'True Detective' Can Only Be Judged in the Way It's Presented

HBO implores critics to reserve judgment till the end of the season, but that's no good for either side.
Courtesy of HBO

Nobody expected the head of programming at HBO to badmouth season two of True Detective to a roomful of reporters. Of course Michael Lombardo was going to defend the series to skeptical critics during HBO's time at the Television Critics Association summer press tour.

And so he did, calling creator Nic Pizzolatto "one of the best writers working in television and motion pictures today" and the ending of the season "as satisfying as any show I've seen." If Pizzolatto wants to do another season, Lombardo said, "our door is open."

Nothing out of the ordinary there. Lombardo also issued a rejoinder to reviewers who have been comparatively down on the show compared to the more positively received firs season: "First of all, I think you need to watch the entirety of it. I don’t know if you have. I don’t think anybody in this room has seen [it]. I have, and I think it’s enormously satisfying."

It's a now-familiar refrain among the people who make and air serialized shows that aren't on all-at-once streaming services: You wouldn't review a novel chapter by chapter, the oft-made comparison goes, so why would you judge a TV series that's telling a single story?

Here's why: For True Detective or any show that isn't released in its entirety, there is no other way to review it.

HBO's business is to release episodes of its series week by week. The business of TV criticism in the Internet age has evolved to respond to and critique shows episode by episode, in addition to more traditional pre-air reviews — which typically are only based on an episode or two — and season-end wrapups.

And you know what? It works for both sides. Lombardo said at TCA that True Detective is drawing 12 million weekly viewers across all of HBO's platforms. A not-small portion of those viewers probably want to read and talk about the episodes online after seeing them, thereby driving eyeballs to the sites where they're reviewed.

Theoretically, every critic and online reviewer could band together and agree not to issue any judgment on True Detective until after the finale airs. But does HBO really want two months of critical silence on one of its shows? Not bloody likely. Yes, people would still talk about the show on social media, but a bunch of "This is better than season one IMO"/"No it's not" tweets from viewers is not necessarily a recipe for keeping your show in the zeitgeist throughout its run.

HBO isn't going to change its very profitable business model just for some (presumably) more favorable reviews. Nor should it — there is a lot of upside to the all-at-once streaming model for viewers, but lasting conversations about a show is not one of them. As good as season three of Orange Is the New Black is, how many people are actively discussing it now?

Further, it's not as if reviewers won't watch to the end and offer their thoughts on the season as a whole. Lombardo could be right, and the final two episodes will blow everyone away and cause reviewers who have panned this season to change their minds. That would be fantastic, in fact — if there's one thing that critics of all stripes agree on, it's that they want the shows they watch and write about to be good.

And if that happens, it will be covered in great detail and by a huge swath of publications. The "wait till the end" line of thinking doesn't seem to allow that people can review a show week by week and take a step back after the finale airs to assess the season as a whole. Don't doubt for a second that reviewers will do just that. 

True Detective airs Sundays on HBO. Are you still watching? Sound off in the comments section, below.

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