I Swear I’m Not The Yellow King: The Importance of “True Detective”


For the last seven weeks, True Detective has been the best show on television. Period.

Let me back up. I’m not saying True Detective has been the only good show on television. On the same network, Girls has been having its most consistent, albeit perhaps its least exciting, season yet. HBO also debuted the quietly daring Looking in January. And lets not forget about the triumphant return of Netflix juggernaut House of Cards. In fact, while we’re at it, lets not forget the much-lauded returns of other critical darlings, such as Downton Abbey, Justified, Portlandia, The Americans, and everybody’s other two favorite detective teams on the titled-after-their-lead-characters’ masterpieces Hannibal and Sherlock. Even Community is at an all-time high right now thanks to the reinstatement of Dan Harmon.

But none of these shows have been as good as True Detective. And unless we find out the whole thing was just a dream Woody Harrelson had while looking into a snowglobe or something, it doesn’t matter what happens on the show’s finale this Sunday. True Detective has already proven just how good it is.

Actually, maybe it’s not entirely a question of “good.” Obviously, I wouldn’t be writing this piece if I didn’t think True Detective was, to say the least, very good, but what makes True Detective the best show on television goes beyond its obvious brilliance.

Of course, like any show that’s brilliant, True Detective has its detractors too. That is, in many ways, par for the course with brilliance; brilliance inspires strong reactions, and to also inspire a worthy discussion, not all of those reactions can be positive (some have even been complimentary and disparaging at the same time). Most of the criticism alleges that the show is a lot of pretentious, pseudo-intellectual nonsense, where characters wax philosophical over and over again without really saying anything. And if that’s the way you feel, you’re nor entirely wrong. A lot of the seemingly nuanced dialog on True Detective tends to be rather on the nose when you really boil it down. But just because it’s pretentious doesn’t mean it’s not good television. Yes, True Detective takes itself very seriously; there’s not a hint of pulp in what might otherwise be a very pulpy story. But week after week, True Detective has proven that not only is it very smart, very expensive, and boasts a very distinguished pedigree, it’s a genuinely entertaining show too, averaging almost 11 million viewers at its peak.

The other complaints usually tend to focus on perceived sexism, and the show’s treatment of women, such as the critique recently written by Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker. But True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto has continually insisted that the way women are depicted on the show is more about a larger culture of misogyny within the story, rather than a disregard for female perspectives in general. In fact, Pizzolato recently stated that he’d be happy to do the show without nudity entirely, and that that particular element of the show exists because it’s on HBO, who know that nudity is one of the things people expect from pay cable. 

But even those who have been harsh on True Detective can’t deny that it’s tapped into some sort of cultural curiosity. From various memes to entire reading lists, the Internet has pounced on the show wholeheartedly, like it didn’t even know it was waiting for it. Speculation around the Yellow King alone has been driving people mad coming up with theories.

However, what’s so amazing about this isn’t that the Internet has gone crazy over another TV show (because, lets be clear, while the Internet can be a pretty dark place, the Internet also loves loving things), it’s that the Internet went crazy over this TV show. I mean, think-pieces and theories are one thing, and the Internet has always been a place for entertainment obsessives to talk endlessly, but eCards? We’re talking about a show where the main character literally says in the first episode that human consciousness is a mistake and we’d all be better off if we stopped populating and died away nobly. Like I said, it’s a little bit on the nose, but it’s still stirring stuff. And perhaps it’s only natural for people to find humor in material that is so relentlessly hopeless. I mean, even Breaking Bad basically started out as a dark comedy starring a bumbling version of Mr. Chips.

This is another reason True Detective is the best show on television. No crime drama since The Wire has had such a unique take on humanity. But where The Wire was concerned with social mechanisms and a system of injustice designed to keep those who need the most help down, True Detective takes a much simpler stance: people are not good. Maybe this is a reductive and even simplistic way to look at things, but in the modern landscape of television, it’s a somewhat fresh perspective. As a protagonist, Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle isn’t like Tony Soprano, or Don Draper, or Walter White, or any of the other premier protagonists of the cable revolution. He’s not struggling with his nature; inward and outward forces have all drawn him to the same conclusion. He knows he’s a bad man, and the only thing keeping him from putting a bullet in his head is that it’s bad men like him that keep the other bad men from our doors.

Yet what really makes True Detective the best show on television is its complete sense of authorial intent and cohesiveness. The Brits have been doing it like this for a minute now, but here in America we’re only starting to catch on that the auteur theory can be applied just as much to TV as it can to film. Not that there aren’t downsides to this; the auteur theory has been picked apart pretty much ever since it was invented, and what frequently makes television so special is the collaboration of many writers working towards one goal. The only problem with the traditional model of television is that even shows which are regarded as masterpieces usually contain at least a few misfires which totally throw off the narrative, even if only for a week. True Detective may have had a few moments over the last few weeks which were easy to predict, or which were less exciting in the grand scheme of things, but it’s always been exactly itself. This is a story so self-assured of what it is and where it’s going that even its weaker moments feel warranted as part of a larger whole.

And as long as we’re talking about the auteur theory, lets talk about this whole idea that the show is just “one long movie” too. People have said the same thing about House of Cards, and while I buy it a little bit with HoC, since Netflix’s distribution model allows you to watch all the episodes of a show immediately, I’m not entirely sold on this idea as definitive. It’s no secret that TV has been getting more cinematic over the last few years, and True Detective is just another example of that. But there are clear beginnings and ends to each episode, there are subplots which weave through the show the same way they would on any other, and the story does rise and fall like the arc of any good piece of television. So while I’m intrigued by the thought that shows like True Detective and House of Cards are a new kind of hybrid genre, I believe it’s too simple to just call them lengthy movies that you don’t watch in a theater. Saying that they’re not TV shows takes something away from the medium, and personally, I’d rather think of True Detective as another great addition to the current golden age of television.

And yes, I’m inclined to agree with Kevin Spacey that we are in another golden age. And this TV golden age seems primed for artists with a singular vision. Never have I seen someone exert this much control over what they’ve created in American television except for maybe Louis C.K. So whatever you think of Nic Pizzolatto, just remember that what he’s done is truly original. His True Detective is the most fully formed vision that will likely arrive on our TV sets, our laptops, our phones, our whatever all year.

And that’s why True Detective is the best show on television. Period.