“True Detective: Night Country” Is a Mediocre Network Procedural Masquerading As Prestige TV

This review contains mild spoilers for True Detective: Night Country.

The theme song of True Detective: Night Country — the fourth installment in HBO’s once-hit series — is Billie Eilish’s “bury a friend.” Writer/director Issa López uses the song for its lyrical and musical resonance — a resonance already played out by people on TikTok four years ago.

There is more to storytelling than originality. Many genres return to the same well of tropes and conventions remixing them with new settings, new characters, and new forms. To be cliché is not to be bad, but clichés sure can make a bad thing worse. Especially when working within a genre seeped in propaganda, especially when those clichés reinforce the worst narratives in our world.

True Detective: Night Country is a cop show. If you thought a post-June 2020 True Detective would have anything to say about policing, you’ve mistaken the false promises of that summer as genuine. Once again, surface level identity politics won over meaningful structural change. More and more the cops on-screen abusing their power get to be women, queer people, and people of color. This is supposed to be a win.

But this Jodie Foster vehicle is not The Silence of the Lambs. It is not an expertly crafted piece of media soured by its messaging of police propaganda. As a work of art, it’s dull. This is often the case. Jonathan Demme’s 1991 classic is the exception not the rule — most media that traffics in these same narratives finds little purpose other than this perpetuation. There is little in True Detective: Night Country that’s compelling — not the narrative, not the characters, not the form. It looks expensive and has some strong performances, but that is not enough to prop up all the mediocrity.

True Detective: Night Country is about a police chief named Liz Danvers (Foster) who has been transferred to the remote Alaskan town of Ennis. Her hobbies include drinking, empty sex with men (yes, Foster is straight in this), being racist toward Leah, her Indigenous queer step daughter, being racist toward other Indigenous people in the community, and being the sort of Columbo super detective we’ve grown accustomed to on-screen. When a group of scientists at a remote research facility go missing, Danvers is forced to team up with Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis), an Indigenous trooper (and veteran) with whom she has a fraught past.

When we first meet Navarro, she is arresting a guy for domestic violence. He calls her a pig. Later, she’ll tell Danvers that a possibly related case of a missing Indigenous woman went unsolved because of her race. Danvers will dismiss this with an eye roll. When Leah goes to a protest, one of the activists asks if she’s the police chief’s daughter. Leah starts to apologize and the activist assures her “all are welcome.” Danvers and Navarro often enter buildings without a warrant. They beat people up due to their own emotional problems. And then beat up other people to torture information out of them. (It works!) Again and again, the show reinforces the narrative of the damaged edgy cops who don’t play by the rules but get the job done. At one point, Navarro beats up another cop who was abusing his power at a protest. That cop is immediately suspended. You see, women cops are good. Men cops can be bad but they quickly face consequences. So says the world of this show and the media landscape in general.

Again, it’s not just that these narratives are harmful. It’s that they’re boring. Foster and Reis are both excellent, but their emotional struggles and outbursts of violence feel like something out of a cop show parody. Making them women doesn’t make them interesting.

The show is just as cliché in its portrayal of Indigenous people. The case of the missing scientists ends up being tied to the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous women, a topic that many seem to only care about as a storytelling device for their tales of hero cops and as an excuse to show dead Indigenous people on-screen. López has said it was important for this not to be a story of white cops saving the day. But the primary arc of the show is still Danvers learning to mildly care about the Indigenous people in her community — including her own step-daughter. Navarro and her family experience a lot of trauma related to their identity as Indigenous people, but again and again the show prioritizes Navarro’s chosen identity of cop. If her decision to fight back against the one cop abusing his power is meant to show a change, it feels hollow given all that precedes and all that follows.

Ultimately, I would rather a show where Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey swish around being chauvinist cops than one that uses MMIW and Indigenous communities being poisoned by oil companies as a mere backdrop for the same boring cop tropes. There’s nothing progressive about adopting real, urgent issues into the folds of conservative fantasy.

