• Mon, Mar 10 - 1:00 pm ET

True Detective Proves Why All TV Shows Should Be One Season

rustin cohle true detective interrogation

I’m probably more tired than usual today because I had to stay up and watch the True Detective finale. As you know, this proved a bit difficult thanks to the terrible HBOGo outage of March 2014. Luckily, I triumphed over the Internet in order to see what happened to Rustin Cohle and Marty Hart in their pursuit of the mysterious Yellow King. After weeks of reading Carcosa theories and trying to pass Rust’s quotes about time off as my own, my major takeaway from True Detective is that I wish the majority of TV shows lasted just one season.

And I say this as someone who eats, sleeps, breathes and seriously dates TV. It took my complete infatuation with True Detective to make me realize the perks of only spending a limited amount of time with certain characters before moving on. It’s not that True Detective‘s model as an anthology series is a new concept – American Horror Story for example – but I am now fully on board with capping off a cast of characters at one season.

After falling out of love with many TV shows mid-run before (I’m looking at you Grey’s Anatomy, Parks and Recreation, New Girl…), it’s dawned on me that there’s many reasons I’d rather have one great season of a show, than multiple ones that were just alright (alright, alright). So listen up execs, because here’s why I want a fall TV schedule of one season wonders.

The Show Already Knows Where The Story Is Going

Let’s take a quick trip back to 2011. I started watching The Killing as an act of defiance against all my “mainstream” friends who were raving about that other show on AMC (Mad Men. Have you heard of it?). Granted, probably not the best reason to jump into a show, but you may recall the fact that Rosie Larsen’s murder wasn’t solved in the season one finale caused quite a backlash. Season two was drawn out for what seemed like no other reason than “we were allowed to make more episodes.” The lack of direction was a deal breaker.

With an unknown amount of time to tell the story, there’s a high probability it starts going in weird directions when plot ideas start wearing thin. It’s not uncommon for characters to couple up and break up in every possible combination (Grey’s Anatomy) or for an absurd number of disastrous events occur (also Grey’s Anatomy). Any show with a central mystery or investigation, should have called it a day after one season: Pretty Little Liars, Desperate Housewives, The Following, take your pick. More energy could have gone into making one amazing season rather than constantly adding unnecessary twists and turns to fuel some semblance of plot. On True Detective, I knew that after 8 episodes, this arc would end in a way the creative team intended.

There’d Be A Return To Can’t Miss, Must-See Appointment Television

I am in that minority of people who prefer and strive to watch television live. The reason though is rarely that I feel like I HAVE to see the show, but that it’s my treat at the end of a long day. It’s a very different (read: better) experience as a viewer to feel completely invested in what is going to happen that you can’t bear to put it off until their weekend DVR viewing. That’s how I felt about True Detective. When something is a “limited time only,” it ups that need to be a part of it. I’m not putting it off because I can catch up over the summer in time to revisit the gang next season. Nope, THIS IS IT. BE THERE OR BE SQUARE.

We’d Have Better Quality Shows & A Better Quantity of TV

In the case of True Detective, the concept of “detectives with complicated lives solve a mystery” isn’t exactly the single most original plot going. I’m sure this could be the basic logline for a number of procedurals, but this show was able to do it better than many of those and I think the format is a big reason why. With more one season shows coming and going, it would eliminate shows that are just lagging and instead open up more time to fill with more original, diverse, creative, exciting stories.

With less pressure to get ratings for a renewal, perhaps we’d see more creative risks. On American Horror Story, a big-name star can be killed off just like that (finger snap for emphasis). That can’t be said of shows that need their popular characters for sustained viewership. Plus, a set one season commitment may persuade high-caliber talent to pop in for a limited engagement. True Detective snagged two Oscar nominees as its leads (one of whom became a winner during its run) and all the episodes were consistently written by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga. I can imagine all of these factors contributed to a very clear creative vision for the season.

Fine, There Are Exceptions

As with everything, there are caveats. I’d be a liar if I didn’t say that I love all seven seasons of 30 Rock and would have watched 17 more. I think this single season model also holds true more for dramas than comedies, which can often get by on purely being funny even if the plot is a mess (I’m looking at you The Mindy Project). And some dramas, like Breaking Bad evolved their plots in a way that still maintained that plot tension and character exploration all the way to the end. It’s just that a show that gets exponentially better with time or can sustain high-quality storytelling, is likely more the exception than the rule. The overwhelming acclaim and popularity of True Detective just seems like a natural cue to try and switch up the TV landscape.

