Considering that most people who work in TV bitch about how there are “so many goddamn rules,” or words to that effect, the following article comes as a breath of fresh air. Well, reassuring air, anyway:
by Madeline Berg
According to Freud, the uncanny refers to the juxtaposition of the weird and dark with the familiar. It is this peculiar intimacy that audiences find so alluring in many of television’s recent hits, such as Netflix’s NFLX -0.56%Hemlock Grove and HBO’s True Detective.
True Detective, in particular, has taken advantage of the dark and twisted. Not only are Rust and Marty embroiled in the grim chase for a serial killer, but these protagonists also participate in the darkness, bending the rules and battling their own inner demons. This complexity has led to public and critical acclaim: The first season’s finale set an HBO ratings record, and the show garnered numerous Golden Globe nominations and Emmy wins.
The show also saw financial success. HBO took a gamble on the unique production —True Detective went straight to series with the majority of creative control maintained by the writer, director and producers, not HBO. And it paid off: Because HBO is a subscription service, it is mainly concerned with retaining audience members. With ratings that grew each week, True Detective did the trick, becoming another reason for people to keep paying $15 a month for the channel.
The show’s unconventional darkness, as well as its unconventional format, was the theme for a panel discussion at Brown University’s Ivy Film Festival on Friday — the day after True Detective released its season two trailer — featuring True Detective’s executive producer Richard Brown and Hemlock Grove star Dougray Scott. The Scottish duo openly discussed the bitter competition between HBO and Netflix, how television has become a seller’s market and the similarities between their shows, which mostly stem from a break with TV’s traditional formula.
Neither show followed the typical television production model in which an idea, not an entire series, is picked up by a network. Instead, these shows were made much like films, with the entire series developed prior to being bought. This allowed for immense creative control for the shows’ makers, as they did not have to contend with as much input from the network. The developers benefited from the current TV landscape in which platforms — Netflix and HBO have a particularly antagonistic rivalry — are so competitive that they are willing to relinquish some control if a series shows promise.
The two shows also both have literary roots — Hemlock Grove is based on a book of the same name, and True Detective was written by Nic Pizzolatto as a “novel for television.” This allows for characters with more depth who “resonate the very real themes of confusion, passion, self-discovery, disappointment, and tragedy,” Scott said. Also, as in a novel, the storylines cannot run forever, but have distinct beginnings, middles and ends, which is why True Detective will run as an anthology.
One cannot watch either show without noticing the cinematic qualities to them, particularly the aesthetic mixture of the beautiful and the absurd. Both Scott and Brown said this was due to the creative freedom given to the shows’ developers — something Scott attributed to the platforms knowing they have to take risks and innovate in order to retain a modern audience.
After the panel, we sat down with Brown for a one-on-one interview about the creative genius behind True Detective, how cable has been ripping you off for years, Matthew McConaughey’s guilty pleasure and the future of the television industry — one that, thanks to Netflix, seems to have no rules.
With online platforms, binge-watching and streaming services, the landscape of television has clearly changed immensely just in the last five years. Could True Detective have been made five years ago?