and impressively acted typical cop tale with more than the usual sense of self-importance. Which is plenty — to watch the series is to feel the barriers between film and television fade away, as it’s every bit as visually luscious and consistent as something you’d find on the big screen, with two very able movie stars as its leads.

And for ThinkProgress’ Alyssa Rosenberg, the shot’s elaborate style stood in sharp contrast to its thin, even pernicious, substance:

[W]hile that tracking shot may have captured Matthew McConaughey’s typically fine acting, I’m honestly surprised that viewers didn’t react more strongly to everything else it was capturing: a superbly generic showdown between two of television’s most overused criminal tropes, a black gang from the projects with access to surprisingly sophisticated weaponry, and a tweaked-out gang of white guys with luxurious facial hair. I’ve loved True Detective at the moments when it distinguishes itself from years and years of mediocre attempts to knock off what made Tony Soprano great. But during that sequence, True Detective seemed just as bland and lazy as the rest of the wannabes.

That’s not going to stop the claims being made on True Detective‘s behalf: Four episodes in, The Atlantic‘s Christopher Orr is already calling it “the best show on TV,” citing the “pyrotechnical panache” of that now-famous shot. “The genius of True Detective,” he writes, “is that having a single director entails granting him license to direct.” (I haven’t asked, but I’m fairly certain Orr’s essay is going to drive Seitz, who’s meticulously catalogued the way TV series match different directors’ strengths to an individual episode’s needs, absolutely bonkers.) 

All of the above writers have covered film at some point in their careers; some still do. But as a rule, TV critics don’t pay as much attention to visual style, perhaps in part because the advance screeners provided by many networks don’t always allow them to make it out. (HBO, ironically, is the worst offender I’ve come across, furnishing critics with copies that look like they were dubbed from VHS tapes and left in a moldy basement for weeks.) But movie critics are hardly immune to the allure of elaborate, showy shots: Witness the drooling over the (simulated) long takes in Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men and Gravity, which is too rarely accompanied by an analysis that would differentiate them from the failed experiment of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope.

It’s super-cool that TV shows are getting the resources to be more “cinematic” — a hugely problematic term that we’ll leave alone for the moment — and that True Detective has been conceived in a way that a single creative team can see it through from beginning to end. (For my money, Nic Pizzolatto’s writing is equally distinct and far more inventive than Fukunaga’s direction, which mostly traffics in high-grade cliche.) But the that fact style is more easily perceived doesn’t make it more successful; how many camera moves do you remember from The Wire?

As a critic whose first love will always be movies, I’ve long thought the structural barriers to stylistic development were the medium’s Achilles heel. Great TV directors use visual style to tell the story, but they’re not able to develop a visual narrative over the course of a season, let alone a series. Moving to finite, manageable production schedules could change that, and True Detective certainly shows signs that it’s moving towards a specific, as-yet-unseen end. But until we reach that end, it’s hard to judge whether Fukunaga’s swampy noir and Pizzolatto’s roundabout monologues are heading somewhere or just taking us for a ride.

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It's not (for me, anyway) the difficulty of a long tracking shot that impressed me in episode 4 or True Detective nor when it was done in Children of Men. What impressed me is the urgency it conveyed, it's ability to heighten the drama of the situation.

Nic Sadler

You seem to miss the point completely Sam. Good filmmaking technique, like that seen in True Detective, serves to enhance the narrative drive of the piece. When technique overtakes drama, then you have a problem. I've been a cinematographer for 20 years and when I watched the scene you described I was riveted, not because it was one long shot (I didn't even realize there was no cuts on first viewing) but because the action was so riveting, so engaging. The unbroken flow of the cinematography in that scene added a layer of actuality that enhanced the scene without being too flashy, in my opinion.

Filmmaking is like making a soup. The director is stirring the pot and managing the input of the contributing ingredients, while each of those ingredients plays a vital role to the uniqueness of the whole. For example, a good film can be entirely wrecked by an inadequate 1st Assistant Director, yet the hand of the 1st AD is never evident in the finished product. The consumers of this visual soup should not be concerned with it's ingredients but with it's overall effect. You have a sophisticated yet cynical view of filmmaking that seems to be distracted by the ingredients.

I'm sorry you could not enjoy this show more. For me I'm hooked with or without long, continuous camera shots.

Thank God, I'm not crazy

I've worked as a 1st Assistant Director for over 20 years and am often tasked with executing such choreography. The best gift I've been given is that I still watch a film the same way I did when I was a kid. I don't see my job when I'm a viewer. What tracking shot? The fact that I didn't "see" it is evidence that I was involved enough not to. Having said that, "Who Goes There" shook my belief that I was watching THE best show on TV. I agree with pretty much all of your points. As I've told many a director, "Just because we can, doesn't mean we should." Does it work for the story? If not, avoid showing off and don't do it.