If you want to watch True Detective: Night Country and feel your brain massaged by the simplicity of heroic police brutality and detectives who have to go rogue when they get shut down by the higher ups, be my guest. Everything you watch doesn’t have to be ethical. But don’t slurp up that garbage and then pat yourself on the back because it pays lip service to issues that really matter.

Keep watching your cop shows. You don’t get to feel good about it.


True Detective: Night Country premieres tonight on HBO.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and I Heart Female Directors. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 473 articles for us.

65 Comments

    • There are a lot of different takes you could have on this show:
      —You could be excited to see indigenous world class boxer turned actor Kali Reis holding her own with Jodie Foster (!) It’s exciting to see a novice actor like Reis have that kind of presence even with Foster who meets Reis but doesn’t overshadow her.
      —You could also be excited to be exposed to Mexican filmmaker Issa Lopez who spent her childhood taking road trips to small towns in Mexico and spent a lot of time traveling and researching in Alaska to capture some of the feeling and spirit of that town.
      —It’s also okay to experience curiosity about the people and sights you get to experience about this part of the country few people get to see.
      —You could celebrate Jodie Foster who steps into this role and expresses so much in a glance or the fix of her jaw. So many older female actors bow out as they age but we’re so lucky to see her show her sharp-as-ever skills.

      But you went with: cops shows are dumb and the Billie Elish song is played out.

  1. Thank you for an excellent review, Drew. I don’t leave comments anywhere near as often as I should, but I always enjoy reading your articles; they’re really well-written and they always make me think. Thanks for that.

  2. Yeah… Too bad Foster is implicit in this one. I can totally imagine how they pitched it, but the most progressive cast in the world can’t save a regressive genre.

    (Heck, I feel uneasy liking Zootopia, and that’s even after a friend made a quick but pretty solid analysis of it as a trans allegory… We are allowed a little copaganda, but just as you say: we don’t really get to feel good about it, it’s not a progressive act.)

    • OK I have got to know how Zootopia is a trans allegory if you don’t mind sharing that, because that’s wild.

      On topic: I don’t understand how more of these cop shows aren’t just like, everyday folks who get thrown into solving mysteries? That would be leagues more interesting, imho

      • Very briefly, the PD is womanhood, which Judy wants to transition into despite not being born in that role. Society is critical, bureaucracy puts barriers and delays in her way. Imposter syndrome, not being believed in the role… The “savage nature” speech is something about internalized transphobia, etc… I’m paraphrasing a friend.

        Oh and there’s the fact she was called “Jude the dude” by her parents.

        Also Nick is a “disillusioned detransitioner”.

        Like I said it’s a surprisingly solid analysis 😅

  3. What do you expect from a show called True Detective? Not cop solving murders? Don’t watch any police procedural in the first place if you personally feel so strongly about it. What a bad faith review.

    • I don’t comment much but this review was so frustrating I had to despite not having seen the full series yet but I’m giving my review of this review in good faith.

      Before writing this article, was any research conducted about life in Alaska as it relates to depression (nearly 50% report experiencing it), alcoholism (over 25% of deaths are alcohol related), violence (nearly 60% of women experience DV; nearly 85% of those are native), high rates of missing native women, and rampant racism? Not sure how showing those sides of Alaskan life are tropes, harmful or cliche when they are representative of very large portions of the population.

      Where this review sees the portrayal of shitty policing by female, queer and/or POC as being a detriment, I see it as equal representation. As a black masc lesbian, I’ve received just as bad if not worse treatment from women and black cops (not excusing white cops because they’ve been shit too. I’m just saying). For them to be portrayed any different would be an affront to the very progressive message the review seems to crave simply because it would be pure fallacy and I have a sneaking suspicion that this review would be targeting the show from another angle if they had shown some utopian version of a police force given the state of US policing. Even the review is contradictory in its message in that it castigates the show for being wrapped in a conservative fantasy but simultaneously chastises them for peeling away some of that conservative fantasy by doing a progressive thing when punishing a cop for abusing his power or shining a light on the very real problem that is the disappearances and murders of native women unlike in real life. Make it make sense.

