WARNING: Mild spoilers below
On Sunday night, the much anticipated new season of “True Detective” finally dropped on everyone’s TV sets and the reaction was … not so good.
As colleague Ian Phillips notes in his round-up of reaction, a lot of the hate from fans revolves around a storyline that’s too difficult to follow and the slow-moving nature of the show.
Everyone is getting it wrong.
In reality, the new “True Detective” is reverse-engineering your normal, run-of-the-mill character development. As a result, we’re being introduced to this whole new world in a very different way, which I think is going to lead to big payoffs very quickly.
This season of the show takes place in Los Angeles and stars Rachel McAdams, Colin Farrell, Taylor Kitsch, and Vince Vaughn. The first three are all law enforcement of some type and Vince Vaughn plays a crime boss.
Episode 1 is incredibly fractured. It’s told in a series of bite-size slices of life that give us individual insight into the characters. And it’s true, many of these scenes are not specifically plot driven. Many of the things we see or that happen are likely not going to be part of any larger plot that this season of the show offers.
But they are crucial to character development and information, and that is what’s so genius about episode 1.
Television shows of this type often follow somewhat of a formula. One that “True Detective” rejects. Let’s take the example of the TV show “Lost,” for example.
In “Lost,” the inciting incident happens right at the beginning (plane crash on deserted island). The action starts right from the start. As the show progresses, it pushes forward with the plot but also has to spend a lot of time in flashbacks. The idea being, the more we know about these characters, the more we care about them. And of course, the events of their past can inform plot twists and turns of the present.
This takes a lot of time, and it takes us away from the forward motion of the plot. This is the same formula many shows follow to help tie everything together for the viewer. But sometimes, as someone watching the show, it can be distracting.
“True Detective” is flipping the script this season.
Every character gets a few scenes of them living their lives outside of whatever the big plot of the show is (or will be). That lets us get to know them right off the bat. Sure, we’re going to find out more, other things will be revealed, and our interpretations of these characters will change as we learn more.
But in this episode, the plot doesn’t really start until minute 60. At the very end, all the characters we’ve been following the whole time (except Vince Vaughn) converge around one plot point — one incident. From there, you know they will start embarking on some detective journey and we’ll start getting into the real meat of the show.
But by the time we get there, to that moment of convergence, we already know so much about these characters.
We know Ani Bezzerides (McAdams) likes weird sex, has an estranged father and sister, is high strung, and likes to blow off steam drinking and gambling late at night.
We know Ray Velcoro (Farrell) is trying to get custody of his alleged son (the paternity is a bit fuzzy), and has a drinking problem.
We know Paul Woodrugh (Kitsch) has scars all over his body from earlier in life, has trouble with intimacy, and possesses a self-destructive tendency.
And we know Frank Semyon (Vaughn) is a crime boss with a good family life and what seems like a good heart. He is as ambitious as he seems compassionate, and he has a storied relationship with Ray.
We find out a whole lot more as well about these characters. But most importantly, as we head into the big case which will drive the story forward, we get who these people are. And we already know a lot about them beyond a mere first impression.
That’s going to infuse the story with a ton more life as we move forward, and make each twist and turn all the more juicy.
Slow? No story? No way, we’re just getting started and this is going to be fun … and probably a little disturbing.
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