The hidden TV lesson from True Detective

I watched True Detective Season 1. 

Rarely do acting, writing and production values come together in such a package. It was gripping. Two detectives, played by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, hunt down a serial killer in rural Louisiana, while the scenery drips with evil portent and minor characters utter veiled references to the Robert W. Chambers story the King In Yellow.

When Woody and Matt encounter the bad guy in episode eight, the big revelation was not the identity of the creep in his catacomb. It was that this great run of TV was now done for good.

Harrelson and McConaughey agreed to something odd – a one season run. There will be a second season of True Detective, but characters, locations, etc will all be different.

The absence of more makes what we got so special.

Economics has an explanation for this. Scarcity drives value.

That’s why caviar costs $4000 a kilo even though it is not that nice to eat, but bread costs as little as $1 a loaf even though it is amazing.

TV has for 50 years ignored this fact.

TV networks have tried to wring every last drop out of anything good. There are many examples; 41 years of the Young and the Restless,  30 years of Neighbours, 17 years of South Park.

That has been the measure of success in TV. Being renewed.

To me, The Simpsons is the epitome of the idea. It’s a widely respected show. For 25 years, the family from Springfield have skateboarded, sucked, saxophoned, slacked and supported through an episode a week. The Simpsons has at times been a brilliant show. But once it turns into a permanent fixture, it becomes about as compelling as the wallpaper.

Ubiquity diminishes anything.

Films have been the pre-eminent form of cultural expression in the west for almost a century. The reason? The release of a film is an event that happens only once. (Except for those movies that spawn sequel after sequel until it is time for prequels. George Lucas, I am looking at you.)

The scarcity of film and audience’s awareness of its finite nature is no doubt part of what has given it cachet, driven the best actors into its arms, and allowed payouts that peak at almost $100 million per film.

Despite the cachet of film, it is not without problems. Film is limited to three hours at most. That’s not enough to tell the kind of epic story humans love. TV can be the better medium and recent shows have proven that, with an arc of quality stretching from the Sopranos to House of Cards.

Now actors that graced the silver screen are appearing on the small screen. From Rob Lowe and Martin Sheen in The West Wing, to Harrelson and McConaughey in True Detective.

True Detective got those actors by promising a short run, but attracting top talent is not the only practical reason for a nice short run.

When a network makes the decision to commission a second season, the writers must immediately start hoarding ideas, making the characters do new things, lifting the role of minor characters or introducing long-lost children/siblings/partners.They also write the second season with an eye to the third season. By then viewers are often attached enough to the characters to put up with it all, but it dilutes the quality of the show.

Short runs permit writers to do story arcs that hit satisfying conclusions rather than just situational drama or comedy, or story arcs that linger on ridiculously.

The success of season 1 of True Detective could go two ways.

It could mean lots of shows opt for short sharp seasons, or it could mean HBO commissions 22-episodes for season two, with an option to renew. It should be no surprise by now that I would rather the former.

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

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