Icy reception: Jodie Foster and Kali Reis brave the cold in ‘True Detective: Night Country’. Image: Flixpix / Alamy

False detective

With shows attacked and defended before they’ve even aired, who knows what’s true any more?
February 20, 2024

A new, fourth season of True Detective—subtitled “Night Country”—is out (in the UK, on Sky Atlantic). I hadn’t watched any of it, or seen so much as a trailer, before coming across heated discussion of the show online.

It began with some review bombing. This sometimes happens when a television show angers a particular kind of fan base, such as when The Last of Us featured a (devastating, beautiful) homosexual love story for a character that hadn’t had one in the videogame it is based on. Homophobic fans of the game flocked to rating sites such as IMDb to intentionally tank the show’s approval scores.

This time, it seems that fans of the original season of True Detective, which starred Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, took to Rotten Tomatoes en masse to leave negative reviews for this new season, which is set in a remote Alaskan winter and features two women in the lead roles for the first time: Jodie Foster and Kali Reis.

It was significant enough that Night Country’s showrunner, the Mexican writer and director Issa López, tweeted about it: “So, if you liked last night’s [episode] of [True Detective: Night Country], and have a Rotten Tomatoes account, maybe head over there and leave an audience review? The bros and hardcore fanboys of [season one] have made it a mission to drag the rating down, and it’s kind of sad, considering all the five star ones.”

Then Nic Pizzolatto, who created True Detective and (for the first time since the series began) is not the showrunner of this season, seemingly weighed in—via deleted Instagram comments—to say that plot connections to the first season of the show are “so stupid” and that he “certainly did not have any input on this story or anything else. Can’t blame me.”

Ugly stuff. So I was eager to watch Night Country to see what the fuss was about, and—because of the above—I went in predisposed to like it. Now I wanted to find it good, to prove misogynist TV bros and ego-tripping male showrunners wrong in some way.

And I did find it good, in parts. Maybe I was always going to like it to a degree. I’ll watch anything that takes place in the polar night, a personal obsession of mine, and if it’s inflected with a little supernatural horror, all the better—The Terror was one of my favourite watches of recent years. Night Country is spooky, the wastes of the Arctic look great as always, and the mystery established at the start, the unexplained deaths of a group of scientists working at a little-understood research station, is compelling. Foster is excellent, but you don’t need me to tell you that. So is her counterpart Reis, a professional boxer whose role in Night Country is only her third ever as an actor. The show loses itself a bit towards its denouement, with a couple of slightly credence-stretching plot points. Still, overall, a decent watch.

But it got me thinking more broadly about how we watch television. So often now, people watch things with their views pre-influenced, positively or negatively, by what other people have been saying about it beforehand. It can be a tricky business, working out what you yourself like, and on what basis. Did it matter, materially, that I started watching in the mood to find pleasure in the show instead of fault? It did to me. I felt a little less in control of my own critical faculties.

The review-bombing and the (un)professional sniping from Pizzolatto are not the only ways in which outside forces have influenced the way people engage with Night Country, though. It’s tough trying to follow an all-time great act. The first season of True Detective—with its sense of a deep evil lurking in the swamps and career-best performances from Harrelson and McConaughey—is pure magic television. The next two series are generally agreed to be a let-down: bloated, self-indulgent attempts to recapture that magic. So any fourth series was in a tough spot to begin with.

In fact, Night Country wasn’t initially intended to be a new series of True Detective. Lopez pitched the show to HBO as a standalone series, and it was their idea to retro-fit it as a continuation of True Detective. In some ways, that makes sense. It’s a gritty cop two-hander and toys with supernatural elements in the way that the original season did. Sticking the True Detective label on it also guarantees a much bigger viewership than a brand new, untested series with no name recognition would have.

But, in other ways, I think that decision has done Night Country a disservice. Making it True Detective coloured viewers’ perceptions of it before they had seen a single episode. Implicitly inviting comparisons with one of the greatest seasons of television ever produced seems like an unwise, perhaps even an unfair, thing for HBO to have done.