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  • “Time is a Flat Circle”The Naturalist Visual Aesthetic of Contemporary Television Crime Series
  • Gary Totten (bio)

This article examines the naturalist visual aesthetic of contemporary television crime series, focusing on HBO’s True Detective season one (2014) and also briefly discussing season three (2019), Netflix’s Bloodline (2015–2017), and Ozark (2017–2022). The series’ visual aesthetics and portrayal of time create a markedly naturalistic television subgenre. Klaus H. Schmidt identifies “substantial configurations of neonaturalism in recent U.S. film” and television from 1996 to 2019 (18), and the series discussed here contribute to this resurgence. Indeed, Schmidt, who observes that more work is needed to fully flesh out the parameters of neonaturalism (18)—which is several removes from classic naturalism by way of its antinatalist or postmodern orientation (37, 39)—contends that the first season of True Detective represents the “most extensive use of neonaturalist thinking” among recent works in this vein (36). The contemporary naturalistic aesthetic in these series also coincides with the visual characteristics of the crime subgenres of both Southern noir (True Detective season one and Bloodline) and what recent television critics have termed Ozark noir (True Detective season three and Ozark).1 In order to create suspense, the naturalistic cinematographic style of the series places characters and scenes in prolonged states of instability or peril until climactic moments of despair and collapse. The characters’ insignificance and ongoing misery are also emphasized using camera angles and techniques such as overhead shots and flashbacks. Reflecting the series’ temporal orientation, what the character Rust Cohle in True Detective season one refers to as time’s “flat circle,” the characters’ plights recur or persist with little relief. [End Page 197]

The representation of time is an important element of the naturalist visual aesthetic in these television shows. In addition to the desire in both literary naturalism and film to represent, as Donna Campbell has noted, “social truths” or to take a documentary approach (3), both genres also share a concern about temporality. Katherine Fusco explores the relationship between human and natural time in naturalist fiction and film, arguing that while human or individual time is represented as finite and manageable, natural time is portrayed as an infinite force moving inexorably forward. She demonstrates this through a reading of the cuts, or parallel editing, between scenes of poverty and wealth in Frank Norris’s The Octopus: A Story of California (1901) and D. W. Griffith’s 1909 film adaptation A Corner in Wheat. “The second [wealth] diminishes the impact of the first [poverty],” Fusco writes, “as the narration shifts between scenes and displaces blame from the level of individual to the level of condition. . . . By cutting rapidly back and forth, Norris highlights his own narrative intervention, positioning naturalist narration as a reflection of the temporal progress that encompasses and necessitates the fates of both individuals” (“Taking” 160). Fusco argues that this rapid cutting in Norris reflects his effort to move attention away from individuals and focus on larger historical forces, and she locates a similar impulse in Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat and The Birth of a Nation (1915). She contends that this emphasis on temporality, the relation between cause and effect, and a forward narrative drive contributes to characters’ formation of a coherent self.2

Time is portrayed quite differently in the television series discussed here. Rather than deterministic causality and teleological progression, these series, particularly True Detective, represent time as flattened or prolonged, and characters are caught within repetitions of human misery and degradation. These scenes gesture toward the links that Cathy Caruth has identified between trauma and repetitive form, which inform the use of flashbacks and other representations of time in these series.3 This conception of time also coincides with Jennifer L. Fleissner’s argument that “naturalistic time” for female characters is experienced as “an ongoing, nonlinear, repetitive motion—back and forth, around and around, on and on—that has the distinctive effect of seeming also like a stuckness in place” (9). Contemporary television crime series, visually and through the representation of time as repetitive experience, pose naturalistic questions about existence, natural law, brutishness, and characters’ entrapment by uncontrollable forces, even amid moments of...