Speaking as a screenwriter – and one who finds himself increasingly working in long-form television – I have watched the landscape of TV drama change over the past decade with mounting pleasure. In shows from The Shield to Mad Men, I have seen all the old formulae and tired templates broken down and discarded. Most gratifyingly, the routine studio executive’s plaint “Who are we rooting for?” has never seemed so feeble. How the idea that there must be likeable characters to empathise with in serious TV drama took such a tenacious hold on executives’ thinking – in the United States and here – is something of a mystery. Who are you “rooting” for in Macbeth or A Streetcar Named Desire, for example? Or Lolita, or Chinatown? The Shield was almost Jacobean in its refusal to make its lead characters “nice”, and Mad Men followed its lead.
The idea that each hour or episode had to have its cliffhanger or narrative catharsis has also gone the way of empathy. It’s there to be used, or not, as the writer decides.
All of these innovations and more came together to mesmerising effect in the first series of True Detective (sadly not quite repeated in series two). The first season also broke the mould by having one director (Cary Joji Fukunaga) helm all eight hours – a massive undertaking in terms of stamina alone, but one that produced cinematic dividends and is now increasingly becoming the norm. The series’ rejection of accelerated narrative pace and routine plot hooks also allowed the central performances room to move. Matthew McConaughey as the tormented detective Rust Cohle delivered up a lesson in acting that outshone his Oscar-winning performance in The Dallas Buyers Club. And the ostensible good cop, Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson), was allowed all the troubled complexities of a real human being. The show’s writer and creator, Nic Pizzolatto, played with chronology with tremendous assurance, effortlessly flashing back and forward in a way that you would be hard-pressed to match in a movie.
Those eight hours gave everyone the luxurious elbow room they needed: True Detective was the equivalent of four movies bolted together and it held the viewer inexorably. A-list actors, multimillion-dollar production values and cinematic composition made this TV drama better than any movie released in 2014. Perhaps the denouement was a little disappointing after all that excellence but in True Detective long-form television strutted its stuff and fully came of age.
A Hollywood studio executive recently complained to me that he was finding it hard to hire the best writers because they all wanted to work in television. It’s not difficult to see why. Long-form TV is the screenwriter’s mother lode.