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Why ‘True Detective’ is becoming the new ‘Glee’

Rachel McAdams

Storytelling is a flat circle.

Last week, actor Colin Farrell confirmed his spot as a lead in the highly anticipated second season of HBO’s True Detective with Ireland’s the Sunday World, and already critics are harkening a possible “Farrell renaissance.” With Farrell in, along with a recent confirmation from Vince Vaughn, news Rachel McAdams is currently “in talks,” as well as rumors of Taylor Kitsch joining ship, it’s hard not to wonder if the show is hoping to triplicate a magical formula from season one.

The incendiary combination of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as Rustin Cohle and Martin Hart was, it can be argued, an instance of stunt casting: two actors with high promise but before True Detective, mostly fated to middling roles—or in the case of Harrelson, character actor spots. (Harrelson is arguably most recognizable as his breakout character Woody Boyd from the classic television show Cheers, and McConaughey for his relegation to a string of rom-coms and lackadaisical surfer/stoner personas.)

This year, True Detective has upped the ante. The commonality between Farrell, Kitsch, and Vaughn is their commercial toxicity. For every success on the level of In Bruges, Friday Night Lights, and Swingers, there is a Total Recall, a John Carter, and a Delivery Man. (And no one, no one, despite the fervent willingness to do so, can forget or forgive Alexander. Or that bleach job.)

Ultimately, the animus for this move on the part of True Detective’s casting team is an ethic of “more equals better,” a philosophy more akin to the Ryan Murphy School of Production than show creator Nic Pizzolatto’s (and, compared to Murphy, streamlined) erudite literary antics. So the question must be asked: Is True Detective undergoing the initial stages of the “Glee Effect?”

Despite their diametrical oppositions in content, format, and style (one a venture in disputable satire, escapism, and hysterical reality, the other in surrealist, gritty crime and horror), both True Detective and Glee ended their respective freshman runs with high marks. In terms of cold numbers, Glee garnered the highest finale rating for a new show in the 2009-2010 television season, and the final episode of True Detective’s first season crashed HBO’s streaming website, HBO Go (which, by cable network standards, is more or less the same thing).

But as the story goes, Glee’s success as a rare simultaneous commercial powerhouse and critical darling morphed into an industry of gimmickry. The show strayed further and further away from the basic fundamentals of character development and believable plot, despite already taking place in a world of musical-numbered hyperreality. Instead, Glee cemented its status as the show that hath launched a thousand cast albums, reality spin-offs, 3-D movie concerts, and conscious couplings with Gwyneth Paltrow guest star stints and CeeLo Green chart-toppers. Jane Lynch’s zingers, Lea Michele’s pipes, and Chris Colfer’s tear ducts could only do so much.

Hence the Glee Effect: Now about to embark on its sixth and final season, a haggard veteran of derivative musical tribute episode after tribute episode, Glee is a shell of its former glory, the victim of actor cameo oversaturation, flawed afterschool special moralization, and (when it comes right down to it) showrunner and producer Ryan Murphy’s audience pandering. The fact that Glee finished its fifth season with the lowest-rated in its series history, pulling in under two million viewers, is further telling of its downfall. Bigger is not always better.

In terms of their first seasons, much of what Glee and True Detective share is that they premiered at a time when nothing like them had ever been featured on adult American television before. Preceding Glee, many attempts had been made at adapting a musical twist to the serial format, almost every single one ill-fated: Cop Rock, which premiered in 1990, is still considered one of the 50 worst television shows of all time, and more than two decades later, the Steven Spielberg-produced Smash was the show everyone loved to hate-watch, puttering out in its second season. Perhaps what has driven Ryan Murphy throughout Glee’s previous five seasons to constantly add cast members is the fact that its novelty has also served as its Achilles heel.  

Like Glee, True Detective is entirely built on novelty. Akin to the cult classic Twin Peaks, True Detective showcased a revolutionary application to its cinematography, employing director Cary Fukunaga to helm the entire first season and a genius effrontery to the conventional “whodunit” narrative focus of its genre. (It is also no surprise that Fukunaga cited Twin Peaks as one of True Detective’s major influences.) 

However, the shadow of Twin Peaks, which ended after two seasons due to declining viewership, remains a towering presence, a reminder of the cost of artistic integrity in relation to viewership and network manhandling. It is no surprise, then, that the Glee Effect has tightened its grip. In edition to more stunt-casting, Pizolatto added more directors—both William Friedkin and Justin Lin (who, in a puzzling twist, is best known for his work with the Fast and the Furious franchise) have already signed on—refuting the singularity of directorial vision that arguably made the first season so great. By attempting to escape the fate of its uniqueness as prescribed by that of Twin Peaks (and, as argued, Glee), True Detective is merely conforming. In this case, addition equals subtraction.

While some have praised these non-traditional choices, others have approached it with a healthy dose of cynicism. Over at the Guardian, Brian Moylan posited that these collective casting and directorial choices were a version of Hollywood gold-digging: “[W]e have two guys whose careers have stalled and are hoping to get a boost by doing some prestige television. It reeks a little bit of desperation on everyone’s part… What we got was bound to disappoint.”

This sentiment, the idea of being bound to disappoint, makes one wonder if an avoidance of the Glee Effect would result in the same outcome: damned for being formulaic or damned for embracing change. It’s telling that True Detective borrowed its limited run format from Ryan Murphy’s own American Horror Story, a show that used a seasonal endgame to dig itself out of the narrative holes Murphy dug for his characters. The shows can reboot, but will they learn the lessons from sins of seasons past?

It would be a pointless exercise in absolutes to say that True Detective’s foray into stunt casting in multiples (or in the case of Kitsch, rumored stunt-casting) and loading up on accoladed directors is a harbinger of its doom. But the Glee Effect is a cautionary tale to keep in mind: All in all, remember the basics.

Photo via F-Stormer-3000/DeviantArt