HBO failed Night Country by making it a True Detective season
Issa López's story is being deprived of the opportunity to be assessed on its own merits.
I didn't see this coming – and that's on me because, in hindsight, it was fairly predictable.
In January, I received all six episodes of True Detective: Night Country and became confident it would be the first runaway hit of the year. And to be fair, my instinct wasn't completely off the mark.
People are watching the show, with live US viewership actually growing week to week across the first three episodes (ratings for the fourth are yet to be announced).
Plus, a quick skim of the True Detective hashtag on X – not a platform renowned for its positivity – shows plenty of viewers enjoying Night Country's chilling investigation (pun intended).
And yet, the media's coverage does not reflect this reality. Every Monday morning, my start-of-the-week blues are exacerbated by the negative headlines that have been published about the previous night's episode.
More like this
It's particularly frustrating that most of the critiques levelled at Night Country are delivered in reference to previous seasons of True Detective: 'It's way more supernatural than before'; 'The narrative structure is completely different'; 'The other theme songs are much cooler'; 'These detectives aren't as good at their jobs' – and so on and so forth, ad nauseam.
Night Country is being deprived the opportunity to be assessed on its own merits, all because of the brand name haphazardly tacked onto its title. You can't help but wonder what could have happened if HBO had let the project stand on its own two feet.
Showrunner Issa López has openly admitted that the initial idea for her story came before she was approached about True Detective, but comprised many of the same elements.
She imagined a murder mystery involving typically unseen communities, set against the backdrop of an Arctic location where the mundane takes on an "uncanny" quality.
True Detective became the vessel in which this pre-existing idea was shepherded to the screen, complete with a few fleeting nods to season 1 characters and entities probably intended to be crowd-pleasing fan service. Alas, the crowd is not amused.
Instead, these references seem only to inflame irritation around the show's aforementioned differences to previous seasons, with some commentators wilfully ignoring or downplaying its unique assets out of little more than brand loyalty.
The atmospheric use of Night Country's extreme setting; the brilliant lead performances from Jodie Foster and Kali Reis; the heart-wrenching family drama elements; the eerie horror-infused sequences assembled by writer-director López; the powerful attention raised for the real-world issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Well, you can chuck all those precious offerings out with the bathwater, because there might have been a ghost or something in one scene, maybe. Or whatever.
I joke, but that is the calibre of the commentary we're seeing in some circles, lending credence to López's own theory that the show has been the target of "review-bombing" from trolls made furious by the mere presence of its central characters, groups and themes.
Certainly, shadowy corners of the internet have not responded well to women taking over male-fronted franchises in the past, so it's hardly out of the question that some of this toxic discourse would spill over and corrode Night Country.
Of course, disliking the show is not, in itself, a sexist gesture. Some of its detractors will be honest fans of the original three seasons, who are protective over its tone and the established rules of its continuity.
I would implore them, in the first instance, to open their minds to the new ideas that López has brought to the show as there is so much to enjoy from season 4.
Failing that, they could at least direct their frustration to the right place: HBO (and the broader TV establishment).
The reason why Night Country is an instalment of True Detective isn't because López was eager to soil everything fans held dear about the franchise or any other kind of sinister plot by the non-existent 'woke mob'.
It's because, in a television landscape obsessed with intellectual property (or 'IP'), this story simply wouldn't have been told otherwise.
The outcome of this risk-averse reality leaves everyone worse off. True Detective fans are upset to have a season they don't recognise as legitimate.
López and Reis are among the show's team having to play defence against trolls. And people like me, who actually prefer Night Country to seasons 1-3, are distressed to see the show unjustly dragged through the mud.
And there was such a simple solution, right in front of everyone's faces: If the show had been titled 'Night Country' – and scrapped all connections to any other HBO projects – most of the criticism being obsessively fired at it would simply evaporate.
The 'True Detective' brand was obviously slapped on the front of Night Country to help bring attention to the show. Sadly, and somewhat naively, no one anticipated that it would be negative attention, which begs the biggest question: have the producers been online at any point in the past decade?
True Detective: Night Country premiered on Sky Atlantic and NOW on Monday 15th January 2024. New episodes weekly. Find Sky deals here.