‘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?
'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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