Stories: Complex vs Convuluted

A few weeks ago, I finished watching the second season of True Detective. I then immediately re-watched the first season of The Sopranos, but more importantly, I then watched, for the first time, the final season of The Wire. And it got me thinking about the difference between the stories told in season 2 of True Detective, and in The Wire, both in its final season and in general. How they were both loosely in the ‘cop show’ genre, both aimed to use the medium of television and the freedom of HBO to do far more with that genre…but where one failed, the other greatly succeeded.

Honestly, I don’t think season 2 of True Detective was quite the train crash that everyone had claimed it to be. In some ways, it started out promising, with the narrative focusing on three separate cops and their cases slowly converging at the end of episode one. Some of the acting wasn’t as strong as in season 1 (particularly Colin Farrell, who kept reminding me of Judge Dredd with his voice, I just couldn’t take it seriously), but I was happy to take it as decent noir in its own right.

What really let it down for me, though? The plot. At first, it seemed to build ok, but somehow, through a ton of different characters, twists, turns and red herrings, it became incomprehensible. And I’m a fan of time travel fiction, particularly causal loops. I’m usually good with plots. But True Detective felt like it tried too hard. It came at the expense of the very focused character drama and atmosphere that season 1 had in spades. 2 had some character drama, don’t get me wrong. But none of it was as interesting to me. There was never a moment when they clashed, which drama at its best usually is. If the writers had focused more on telling something simpler, at least in terms of its plot, this would have been a different story, in more ways than one.

Now, compare the final season of The Wire. There are many, many different plot developments and angles that run concurrently in the series. This includes plot lines that focus on the cops, to the criminals, to the journalists, to even the children just trying to survive.

But all of these threads are always easy to follow. You know who’s who, what they’ve done, what they’re currently doing, and usually why they’re doing it. You can even get the sense of the general thread – that a cop is desperately trying to bring down a drug lord, by any means necessary, no matter how extreme – but it really is about so much more than that. Everything connects, and through it, we get a great portrait of not just life for the cops, but life for an entire city.

Sometimes, I look at TV writing, and I think that sometimes, writers forget what “complex” means. Sometimes, I tend to think this with Steven Moffat’s writing in Doctor Who. Oh, don’t get me wrong, when he does really complicated time travel, and does it right, I’m not gonna lie, as a time travel fan, I love it. But there have been times when I wonder if he’s cramming in more into an episode than he needs to. One fault I had with his series 9 finale was that he tried to cram in as much as he could, when he just needed to focus on one crucial story point. By contrast, the previous episode had been so brilliant because it had been so simple in structure by comparison. As a result, it allowed for truly amazing drama to unfold, and Peter Capaldi giving one of the greatest performances by any actor in the role.

Complex doesn’t mean “story lines that are deliberately hard to follow”. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s when a story has a plot that’s easy for its audience to follow on the surface, but tells it in a way that shows a lot more depth. This could be due to a large cast of characters. It could be due to a number of clear and subtly done allegorical layers. It could even be due to a strong visual element. When all of this is handled right, it means that the audience not only enjoys it upon the first viewing, but is rewarded with something new on multiple viewings, too. This is a big reason why I’m watching the whole of The Sopranos for the third time, already. As a teenager, I loved the stories of crime, gangsters and violence. Now though, I’m seeing a lot more to it than that. Don’t get me wrong, I still love my stories of crime, gangsters and violence, but at times, I’m also marveling at a perfectly placed shot, or hearing a song play and realize how perfect the scene has been crafted for it.

As an aspiring writer, I have been wanting to write a time travel story myself for a long time. I’ve even made a few attempts at it. But I think, as much as I hate to say it, I need to wait on it while focusing on other stories. One is that, as I’ve said before, I take my time travel very, very seriously, and this has been rather difficult to map out. But more importantly, there is a danger of making it convoluted and rather shallow. And that’s not something I want to do. For the moment, I think I need to write a story that’s simple and know how to flesh out my characters better.

If I can eventually hone it down enough that I can genuinely write something with as much depth as some of my favourite writers, whether in literary, TV or even audio sources, that’d be something I’d be incredibly proud to have accomplished. In the meantime, I just hope that more writers in TV learn where True Detective went wrong and try something better when they want to be “ambitious”.