As I settle in with my wife and dogs and blankets and a hot toddy on a cold January night to screen the series premiere of HBO’s superbly marketed True Detective, the question cannot fail to occur to me: exactly how many more elegantly creepy, slow-burning, premium cable murder mysteries am I going to watch? Sometimes it feels as there is no other form of entertainment.
The formula of somber palette plus grisly, calm-shattering crime is hardly new: the 1985 BBC drama Edge of Darkness, a paranoid nuclear-political thriller starring the late Bob Peck, whom most would recognize as the game warden Muldoon in Jurassic Park, is a prime early example. David Lynch’s Twin Peaks remains the strangest, wittiest incarnation. And today we have popular, Netflix-ready titles like the Red Riding trilogy, Top of the Lake, and The Fall to choose from. (If the series takes place in an Anglophone country with an even starker, grayer landscape than can be found between American shores, so much the better).
All these narratives ask us to make one inflexible and rather bourgeois assumption: that the unraveling of the initial thorny plot can only be set in motion by a dogged, intelligent outsider, whose investigation will inevitably expose a wider scourge of corruption and moral indifference directly tied to the provincial landscape. The metropolitan detective will find that their most appalling views about human nature are not nearly cynical enough to equal the circumstances, not when they’re paddling upstream into what’s clearly Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In the age of globalization, the exurbs shall have to stand in for the jungle.
Do we take solace in the idea of this city-born, colonialist hero venturing into the backwoods to correct whatever primitive form of justice they adhere to in that half-modernized region? And could it be that we enjoy the glacial, withholding pace and humorless atmosphere of these shows much the same way we claim to appreciate #Longreads and other appropriately “serious” diversions? It’s striking how even Hannibal and Sherlock, two crime dramas given to knowing winks and delicious dramatic ironies, strive to burn at the coldest possible temperature, lest they begin to resemble the guilty pleasures those personalities once were.
But the murder mystery, as we know, has always been lurid pulp entertainment, from the titillating Gothic masterpieces of the Age of Enlightenment to Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, the 1929 noir novel that most clearly anticipates the one-detective-against-a-whole-town model that has come to dominate television lately. Hammett’s Continental Op is no one sexy—a nameless, unpleasant, ugly private eye—and he plays all his enemies against one another with dazzling finesse, always five steps ahead of the reader. Red Harvest, like all the finest works in its genre, is a page-turner; the speed at which one devours it is a major source of fun. The same can be true of a more psychologically intricate plot: the spidery romans durs of French writers like Georges Simenon and Pascal Garnier, not to mention Crime and Punishment, keep us in a morbid suspense despite their foregone conclusions.
The dreary cop series have cultivated that same addicting quality, the need to know what happens next, to binge-watch, to push forward “one more episode,” but mainly through the force of absence and sorrow. Eastbound & Down packs an entire season of entertainment into thirty minutes, but The Killing takes a season to go anywhere. While a single page of Dostoevsky can fractally inform you what the rest of the book is about, a single wordless scene in a drifting, hour-long episode of forensic bafflement and administrative logjams can be a confounding puzzle to the keenest viewer. When we cut away from such an encounter, we’re apt to ask ourselves, possibly in a slight panic, what we were meant to glean from what we have just seen. Raymond Chandler couldn’t necessarily keep the threads of his mysteries straight, but at least they were always taut.
This neurosis, taken alongside our tendency to identify with the educated and complex protagonist willing to challenge rustic or suburban savagery, and our constant touting of “nuanced” characters and “realistic” detail, amounts to a fairly damning conclusion: we love these gloomy shows in part because TV has replaced film as high art, so who’d be caught watching the lowbrow stuff anymore? We watch to atone for our poor attention spans, and for those many years we spent guffawing at caricaturist sitcoms. We watch because this stuff openly telegraphs—in its colors, its dialogue, its scope and serenity and cinematography—that it is important. And so, most of all, we watch because we’re afraid of looking stupid.
Just remember, if the mood becomes too bleak: there are always cartoons on another channel.