True Detective and Hyper Attention

HBO’s lastest master, True Detective, just announced their leads for a second series. This anthology piece is definitely one of the best shows TV has to offer its audience of the early twenty-first century. It has so much going for it.

True Detective plays with conventional structure of a Police Detective narrative to keep the audience constantly engaged. Gone are the days of the typical Good Cop, Bad Cop role, and the traditional Whodunit … Modern audiences constantly seek new plot structures and reveals to entertain them. We’ve been taught to look for the slimeball who appears early on offering advice to the detectives only to later reveal that they themselves are the revenge filled killer. Whilst audiences will still find satisfaction and enjoyment in the routine predictable nature of these texts (NCIS has been going how long now…?), the media literate audience will continue to look for deeper meaning within texts, fuelling the rise in popularity of Complex Form Narrative on TV.

These new shows, this new 6-8episode format of complex narrative allows for a more cinematic production combined with the character development that we have come to expect from TV. Meckeller and Valelly suggest that this new long-form on the small screen gives rise to an new, more “indulgent, private [viewing] experience”, which builds strong fan cultures. True Detective is a great example of this.

New distribution methods have made consuming TV simple, no longer needing to wait months for releases shows like True Detective capitalize on this. They are complex; designed to be watched multiple times, and more then one episode at a time. The serial-binge culture nature of the show is facilitated by the auteur-like writer/producer relationship resulting in the creation of rich, immersive story worlds. Produced with one sole director it has a clear vision and style that HBO are so good at developing.

The Police Detective genre has its own formula, True Detective is notable because it refutes the traditional model; instead choosing to reinvent the formula in a post-modern way. They do this by defying genre expectations, jumping through time and rejecting the need for closure at the end of episodes. The plot is set-up more like a long drawn out film which, as James Franco highlights,  allows the show to “handle more plot development without imploding and still have character development”. The BBC Wales production Utopia is another great example of this. Sitting at around 6-8 episodes, these shows are not too long or too short. They have achieved a near perfect balance that keeps todays audience deeply engaged.

True Detective employs prolepsis (or flash forwards) consistently throughout the first episode. These constant jumps in time mean that the audience must be paying full attention to the text to fully appreciate  and understand the narrative that is being formed and the characters relationship with one another. This method of story reveal (similar to the backwards reveal used in Memento) correlates directly with Katherine Hayles’ arguments surrounding Hyper and Deep Attention Modes. Hayles suggests that in the technology driven age we have trouble focusing on one thing at a time, constantly multitasking, or turning to our phones for engagement; flicking through webpages, comments, videos etc.

Networked and programmable media are part of a rapidly developing mediascape transforming how citizens of developed countries do business, conduct their social lives, communicate with each other, and perhaps most significantly, how they think.

True Detective uses this to it’s advantage – the prolepsis means that audiences need to put down their phones and pay attention to the text. Costume, makeup and manner of characters behaviour becomes extremely important because we are given few explicit time markers throughout the first episode. True Detective really uses the visual to its best extent, you cannot look away for fear you will miss some significant detail. You cannot stop watching because instead of searching for closure the episode ending deliberately opens up more questions leaving you questioning the importance of what you just watched in regard to the bigger picture.

Longform complex narrative offers the media savvy audience exactly what it wants. From the first episode of True Detective one is hooked from the beginning, but then left with their mouth open at the end, wondering what happened for the relationships to end the way they are and how these two seemingly opposite characters could have ever worked together to solve something as significant as a murder.