      Also Season 1 which the review states is better was about a bunch of missing and dead white women/children who were violently murdered being investigated by drunken, fornicating deeply flawed white men who felt justified in their violent behavior in search of the truth which is the very definition of a trope and a cliche. If the assessment of that season was placed under the same progressive microscope and was still considered better in terms of how it portrays policing and exploitation, a different kind of progressive could call this review misogynistic and/or racist.

      Lastly, it is disrespectful for this review to flippantly denigrate people who might watch and/or enjoy this show. This is about as bad faith of a review as I’ve seen in a long time and those last few sentences insulting the intelligence and tastes of the audience is just gross.

      • Agreed. I hardly ever comment, but am personally getting tired of the dismissive reviews that I’ve seen regarding this genre. Let’s face it, True Detective is going to get a lot of eyeballs watching it. People will see tropes regarding indigenous peoples wrapped in a police drama that paints the story a lot like Forensic Files or similar true crime shows that perpetuate myth with some truth and do it with gravitas.

        It is true that cops do good things. They sometimes find the bad guy and even sometimes dedicate much needed resources to help the most underserved of our communities. But, we cannot forget or dismiss that there is also truth in the violence, racism, and problems that persist and is portrayed in this particular genre. And yes, we can watch and take the meaningful moments along with the problematic ones and have productive dialogue about it. We should speak on it and try to inform those who may not know about the unique history policing has had on indigenous communities and what’s being left out or, in some cases, what’s being told and why. But, we must speak to it and not dismiss it.

        As a person who lives with having a female family member disappear (Navajo if that matters), and working with the police, I will say that the system is problematic. The cases too soon become cold and then years later mass graves are found in the West Mesa in New Mexico (Google it) and one can only rely on the police and forensics to see what’s next. The media around this, also very problematic, but I want these stories to be examined and told. I want educated eyeballs on the screen who can elevate the truth and understand the myth. And yes, sometimes I wish there was some lone ranger out there who would beat the crap out of someone to get my family answers knowing that that same lone ranger is just as likely to commit violence against me.

  4. I expect that this reviewer would define a term like “ethical” in a way that is as squishy and amorphous as the face of someone who has just had their head beaten in by a cop.

  5. Of all the reasons to not like Night Country, and there are so very many of them, the one you chose was “ACAB and in this show ACA not B”. I’ve been reading the “””top””” “”””””critics'”””””” reviews of this season (sitting higher than season 1 on RT!), and I honestly find myself questioning whether or not I’m in some completely other reality. All I want to know now is how I can get in on that sweeeeeet shill money for hyping up garbage.

  6. “Keep watching your cop shows. You don’t get to feel good about it.”

    But Autostraddle will keep making money off of publishing content about them even through they’ve been asked a number of times to boycott them.

    Maybe this review is AS’s attempt to pat themselves on the back by paying “lip service to issues that really matter.”

    • Replying to myself to say that I am sorry if my previous comment sounds harsh (knee-jerk reaction). Since AS has decided to continue covering cop shows, it just seems hypocritical and disingenuous when they start a piece with ‘obligatory ACAB because we want readers to know we’re cool…’ and then continue the coverage anyway. I’m not wording this well but I hope that makes sense.

  7. Can we please get someone else to review content once in a while? I find it frustrating that Drew centers herself or her canned political stances in every review instead of actually engaging in meaningful criticism. This is a part of a larger pattern of behavior that makes it hard as a reader to get reasonable information from her about queer content.

    I don’t love the glorification of cops in media, but cops are explicitly the centerpiece of this series. Also — yes, Jodie is playing straight. That is a ridiculous thing to object to. She’s also playing a cop! It’s acting! If the basis of your dislike of this show is the premise, then you’re better off now reviewing it or boycotting it altogether.

  8. As a queer mystery author and book reviewer, I recognize clichés in cop shows but I feel good watching them even when they have clichés. As a writer and teacher, that problematic shows are as educational as the successes. The difference is that I’ll give up on a bad series and keep watching a good one (like the Norwegian Varg Veum cop/PI show), but I’ll still have learned something that I can use in a workshop or seminar or for my own fiction.

