Best TV of 2014: Alternatives to True Detective

Let me begin by saying that I didn’t start out disliking True Detective. For the first couple episodes I found it mysterious and compelling, and obviously I was curious enough about the outcome to finish the whole series. But the longer it sat in my memory, the lower it sank, until the least mention of it in conversation would set me off on a rant about its inescapable overratedness.

My complaints with it are not novel but given that it came out on the top of our list this year, I do feel they’re worth revisiting. There are dazzling elements to the show — that oft-lauded long take in Episode Four, the mesmerizing opening credits sequence, the moody dread of bayou Louisiana, the great performances from the glittery movie star leads. It’s prestige pulp, then — but pulp nonetheless, which means there are certain genre elements it incorporates that I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with, particularly in a year with fraught sexual politics in the larger cultural consciousness. Fans of the show may be tired of hearing that it has a woman problem but that doesn’t make it any less true, and though some awards bodies felt Michelle Monaghan’s put-upon wife character was worthy of recognition this year, that just points to how thin the field can be for female roles, even on more diverse television screens. Monaghan certainly does what she can with the role but by its end she’s become a literal pawn the two men move between them. There’s a fine line between male characters misusing female ones and a show doing the same, and True Detective crossed it one too many times for me. The spectacle of the naked and abused female body has been a staple of crime shows for as long as they’ve existed but between the grotesque crimes of the Yellow King and the lurid lingering over Marty’s busty mistresses I couldn’t tell if the show was critiquing this trope or exploiting it.

Many have argued that True Detective is attempting to deconstruct masculinity, which seems like something fans often say about anti-hero shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men, both of which still managed to offer rich female characters with an interior life as a counterpoint to their leads, something True Detective fundamentally fails at. I don’t think gender parity is necessarily a requirement for an enjoyable television show — Silicon Valley was one of my favorite debuts of the year and that skews very heavily male, as Ben pointed out in his write-up on our best-of list. And it’s probably wrong to judge a show based on the most vocal sections of its fan base, which too often champion the egregious behavior of the men while vilifying the women, usually their wives or co-workers, who “stand in their way.” But as a viewer, I still reserve the right to be tired of the trend.

So I’ll end by offering not a corrective but a supplement, of two great dramas that share some surface similarities with True Detective but didn’t make our final list. The Americans on FX is a spy show rather than a mystery but it is similarly interested in how sex and violence thread through and mar partnerships, in this case two married Soviet agents deep undercover in Reagan-era D.C. While both Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys) have to put themselves in compromising positions for their jobs, these scenes are never merely titillating but work as explorations of the show’s central theme: how performance pervades all our relationships, even those with the ones we ostensibly love. Sex is never just sex on this show. And then there’s Hannibal on NBC, a series I admittedly have only caught a few episodes of, but I’m already impressed by both its elegance and strangeness. It’s a show that demonstrates how sometimes working within the confines of network standards can be a boon rather than a deficit. The horror is often all the more disturbing for what it suggests rather than shows. I look forward to discovering more of what it has to offer in 2015.