What is it about murder mystery shows that fascinates us as an audience? Is it the reminder of our own mortality? The look into humanity’s dark nature? Is it the self-affirming knowledge that something bad has happened to someone else?
Murder mysteries and police procedurals have experienced a dedicated fan base over the decades. Shows like Murder She Wrote, Twin Peaks and CSI have had a massive effect on popular culture.
Ever since Edgar Allan Poe wrote “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841, the story structures developed in detective fiction have been adapted and appropriated and have spawned dozens of other genres, from police procedurals and crime fiction, to political thrillers and spy fiction.
Serialized detective stories, where the same detective investigates a different crime every issue, have adapted well to the episodic format of weekly television. It has also been drawn out into season long, or series long investigations.
Considering the extent that murder mysteries have permeated nearly every genre of television, it’s safe to say that everything has been done before. If you watch a couple seasons of CSI, Bones, Castle, The Mentalist, Psych and The Glades (now cancelled), you’ll see the same tired twists and tropes played out again and again, with shows borrowing from each other and trying to reimagine and refresh murder mystery cliches. The trick is rearranging the same old pieces in a way that conceals the true identity of the perpetrator long enough to keep the audience invested. And viewers keep coming back. The original CSI has had 13 seasons and two spin-offs and still brings in 10 million viewers on average every week — even though that’s down from 30 million viewers during the first few seasons.
No matter how frequently the same scenarios and twists are played out on the screen, viewers like myself keep coming back for more.
I can’t get enough of them, whether it’s the primetime shows like Castle and Bones or the serial shows like AMC’s The Killing and the new show from HBO, True Detective.
Whether it was a serial killer copying the murder mystery books of one of the characters, or a disappearing ice bullet, I’ve sat through episode after episode, season after season of copied and rehashed ideas. I’ll probably continue to do so but the repetition is getting irritating.
Which brings us to HBO’s True Detective. The praise showered on the show after only three episodes has been staggering.
The show follows Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as Det. Rustin Cohle and Det. Martin Hart, while they are being interviewed about a murder investigation from 17 years ago in Louisiana.
The show will run for eight episodes and subsequent seasons will have new stories and new casts in an anthology setup similar to FX’s American Horror Story.
The story about the murder investigation of a young girl isn’t shown to the audience directly as is done in most other shows. Instead, everything is revealed based on what the two detectives say in their interviews. This immediately establishes them as unreliable narrators. There hasn’t been much overlap yet or opportunity to demonstrate two different interpretations of events but it is early in the show and the two detectives seem to be delivering their practiced story. But what it does do is suggest that one of them is involved in the murder, or that we are supposed to think so.
It is an interesting structure for slowly exposing the mystery, one that caught me off guard, much the same way that the first season of Damages did, as it revealed the different clues and connections through flash forwards at the beginning and end of each episode.
However, the mystery itself isn’t nearly as interesting and neither are the characters.
Any great mystery reveals more about the detective pursuing the case than about the people involved. True Detective spends a large amount of time examining the personal lives of the two detectives. The two modern day detectives interviewing Det. Cohle and Det. Hart have been steering the conversation in that direction, which adds further to the sense that you can’t trust their story, but both detectives are both typical of the genre.
The murder mystery and police procedural genres are littered with eccentric characters and Cohle and Hart are no exception. There have been too many hardboiled detectives with broken relationships and with psychological scars — take AMC’s The Killing, NBC’s Hannibal or Fox’s The Following. Cohle’s synesthesia (tasting colours and seeing smells) is relatively minor in comparison to other psychological problems cropping up in murder mystery television.
In all fairness, none of this may be true since we don’t know how much the detectives are lying about their personal lives and the murder investigation. If they are lying, then does that mean one of the detectives committed the murder? Most mysteries have a wide selection of suspects. True Detective seems to only have three. If we’re only half way through the season and the main question is which of them did it, the next four weeks will feel like a waste of time as the show draws the answer out as long as it can.
Sean Sullivan watches more TV than is good for him. To prove his time was well wasted, he writes a column looking at television and movies.