  9. This was a strange “review”. It’s a show about cops and a supernatural case. Were you shocked that cops are at the center of the storyline? I feel like having a cop hater review this is like having a vegan review a Big Mac. What the hell is the point??

  10. I don’t take issue with cops, male or female, being portrayed as somewhat unethical: anti-heros are interesting. I also don’t take issue with shows focusing on Native Americans with a supernatural focus: Dark Winds and Reservation Dogs are great. But, I think the supernatural element included in this show feels forced and included to give intrigue to a story which, lately, has been done many times already.

  11. I’m not sure that every show needs to be “progressive”. Why can’t it just be two great actresses in their roles. I’m pretty sure every reviewer can’t expect them to be, and if they do, should more than likely either fine-tune their expectations or what they watch. The show runner is already fighting the a moronic bro-crew who are bitching aout casting two women, and now we have the other side of the whiny coin. I can understand not liking a show for valid reasons, but I don’t see any here.

    • Yep, and sometimes trying to be too progressive can hinder story structure. I loved A Murder at the End of the World. And I understood why the show runners didn’t want to do another ‘woman with a badge’ narrative.

      The problem was that sans badge, PI license, or exceptional social skills (which, no shade, the protagonist canonically didn’t have), the other characters had literally no reason to answer her questions. Which cut off a whole investigative branch and hindered the narrative.

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  13. When a show does not align with your political proclivities you obviously can dislike it for that very reason. As a professional review it becomes bias and makes it hard to take serious as it is no longer about the movie, but about you espousing your political views which is a different discussion as a typical reader may be primarily interested in being informed about the movie rather than who you are.
    I could be wrong of course.

  14. These comments are wild. Specifically, it’s wild how people say a) “oh you just hate cops, why are you reviewing this show then” while totally sidestepping the review’s critiques of the cop characters’ specific behavior within the show (like searching without warrants), and b) “cops are like this, it’s just representing reality” while totally sidestepping the fact that so many tv shows about cops are designed for the audience to sympathize with bad cops over anyone else… and that trained sympathy bleeds straight over into how people view (and excuse) real life police brutality.

    I can’t speak for the accuracy of the reviewer’s critiques of this show in particular bc I haven’t had a chance to watch yet. But so many of these comments… totally missing the point imo.

    • What was overlooked in review but what stuck out when I was watching was the supernatural element. Why does every show with indigenous characters have to have supernatural elements throughout? I find that odd. These are just people that don’t possess some magical qualities. Its dehumanizing.
      Take the politics out and at an entertainment level it was a snooze fest. Not smart or well written. Poor sound quality, bad cgi. No chemistry between the leads. Same tired tropes and a tasteless sex scene which was supposed to tell us that one of the leads doesn’t let men push her around. We get it. Boring. Tired. Was looking forward to this show but very disappointed this far. It’s the Thing meets Thirty days of night meets the girl with the dragon tattoo

    • I haven’t watched the show either (I watched half of the first season on an airplane 9 years ago, so that’s my level of investment here), but I do feel like this article is closer to commentary or editorial than review, which is what has people commenting (both for and against)

      Looking at the number of comments here, the article is clearly successful at getting people to click and engage. Personally, I don’t watch much tv, so I read tv articles just to stay up to date when I hear discussions about shows IRL,so this was fine for my purposes.

      But to be fair to the folks complaining, reading this I have no idea if I would actually like or dislike the show if I ever do watch it, which feels like a failure specifically as a review. I know this is showing my age, but that was the thing I liked about Roger Ebert’s reviews back in the day – he could hate a movie but I’d still be able to tell that I’d enjoy it (or he’d love it and I could tell I’d hate it).

      I think the best reviewers should be aiming for that, but I feel like a good chunk of Autostraddle’s “reviews” are really response essays, and aren’t actually intended to be reviews, so it’s not a failure of this article in that context, if that makes sense?

      Plus detective stories in general are a lot of people’s guilty pleasure, so that’s undoubtedly amplifying things.

