“True Detective” and the recollection of past events

“True Detective” is a divisive show. Many fans, and The Atlantic, hail it as the best show on television. Other equally high-brow detractors suggest it is simply not very good.

One underappreciated problem with the show is the simplicity of the flashbacks that make up the majority of the first six episodes. Yes, everyone has noted that the flashbacks are the true record of events, and that the testimony given in the later interrogations often diverges from what we are shown of the true record.

The problem is – what the hell is a true record of events? True Detective emphasizes that its characters have different views of the world, different emotional states, and different egos to protect. But the show also suggests that everyone remembers what happened in exactly the same way. No meaningful (or even frivolous) differences in recollection of events is portrayed.

Which is, you know, preposterous.

Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit makes an obvious point about objective records of events – they don’t determine how people describe what happened. As background, Frankfurt bemoans that truth and lying are actually quite uncommon. We may believe that something is true, and choose to tell the truth. We may believe that something is true, and then choose to tell a lie. But most of the time, people just bullshit – they talk about themselves and the world around them in a way that is artificial and motivated by a desire to create a particular image or effect.

Bullshit is characterized by an indifference to how things really are (or were). As it relates to True Detective, Frankfurt’s view suggests that while there may be such a thing as a true record of events, we shouldn’t expect that the characters would be particularly aware of it. How closely do you pay attention to things that you just don’t care about? How other people see us, how we see ourselves, and the stories we tell to support those views are the primary concerns, and we are mostly indifferent most of the time to things like true records of events.

Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris shares a similar view, with one important difference. Morris concurs that people spend little time either telling the truth or lying, but Morris didn’t think indifference is the problem. He believes people care too much, so we engage in self-deception. We care so much about how our true past behavior impacts our current self-image (and the way others would see us) that we delude ourselves using a series of biases – biases that justify our behavior and deny or obscure facts that contradict our preferred version of events. Again there may be an objective record of events, but our egos don’t allow us simple access to it.

Stories that acknowledge such human limitations in recalling events are not uncommon (Rashomon, Stories We Tell), and Frankfurt and Morris present just two speculations on how human recollection is problematic in real life. But such complexities are not the normal mode for conventional television police procedurals. So maybe, with True Detective, we shouldn’t have expected better.

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