‘True Detective,’ TV Dramas, and Education

By Mark Walsh — March 11, 2014 3 min read
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HBO’s “True Detective” aired its season finale on Sunday night. The critically adored show about two flawed homicide detectives dealing with a whole lot of weird stuff in Louisiana swampland over two decades might not seem to have much to do with education.

But as Alexander Russo noted recently in his This Week in Education blog, viewers who paid attention to the intricate plot know that it has strands involving private religious schools, child molestation, and even a nod to Louisiana’s private school voucher program.

“True Detective” is the latest so-called quality TV drama captivating viewers and critics. These are shows that have mostly appeared on pay-cable channels like HBO and Showtime, but also on new platforms like Netflix. As David Carr wrote in The New York Times on Monday, “the vast wasteland of television has been replaced by an excess of excellence.”

Over the years, a surprising number of these shows have had education plot elements or story lines:

“The Sopranos”: The groundbreaking HBO show about the modern mafia boss and his family life, which ran from 1999 to 2007, had numerous episodes with education plot lines. Probably most memorable was from the first season’s “College,” in which Tony Soprano accompanied his daughter, Meadow, on a college admissions tour, when she first asks him whether he’s in the mob and Tony happens to run across a mobster-turned-informant who had settled in a small New England college town. (That, of course, turned out to be bad news for the informant.)

“The Wire”: The HBO series (2002-08) about cops and drugs in Baltimore devoted an entire season’s subplot to urban schools (by turning a troubled drug officer into a first-year teacher). As James Hynes wrote in in 2006: “With [the No Child Left Behind Act] coming up for renewal next year, I’m not sure what it says about the debate on education that the sharpest and most high-profile critique I’ve seen or read comes from a brilliantly foul-mouthed HBO series about cops and drug dealers that’s grittier than all the ‘CSIs’ put together.”

“Breaking Bad”: The AMC show (2008-13) about Walter White, the high school chemistry teacher whose cancer diagnosis turns him into a methamphetamine producer and dealer, brought new meaning to the idea of teachers keeping in touch with their students after they’ve left the classroom. (Walter’s criminal turn was sealed when he sees his former student Jesse fleeing a meth lab.)

“House of Cards”: The Netflix drama (now with full second season released) about House Majority Whip (at the outset) Frank Underwood, included a first-season arc involving an education bill, a teachers’ strike, and a TV debate in which the lead character is perceived as having an issue with spelling. Now, how realistic is that?

The education-related plot points of “True Detective” were important, but low-key. In contrast, say, with the treatment of education on “The Wire,” I don’t think the producers meant much in the way of policy commentary.

Without spoiling the intricate story, an important theme is a network of rural religious schools implicated in a child-molestation scandal (and worse). Detective Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) visits Reverend Billie Lee Tuttle, who led the now-defunct schools, in 2002. (The show jumps around in time a fair amount over a 17-year period.) Tuttle slyly mentions that “when we get the voucher program, we’ll bring them back.” Of course, Louisiana eventually did adopt a voucher program. Some bloggers read an awful lot into the education strand of the show, such as Annalee Newitz on, who wrote, “It’s fascinating to think about how this show has taken us from philosophical ideas about good and evil, crime and justice, then drawn us into to this highly specific example of the ways that churches control the children of Louisiana through school funding.”

According to Rolling Stone, the next season of “True Detective” will have new characters and a new setting. So we may never know if Tuttle ever opens his voucher schools. But that leaves open the possibility for a whole new education twist.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.