    • Can you write a review of this show for AS? I’m not being sardonic. Your comment was better expressed and written than Drew’s essay. Here’s the thing, like you I also haven’t seen the show, but more broadly on AS the trend of having Drew haranguing us is boring to read. I know what they are about before I read them. I’m not proud of this, but I have started checking out when I see Drew’s by line. It’s not even about agreeing or disagreeing with Drew, because in this case, I do agree with Drew that this show is not a work of art (although, I wouldn’t know personally and I don’t expect art from HBO/True Detective), that it is a procedural that relies too much on clichés/tropes of the genre (something I don’t mind), and that I shouldn’t feel good about watching cop shows (I don’t, but I still do watch some British ones since they tend to at least have warrants and no guns). I only read this article because I saw it had over 30 comments. Meanwhile, your comment is grounding and doesn’t sound like a robot. It was a breath of fresh air and I hope AS picks you up.

    • I feel like this review skewed far too much into I want to find this problematic because ACAB territory, without actually paying attention to how refreshing and subversive this story and this production team is for the franchise. I really enjoy your writing, Drew, but I think you missed the mark here.

      This season is focusing on native Alaskan stories and issues. It is also showing how shitty and colonial white people (and the US) are that far north. The point of Foster’s character is that she is not a white savior and there is very clear narrative steps to make her as unlikable as possible. Every Alaskan I know is praising the show for getting the shitty Alaska racism and small town bullshit part of the show absolutely correct.

      And then there’s Kali Ries, holding her own opposite an acting juggernaut in Jodie Foster. Your review could have focused on her performance, on how cool it is to see a native woman drive such a popular franchise. But nope it’s Copaganda. Can’t watch it.

      Most Americans don’t know about missing and murdered indigenous women. The folks who will watch this show will come away with a better understanding of these particular issues.

      I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Alaska lately, and a subplot queer native kid? With not accepting parents? In that isolated of a community? That is a revolutionary storyline in and of itself. It is fucking shitty being queer in Alaska – and I can tell you right now that Leah’s story is going to mean so much for so many kids up there.

      I think looking for the good in this season, rather than why it’s problematic, is a better tact.

  15. This show sure has some fans. I haven’t watched it yet, but appreciate the review as my wife and I had it in a queue and now I know that it is different than I had hoped for. Thank you for the clear headed review.

  16. Autostraddle’s writing in recent years have gone downhill. I have been coming here less and less. This reviews read as if it was written by cis guy complaining that the show is too woke. But this complaint is that it wasn’t woke enough. Oh yeah, just like every other crappy review trying to be trying to be neat picky for no reason, let comment how ‘why are they using a Billie English song again?’ While you stand there complaining on your soapbox, I will be hitting the ‘skip intro’ button my remote.

    • Okay, a lot of other commenters are being annoying so I want to clarify what I mean by this a bit more.

      The main issue you have with the show seems to be that the protagonists engage in police brutality that’s portrayed as maybe not great but also genuinely helpful to a really important investigation, in a way that makes doing the police brutality kind of the lesser evil compared to not doing it? And also, because the show is covering a lot of serious politicized social issues while also having this really weakly criticized police brutality, that’s going to be downplaying the police brutality in a way that wouldn’t be as much of a thing on a more apolitical-feeling show. I do understand this.

      But also, like… I feel like this went beyond discussing issues with this piece of media and into insisting that one needs to react to those issues in certain specific ways in order to be a good person. If you already know your own values, and you’re not observing those values changing as you engage with media that isn’t really coming from the same place on those values, what’s the problem? Are there meaningful consequences to this show getting views? If it really does matter whether individual mystery likers watch this particular thing over another, why are you drawing attention to it?

      I also do not like the weird focus on aesthetic disapproval (the song is outdated, the cop tropes are actually boring, etc) when it feels like that’s a way to prop up the moral/political disapproval. I really don’t think that artistically interesting downplayed police brutality would’ve been better-reviewed here, you know?

