This weekend has had people talking about television as Netflix’s House of Cards debuted its second, algorithmically-written to be addictive season that sees Frank Underwood’s political machinations reach new highs. This weekend Netflix wants you to watch House of Cards in marathon-fashion, to digest it and then to tell your friends, to blog about it, to Tweet about it and everything else to spread the word and help bolster their subscription numbers. The thing is, as good as it has been formulated to be, it’s still not the best television show running right now. Oh no, that honor goes to HBO’s True Detective.
HBO’s True Detective is a different kind of television show, it’s one that revels in its deliberate pacing and is deceptively packed full of meaning and symbolism in every drawn out pan over the barren Louisiana landscapes or every contemplative sigh. House of Cards made headlines upon its debut last year for Netflix’s historic use of “big data” — all of the data that they’ve collected from all of our collective viewing history on the service — as they were able to gauge exactly why we chose certain moments in films and television shows to finally take that bathroom or drink break. House of Cards is addictive, in fact, it is highly addictive, because it was formulated as such, right down to the casting and choice of directors, writers and producers to tack onto the opening credits.
Where True Detective varies is that it is not addicting from the start, in fact, it’s slow, deliberate pace might throw off an unprepared viewer. The first two episodes give only a small glimmer into the world that we, the viewers, are descending into. It is only a brief glimpse into Rust Cohle and Martin Hart, deftly played by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. In fact, it is those two names which will probably make you take notice of True Detective and give it a show, just like it will be their performances (particularly Matthew McConaughey’s syrupy drawl) in the first few episodes that keeps you loyal and curious.
In a way, True Detective punishes the viewer early on by giving such sparse details and presenting such a threadbare premise that the entire show is deceptive. The thing is, True Detective is for the patient and thoughtful viewer who is willing to work to uncover its brilliance and appreciate the minutiae present in every frame. Every shot isn’t determined by an algorithm or a pool of data, but instead it is thick with anticipation and clues as to the true nature of the series, its characters and the real narrative sitting just beneath the surface.
Episode four of True Detective, “Who Goes There,” is probably one of the most brilliant pieces of television to happen in a very long time, perhaps even trumping recent marvels such as Breaking Bad’s “Ozymandias” without as many gut punches, of course. Where “Ozymandias” was a part of the falling action, “Who Goes There” was a gift to the vigilant True Detective viewer that opened up the entire series, unveiling, at least in part, the true nature of the show. After “Who Goes There” a cursory viewing of the series is no longer good enough and upon a second viewing the depth and brilliance of the show becomes evident, even to the clever viewer who saw through its guise early on.
It is in this way that True Detective has become the best show running right now, as it has rewarded the patient viewer, it has assured them that for the next four weeks that they will get to witness the rest of the story of Rust Cohle and Martin Hart unfold and that it will not only be worth their time and effort, but will be a truly rewarding experience. I eagerly anticipate tonight’s fifth episode, even if it doesn’t pack the same punch as “Who Goes There” did, there is an understanding that we are all in skilled hands and will end up being rewarded in the end.
If you aren’t watching this, why aren’t you?