True Detective wasn’t a perfect show. I felt that the finale tied up loose ends a little more neatly than I would have expected on a show that dealt so heavily in chaos and mystery. While a season 2 isn’t official – despite the multitude of casting pitches on Twitter, even on my most pessimistic Rust Cohle day, I’d think it’s a pretty sure bet. I’m excited for season 2 though because I expect it will be the same in the best ways – the commitment to storytelling, acting, cinematic production, intrigue – and not simply just seeing the same world and characters on screen for yet another go around because they were popular. I wish I could say that for more shows.

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  • Zach T

    I really agree with this. I also think having only one season adds to the dramatic tension surrounding the main characters – especially when they are in life or death situations.

    Take Breaking Bad as a counter example – you allude to how excellent it was (and it was) – but even on that show, no matter how sticky of a situation as Walt got into, you knew that until the very end, it wasn’t going to end in his demise. Now granted, part of the “fun” of that show was seeing how Walt and Jesse would get out of whatever corner they were painted into, but in the back of your mind, you knew that at least until the very end they were going to get out of that corner – especially Walt, as the series was telling his story.

    With an 8 episode limit, anything can truly happen. True Detective could have killed off Rust or Marty at any point in the run, with limited repercussions for the future of the series, because there is no future of the series. And (SPOILER) even last night, when the detectives were having their climactic battle with Errol, my mind was feverishly contemplating every possible scenario — including the notion that the season could have just as easily ended with both detectives lying dead in Errol’s backwoods creole bunker – -because they don’t need to come back next season.

  • Valerie

    As sad as I am to not have my date with Rust and Marty next Sunday, I am just full of all the good feelings about how amazing the finale was last night. It tied everything up and was just very satisfying. I am so bummed its over but at the same time, it was nice to have the whole story play out in 8 episodes and to not have it drag out pointlessly over several seasons (here’s looking at you, Walking Dead).

    • Meg Malone

      Agreed! I feel like True Detective combined what I love best about movies AND TV. Like a movie, I went into it knowing that it was a limited amount of time and I was going to get a complete story arc, but as a weekly TV series, it still gave me time in between to analyze, discuss and just process everything. Getting to know these characters and their story was really interesting, but I do like that now it leaves me open to go on to something completely new, without feeling like I have to keep up with “what happens next” for Rust and Marty just for the sake of it.

    • http://Mommyish.com/ Eve Vawter

      This is exactly how I feel

    • Erin

      My thoughts exactly-I loved the finale. I honestly don’t think they could have done it any better. I’m already missing Cohle and Hart, but at least they went out on top (and left us wanting more, which is the way to do it).

  • elle

    I totally agree. There are so many shows I have given up on simply because I just think how they still have a plot left? They don’t, and they just aren’t that good anymore. I think British tv does it the best….their seasons are really short (like basically miniseries length), and they have no problem stopping making them even when they are still really popular.

  • Jenni

    The only drama that I can think of that manages to not fall into the “unnecessary drama’ trap is The Good Wife. It’s on the 5th season and still going strong. I think that’s partially due to their “case of the week” structure that makes it possible to extend the characters’ personal drama much further than it would if that was the sole focus.

    • elle

      I hear such good things about this show I really think I need to get on hulu plus and watch it since they have all the episodes….it totally seemed like a show my mom/step mom would watch but no my friends always gush over it.

    • Jenni

      I binge watched it this fall and I’m so happy I did. It’s one of my favorite shows now. And that’s after years of referring to it as a mom show.

  • Erin

    As someone who audibly groaned when it was announced Parks and Rec would be returning for a new season this fall, I’m rapidly coming around to this idea.

    • Meg Malone

      Oh, me too – I really fell off the P&R wagon sometime last year. I would also add “character runs for city government” to my list of plot devices that happen when shows go on too long. It at least made more sense on P&R, but by the time Leslie was actually on city council, I realized I was kind of done with her story. And yet it continued…

  • simoneutecht

    I always knew England had it right, their shows have what we consider limited runs but are brilliant and always kept you wanting more. I mean I wish certain shows lasted forever, talking to you Ab Fab but loved what you gave me. And always loved that comedies would come back for special Christmas episodes and the like.

  • CMJ

    My husband and I were having this discussion….and then started lamenting about shows that went past their prime. Remember how good the first season of Heroes was?