  17. I generally enjoy Drew’s reviews and larger writing on media. I wish someone else had taken this one, though. I was riveted through the first episode, though it did have some pacing problems. This season’s only getting 6 episodes, not 8, so they had to cram a lot of introductory stuff in the first episode.

    But it would have been fun to have a reviewer who actively enjoys mystery shows, like the reviewer who did Yellowjackets, have a crack at this.

  18. Completely agree that “the damaged edgy cops who don’t play by the rules but get the job done” is very played out and really shitty role-modelling. They did it in Watchmen as well which was disappointing in a series I enjoyed many things about.

    The only recent memory I have of this being subverted in mainstream TV/movies was in The Last Jedi when Poe genuinely fucks up and suffers consequences for going rogue. I think it’s pretty fair to expect a Star Wars attainable level of ethics from this show!

  19. In your review you tell readers about the 1 episode, but you make up the storyline? Did you really watch it? Did we watch the same episode? The main detective doesn’t have sex with random guys?. What people do they beat up?? When was the main detective racist towards her stepdaughter & the trooper? None of this was in the episode. The main detective went back to a crime scene no where does it state anything about a warrant or Warrantless. The trooper is the only one who had sex not the main detective you mixed the two up & what racist thing did the main detective say? Nothing! You need to watch the episode before you right a review and by what you said I seriously doubt you did. & What you’re missing is in native cultures they believe in speaking to spirits. This might be paranormal to you, but it’s true. & Indigenous women go missing at alarming rate,& most cases go unsolved!

  20. I’m a lesbian, mixed white and Native, and live in rural Alaska. If there is one thing I’ve picked up from the first two episodes is that *clearly* the director did her research.

    If there’s one thing I’ve picked up from this review it is that *clearly* this reviewer has never been to Alaska and has maybe done minimal research into what it is like to be Iñupiat. Or any Alaska Native, for that matter.

    I plan to write a longer comment later but in the meantime, I think that this review completely misses the mark about what this show is trying to do. For those of you in the Lower 48, please understand that in rural Alaska like the town I live in – towns with less than 50 miles of road, paved or not, completely inaccessible unless by boat or plane – this show illuminates an incredible amount of the reality that we face. Racist white cops? Danvers isn’t a stereotype, she’s a norm. Endemic problems like MMIW only becoming worthy of police attention because white men were harmed or killed? Yeah.

    It might seem like egregious overkill to see this town vs mining complex it depends on to survive/blatant racism/hell, even lack of proper facilities to conduct a proper autopsy on screen. But until you live in a perpetual cycle of inescapable small town Alaska hell and get to know its nuances, maybe think a little bit past your perceptions that are informed by not having to pay $20 for a pack of Oreos.

    If nothing else, last night’s episode of True Detective gave 2.6 million viewers the opportunity to hear the Iñupiaq language spoken on live nationwide procedural drama.

    Gunalchéesh from SE Alaska.

    • To clarify, I am not trying to villainize the white people who also live in and face the inevitable struggles that a life in rural Alaska presents. This show also totally nails that tension scarily well. It’s incredible to see on prestige TV because yeah, a lot of the lower 48 still views Alaska as this inaccessible and inhospitable place full of polar bears and ice and Sarah Palin.
      We aren’t a joke (every sane person hates Wasilla and the Palin dynasty), *so* much of small town Alaska can be seen in this show. We’re only on episode two and I can’t wait for the rest of what this show brings to light.

  21. Admittedly I don’t know how many screeners Drew had access to before writing this, but I’m finding this to be such a bizarrely bad faith review. The cops in this show are NOT portrayed in a good light, at all—they’re corrupt liars and murders just like in real life. They take bribes, steal evidence, collude with corporate interests… the most sympathetic police character, Navarro, is at odds with her own people in ways that cost her dearly and contribute to her deep isolation. She also ***episode 5 spoiler*** orchestrates a SECOND murder cover up! Genuinely confused how anyone would qualify a show so unflinchingly clear that cops are fucked and not to be trusted as “copaganda.” And I say this as a radical Black queer person all too familiar with the dangers of portraying police as the good guys.

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