Mont Oak

First off, I would like to say I respect everyone's opinion on here. In my opinion, if you feel the show has little or no depth, I'm assuming your mind is similar in structure. However you feel about a subject, something, or someone is exactly how you feel about yourself, and that is not philosophy, it's phyiscs. So if you are viewing the show with a closed mind, in return you will feel that the show has little or no depth in plot/substance/meaning or whatever you'd like to call it just as the mind that's interpreting the show.

Pizzolatto even pointed out that if you feel by the 3rd episode, you get distracted too easily or feel the show has misdirection in its plot, STOP WATCHING. So if you're going into the 4th episode critizing a greatly done one take shot, you obviously weren't feeling the show had a deeper purpose than art since the first episode.

Wow first that idiot Alison, now you?

"It's hard to judge whether Fukunaga's swampy noir and Pizzolatto's roundabout monologues are heading somewhere or just taking us for a ride."

This is pure idiocracy at its finest. F**k off back to your plot-driven, spoon-fed amazon pilots and hbo's 'girls'.

What is it with indiewire staff and the fact that they think TD is more style than substance? Just because a show revolves around character and character-development instead of plot doesn't mean it lacks substance. Sure its shot beautifully, but the substance is there. Pay attention to what the characters are saying ffs. Click-bait and it worked. Go back to reviewing those 'lol so quirky xDDD!!' amazon pilots. This is the best show since Breaking Bad (that is a hardcore fact sam, dont deny it you little s**t.)

I didn't think anyone could beat Alison Wilmores horrible article, but you come close Sam.

S. A. Hunt

I'm impressed, this is the most needlessly pretentious thing I've read… today, at least. Who needs to simply appreciate well-made media when you can pick it to shreds? Exactly what we need is more bland, pointless reality shows, and this is one great way to achieve that.


The impulse to critique this shot simply for existing is even more damaging than the praise it should rightfully receive. This is a foolish argument. Do you seriously think the filmmakers decided to proceed with this choice because it would 'look cool' or 'cinematic'? Any elaborate visual technique is going to be an indulgence, a technically complicated one requiring time, money and substantial effort to pay it off. Embracing the power of the visual medium, the potential of the camera to elevate the EMOTION of the story to greater heights, is what true auteur, bravura filmmaking is about. I'm not alone in thinking this is among the most compelling of all cinema. Not for a moment was I pulled out of the story here because of these chosen techniques. Quite the opposite, I felt fully immersed in the moment, right there along side Rust as he struggled to maintain his composure and then fight for his life in this chaos. By choosing not to cover the scene more conventionally, the audience is drawn into the madness with a tension and immediacy that only serves to heighten the drama. I guarantee you that was Cary Fukunaga's intention and it was a resounding success.

Simon Crowe

For me the shot was an example of the way the series tries too hard. A set of conditions were established (the unusual nature of the case, the pressure on the detectives from superiors, etc.) and then forgotten at the writer's discretion. In other words, the episode didn't answer the question of why that scene had to occur. Are we to believe that in a case where they're on a clock to find a suspect that Hart and Cohle would get a lead on that suspect and then choose to ignore their superior, operate outside their jurisdiction, steal evidence, and kidnap someone? I might believe Cohle would, but Hart instantly agreed. The shot is fancy paper on a too-small box.

Take A Breath

This is the second time, in two days, that an arrogant and self important "critic" has chosen to throw ice water all over this show. It takes years of investment to craft and commitment to a career to fully understand all the nuances of a piece of work. Yet, it takes a few careless moments at the keyboard for a flurry of ingracious drivel and ridiculous pining for why this work isn't perfect! Why can't you all just be grateful for the effort and accept what is being offered in the spirit of evolution of a medium in desperate need of refinement? There are plenty of other works on display, that could profit from your sophomoric evaluations and mental gymnastics. Better yet, why don't you stop trying to substitute your personal failures for pseudo-constructive critique? Opinions are cheap, and everyone seems to have one they are all too willing to regurgitate. If this and other works fall so desperately short of the mark, why don't you put your money where your mouth is and produce something? Or, do you prefer not to toil in the muck that you rake?


A couple of things:

1) That was NOT a tracking shot, given the amount of ground inside the house and around the neighborhood that it covered. A matter of technicality, maybe, but worth noting. I'm also suspicious that it's more of a sequence — there are a few places (ie, the pan up to the helicopter) where there definitely could be a cut. If not, well, holy shit, Adam Arkapaw and the steadicam op deserve even more credit than they're getting for this. Remember that this is all being shot on 35mm (on Panavision Millenium XL2s, which aren't exactly the most cumbersome, but still) at night, and every flame looked flawless. I know you said you "don't care" about that, but it IS a huge achievement.

2) The camera work isn't the only thing that's impressive about the sequence. The blocking, obviously, is incredible too, but also that sound design. It's easily the best sound design I've ever heard on television, let alone in a movie of late. Insanely layered and geographically specific, which is why comments like that the sequence made the episode "less immersive" are so confusing to me. Sure, it's a bit show off-y, but if anything it has the opposite effect. All of these technical tricks are being used in favor of making the drugged out shootout more immersive/tense/etc., which I think it succeeded in flawlessly. Not only did I not find it distracting, but I think it served the "meaning of the scene" really well in that replicated the character's coked up mindset.

