Never has California seemed as gloomy as it does in the premiere of True Detective’s second season. It would be hard to choose the episode’s darkest moment—was it the near-suicidal nighttime motorcycle ride? The sad blowjob? The brutal beating of a man in front of his son, by a cop whose own child may be the result of an unsolved rape? So far, at least three of the show’s main characters are so dour, drunk, and all-around dyspeptic, they make the denizens of film noir look positively chipper by comparison.
And yet, such moodiness is far from an anomaly. Consider how many other current acclaimed shows cultivate a similarly somber mood. From the bro-style bloviating (or, broviating) of True Detective’s first season, to the ominous proclaiming that punctuates the general whoring and slaying of Game of Thrones, to the unceasing climatological and psychological punishments meted out to the cast of The Killing, it seems as though some of the most celebrated recent examples of serial drama have elected self-seriousness as their default tone. Especially paradigmatic of this drift toward the ponderous is The Walking Dead, whose third season includes episodes entitled “Made to Suffer,” “The Suicide King,” and “This Sorrowful Life”—titles that could just as easily characterize the despondent state of affairs on any number of shows viewers and critics alike have been singling out for praise. Game of Thrones, for instance, killed off one of its most jovial characters, Robert Baratheon, in the seventh episode, and with him, seemingly any hope of ensuring the series’s main players—in the words of the murdered king—“don’t look so fucking grim all the time.” It’s as if these programs, intent on proving their “quality,” fall into the trap of protesting too much.