Among the myriad complaints about the second season ofHBO’s “True Detective,” perhaps the most common — and surely the most vehemently expressed on social media — was that the plot was impossible to follow. Considering the genre, this objection seems a little beside the point: What passes for plot in a Southern California noir like “True Detective” is really just an atmosphere — something smoglike, miasmal, to wrap characters in (as anyone who’s ever tried to disentangle a Raymond Chandler mystery knows).
What’s fascinating about the anger in viewers’ responses is that “True Detective” has everything TV audiences used to want in their televisual entertainment: big stars, some action and a mystery. That formula worked fine in the show’s first season, and, of course, it’s still popular on network series like “Elementary,” in which we see characters we like doing things we want to see them do — like solving murders.
But as technology evolves, the concept of plot in television series has been evolving, too, and there have been growing pains. In this era, when the audience (particularly the younger audience) watches TV in many different ways — weekly, time-shifted or binged, and on a variety of platforms — viewers’ expectations have changed, and the medium has done all it can trying to keep up.
Just a few decades ago, viewers used to settle in front of their sets once a week for a pleasant hour with, say, James Garner — not much caring about whatever little crime Jim Rockford, Mr. Garner’s character, was leisurely investigating. For most of TV’s history, the appeal of a series was largely determined by the personalities of the actors. But now the glamorous sight of Colin Farrell and Rachel McAdams in a series like “True Detective” isn’t nearly enough.
In May, the critic Matt Zoller Seitz mused in Vulture about the plot-heaviness of 21st-century TV, explaining the phenomenon in part as “a reaction to increased viewer sophistication — and impatience.” He wrote: “TV writers live in constant low-level fear of being outguessed by fans, with reason. In the age of recaps and Facebook instant reactions and live-tweeting, everyone is a student of storytelling. They know the tropes and tricks because they’re a constant, often humorous topic of online chatter.”
And, as Mr. Seitz points out, the experience of watching becomes a kind of guessing game: “It’s no longer about what happens, or how, or why, but when. You predict what’s coming and at which moment, you discover whether you called it right or wrong, and you go online to crow or eat crow.”
Ever since “Twin Peaks” incorporated soap-opera elements into prime-time mystery drama 25 years ago, viewers have played that game to some extent, but it is no longer the relaxing activity it once was. The byzantine plots of shows like “True Detective,” “Humans,” “Mr. Robot” and “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” make the experience of following a narrative a test of sorts, and when viewers feel as if they’re failing — as they clearly did during Season 2 of “True Detective” — they get frustrated and, inevitably, angry.
But is this any way to watch TV? There’s more to drama than plot, after all, and while it’s nice to see television writers and directors trying to tell complex, ambitious stories in their once-humble medium, a certain level of narrative fatigue may be setting in, especially now that “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men” and “Justified” have ended their long, satisfying runs.
Series with several-season story arcs can’t be as plot-dependent as a show like “True Detective,” each season of which is essentially a self-contained eight-episode mini-series.
If the plot of a long-running series is a mystery, there’s a limit on how many episodes viewers can enjoy before solving the case, as “Twin Peaks” discovered to its sorrow. After a while, viewers get impatient and need closure. The American version of “The Killing” frustrated viewers a few seasons ago by seemingly solving the show’s season-long mystery and then, perversely, undoing it and spending another season solving the murder all over again. (The author Dashiell Hammett did something similar in his novel “The Dain Curse,” but it’s not recommended for artists less deft in the genre.)
When Netflix, in 2013, decided to dump the entire first season of its original series “House of Cards” onto its streaming site at once, it offered a clever way around the discontents of long-form TV narrative. The series could have plenty of plot, because the audience was able to watch one episode immediately after another, without an intervening week in which to forget all the pesky details. And the story could be constructed with the beginning, middle and end of a traditional novel, rather than with the short-story techniques of old-fashioned episodic television — or the one-thing-after-another desperation of a series that’s determined to keep running, by any means necessary.
Binge-watchable series like “House of Cards,” “Bloodline” and “Daredevil” allow for dense plotting but discourage the tiresome guessing-game aspect of weekly TV viewing: The answers are there from the start, so nobody gets a gold star for calling them right.
In the semi-old days, viewers could achieve this effect only by skipping an entire season of, say, “Friday Night Lights,” waiting for the DVD box set, and then devouring the whole thing in one giant, Texas-size smorgasbord of viewing. That’s harder to do now. To avoid spoilers, you’d have to stay off Facebook and Twitter, stop reading all newspapers and websites, and avoid cable news shows. (Unless, of course, you don’t really care about the plot.)
It’s worth noting that not all TV programs benefit from being binge-watched. Comedies, for example, remain stubbornly episodic. Though Netflix released all 13 episodes of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” at once, there was no compelling reason to watch it all at once. One or two at a time seems about the optimum dosage.
And there are weekly cable shows that fans might wish had been released Netflix-style. Both seasons of Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful,” for example, are eminently bingeable — and it’s possible that if that last season of “True Detective” had been released in one big chunk of corrupt complication, it might have gone down a little more easily with the audience.
Maybe the bingeable series will become television’s preferred mode of storytelling, and maybe it will simply get stranger and stranger until it goes away: The sheer berserkness of “Sense8,” the Wachowski siblings’ globe-trotting Netflix soap opera, suggests that a certain fin de siècle decadence may already be setting in.
Whatever is going to happen with TV storytelling, it’s probably going to be hard to follow. All we can do — as usual — is keep guessing.