I increasingly wonder how many talented, creative people have decided to pursue a faux-amateur path to making work, in the sort of fail-safe claim that their project was always meant to be “ironic” or “just a sketch of an idea,” because nowadays showing one’s real ambition—sincere, grand ambition—is a terrifying proposition. It seems—post-Matthew Barney, post-Abramovic, post-Hirst—that so much of our culture, including our art, embraces a not-trying-too-hard-ness, where more and more out there is superficially jankety and is celebrated for that, because it be can safely construed as a just short of completely sincere. It’s low risk. Fantastic ambition—poetic, complicated, profound—is a bit old-fashioned right now, which is a shame.
If you take a couple of old, connected conceits—1) Most people have only one good idea, and 2) Expect the sophomore slump—and then throw in the more recent phenomenon of 3) Everyone’s a critic, then you have a lot of creative people who know that any misstep on a path to experimentation or originality is terribly public and treacherous. These days there seems to be only two gears (poles, really) for creative output to find its appreciative audience, whereas there used to be, I think, a lot more in between. The success poles are either “Hey, that’s cute/cool in an off-the-cuff, organic way,” as you might feel about a popular Vine, a tossed-off Instagram, or a little virally thing produced by an amateur (or someone pretending to be amateurish or off-the-cuff); or, at the other end, “That’s incredibly good, but of course it is; look at who made it,” which is our reaction to the best work made by professionals who have a proven track record.
We’re generally far more forgiving and flexible when it comes to amateurs and newbies, and the glitches and flaws in their output. That’s part of the social contract. (Punch up; not down.) But the professional who puts something out there that falls short of expectation is in for one harrowing walk down the public gauntlet. We expect a lot from our heroes, and generally, we like to see them succeed: “This is a professional driver on a closed course. Do not attempt,” is something we sometimes say when joking around about people who are the best in their field who nail it (or “stick the landing” if we want to mix metaphors): Kara Walker’s Marvelous Sugar Baby; Parker and Stone’s Book of Mormon; John Oliver on sex education.
We also love to watch professionals fail. Of course the more heralded they are, the sweeter the fall. Technically, it’s not as simple as schadenfreude, because the majority of this public spew isn’t coming from these professionals’ peers. What might have once been a professional’s stumble or misstep, perceived only by a specialized audience who understood the nuance of sophomore slumps or noble-yet-failed experiments, is now a folly stripped bare by unwashed masses.
Because I’m a creature of the internet and TV watching, I’ve thought about this quite a bit in the last few weeks in relation to the less-than-perfect second season of True Detective, and the show’s creator, Nic Pizzolatto. Both professional critics and armchair quarterbacks generally disliked the season and tripped over one another writing about all the ways the show and Pizzolatto failed. Some recap critics were more thoughtful in their analysis, but their readerships were relentlessly vicious. And while I’m a (non-commenting) armchair quarterback on recap sites, I had a hard time not thinking, yes, Pizzolatto didn’t deliver the voodoo chemistry of the first season, but then again, you could argue that the first season, which aired in 2014 and ran for eight episodes, was a culmination of Pizzolatto’s best creative thinking up until that moment in his life: Season 1 was his One Big Idea. And it was so good it landed on HBO.
Remember: the first season took most of the world by surprise, because at that point no one knew who Pizzolatto was; no one knew what he and his not-known director Cary Fukunaga were capable of; no one knew (though we may have suspected) that the chemistry between the two leads, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, would supernova. And that the Louisiana swamp would beguile millions of new viewers, and that the nihilistic references buried throughout the season would be so haunting. All that did happen, though, and in the end—though many prestige-TV virgins had some problems with the mundane ending (hey, it happens)—an instant classic was made and Nic Pizzolatto was media gold. I never thought Season 1 was the best television around, not even by HBO standards (I’ve loved at least half a dozen other HBO series far more, starting with Enlightened). But it was really good. Camp and scary and good-looking and sometimes a little profound. It was macho, but that’s fine. It’s pulp. Pizzolatto was clearly proud if his creation and openly, baldly ambitous about it—even arrogant—and while that matched people’s glowing perception of the so-called “genius” behind Season 1, it made him a hapless target for his second season, which was, of course, his sophomore slump.
Season 2, which was turned around within a year, was Pizzolatto’s best creative thinking since… 2014. My understanding is that he wanted more control on and more credit for the series going into it, so he wrote it all himself, quickly, and wasn’t as collaborative in the process of shooting it, either.
Plot-wise, it was a mess. A lot of trivial things got too much airtime; coincidences dropped into the story like dumbbells, hacky clichés around political corruption and sexual exploitation couldn’t hide behind the sluggish pace and mannered dialogue.
Mostly, though, the tone was spectacularly uneven. And that’s a big, big problem for viewers who’ve grown spoiled on the completely authoritative tonal consistency in multi-season series like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad and The Wire and Mad Men. With those shows, you never paused to think: Wait? Who the heck is driving this car? Even when those shows’ creators (David Chase, Vince Gilligan, et. al.) threw in some narrative or stylistic curve balls, viewers felt they were ultimately in good hands.
But with Season 2 of True Detective, there were a handful of moments in every single episode where the unreliable narrator wasn’t anyone in the cast. It was Pizzolatto, and the viewer was unmoored from the action and therefore confused, and therefore: angry. And it was a different kind of negative feeling from, say, the disappointment some people felt when David Simon’s Treme wasn’t as riveting as The Wire. (Yes, I went there.) In that case and time for Simon, back in 2010, plenty of viewers abandoned ship, but without a chip on their shoulder about it. I’m not sure if it’s something about the fundamental machismo of True Detective that attracts a more aggressive viewer, or if the commentariat environment has gotten more toxic in the last few years. I strongly suspect the latter. (David Simon doesn’t think The Wire would survive if made today.) Pizzolatto had, from his own public, absolutely zero permission to fumble. There is little incentive to Fail Big right now.
And I don’t know of any TV show in this new “golden age of television” that’s had to endure as much scrutiny as the second season of True Detective—not even Game of Thrones—and that’s the price of Pizzolatto’s ambition. And that’s instructive, to anyone striving to make something truly public and truly great right now. The season was, yes, clunky and odd, but it will probably be considered better and more interesting in ten years (I think it should be), though that’s anyone’s guess. If Pizzolatto keeps making True Detective or movies or anything else (he is and will), my guess is Season 2 will be, one day, considered middling output from him—sort of his Magical Mystery Tour. And that’s not bad, really. But you would never know it by the last few weeks’ venom toward him. Right now, he’s just a walking cautionary tale.