For the record, I'm not entirely sold on "True Detective" either. I think content-wise it's been pretty hit or miss so far. So why not focus on what actually is wrong with it (too much emphasis on cliffhangers/strange digressions/the icky treatment of Alexandra Daddario/the complete lack of redeeming characteristics of Woody's character) than a moment of it that was, I think, admittedly pretty great? It can be a great shot without elevation the show to "best show ever!!" proportions, yeah?

B. cole

I think people go overboard with this show because of the acting and direction but really at the heart of it True Detective is great pulpy schlock. It has little real depth but is enjoyable. People need to quit overthinking and just let it live as a goofy but imminently watchable show. Like Prisoners mixed with True Blood. Just let it be what it wants to be.


Well, this whole article again reminds me how much I hate critics. When was the last time I enjoyed a fancy camera trick on "the wire"? Well, never- but I also got bored of that well written, well acted show halfway through. All substance, no style. Tracking shots and camera tricks dont just add visual flair to the screen, they often add a sense of what the character is feeling, beyond what his lines and stage direction convey.
Also, gravity was TOTALLY overrated.


I'm with you totally on this. Especially on True Detective. I am finding myself not liking this show very much. All flash and no substance. And very light weight existentialism, if you can even refer to it as that. That whole last sequence was absurd. Dragging a grown man, a biker dude, around like he was a 5 yr. old kid. Absurd. Also didn't like the scene of Rust faking his arm to look like he was a junkie in case they checked….then they didn't check…there was no scene showing them seeing the result of that scene…setting something up then not providing the pay off. It's screenwriting 101 and I could only shake my head. It's all reeks of showing off and look at me/us and what we are doing and how heavy it all is. Ugh!


Maybe a new version of a French famous movie – the good is the very real bad!

Joel Rackel

While I understand your and Seitz’ point that we should not worship this shot just because it exists on television, I don’t like how your and Seitz’ articles both don’t explore why True Detective’s director chose to use that shot. Or to use your terms, you make no attempt to describe “how [the shot] serves the meaning of a scene or distracts from it.”

So, what does this shot serve? I can think of a couple things:

1. From the 2012 narrative, we know that Cohle survives. That shot choice adds so much tension by putting us right here with him—there’s drugged out calamity added to a situation we know is ok in the end.
2. Chaos—a term referenced by Rust Cohle before in the series, but chaos and evil are rarely seen on screen. This scene is pure chaos, as Cohle plunges into the hell he once escaped.
3. Kevin McFarlane argues there’s a correlation between Cohle’s experience with this biker gang and his father’s experience in Vietnam:

Maybe these reasons aren’t as rich as the Player’s, but they are decent reasons that should be acknowledged nonetheless.

Your and Seitz basic criticism of the shot is that it took you out of the action. I suppose that’s a matter of personal opinion. Judging by comments from viewers I’ve seen on reddit, av club, boing boing, etc., most people thought it did intensify the action, or they didn’t even notice it was single take. I knew it was a long take, and I was blown away, and thought it one of the most tense things I’d ever seen on TV.


I cannot understand how that shot took away the heightened tension for you. To me, it made the suspense that much more tense because we were with Rust the entire time. I thought the shot was brilliant, but all of the hubbub over it seems to be bringing the contrarians out in droves to point out that the show overall isn't what it's all cracked up to be. The shot was great, but more importantly, the show AS A WHOLE is great.


I totally agree with PMD and VISITOR Q.

I didn't notice the long tracking shot, but I was totally immersed in the scene.

I'm sure it's fun to be despective with what everybody's praising. And don't get me wrong: I agree with the statement that I shouldn't care about the difficult shots if the excuse was showmanship. But the episode was great even without that shot, which I did't feel it was pure showmanship.

Also, it was the first episode where I didn't feel the ego of Nic Pizzolato pouring through Rust's dialogue and I really thanked that. By far the best episode yet.


"…like the bravura tracking shot in Joe Wright's Sense & Sensibility"
Joe Wright's Sense & Sensibility?!?!?!!?


The idea that the tracking shot was too flashy or that it's been overpraised is just total rubbish. Rarely have I been as riveted by a movie or TV show. I didn't even know I was witnessing a 6-minute tracking shot while I was watching it because I was so engrossed and amazed. A lot of other people have said the same thing. Suddenly it's cool to say that the shot is overrated. Nonsense.

Visitor Q

You're overthinking it, though maybe that just comes with the job.

As just an ordinary tv watcher and movie lover, I watched that final sequence feeling more tense than anything I've seen on tv since Breaking Bad. I didn't even notice it was one long tracking shot, at least consciously, but I'm sure that's at least partly what increased the tension for me, which would be the point of doing it in the first place. I guess that's one of the good things about not overanalyzing a tv show, you get to go along for the ride, feel it, and not pick apart the details, just react to them. I don't see it as a "look at me" shot, because I didn't notice it, it was just a way to increase tension, and it worked on me, just a regular dumb tv watching joe.

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