My own wild speculation is that clue-hunting and twist-anticipating entered the hive mind via cinemas in 1999 with the one-two twist-ending punch of The Sixth Sense and Fight Club. Sure, The Crying Game was still a recent memory, but not for the fanboys who flocked to Shyamalan and Fincher’s films and whose tastes were about to become post-millennial mainstream culture’s bread and butter. On the small screen, the phenomenon had its precursors — “Who killed Laura Palmer?”, The X-Files’ sprawling and eventually suffocating mythology — but the blame-slash-credit must be laid at the four-toed feet of Lost. Fueled by decades of pulp-fiction tropes and pop-philosophy mindbenders, structured as a Russian nesting doll of mysteries within mysteries, and riddled with more Easter eggs than the White House lawn, ABC’s sci-fi smash knowingly worked fans into a frenzy of message-board theory-mongering. Turns out it was more or less a shaggy dog story the creators were making up as they went along, but this didn’t stop viewers from applying this mode of audience speculation-cum-participation to virtually every big series since.
Which is fair play, when the show in question invites it. For example, Lost’s big nerd-culture contemporary, the cult-classic critics’ darling Battlestar Galactica reboot, teased its big mysteries in the opening-credit text of every episode, and thus had nothing but itself to blame when viewers gave the whole series a thumbs-up or thumbs-down based on those mysteries’ solutions. But even relatively realistic shows, based not around unraveling enigmas but on studying the complexities of human relationships, are now treated like glorified Sudoku puzzles by vocal viewers. The Sopranos’ David Chase worked overtime to design a series finale that would actively defy this kind of clue-hunting closure, but that didn’t stop a host of amateur sleuths out to close the book on that infamously open ending. More recently, the ostensibly sophisticated audience of Mad Men treats everything from promo art to costume choices the way medieval soothsayers treated goat entrails. In this light, the decision of Game of Thrones to largely drop its epic-fantasy source material’s host of cryptic prophecies and hidden truths (google “R+L=J” if you want to see how deep the rabbit hole goes) in favor of character work and realpolitik seems like the smartest act of adaptation since Francis Ford Coppola dropped Johnny Fontane as a main character in The Godfather.
Over at Esquire, I wrote a piece on the fan fervor for theory-mongering that surrounds True Detective which wound up being kind of an historical overview of the practice’s slow takeover of pop culture. It was fun to do — and commissioned by a loyal All Leather Must Be Boiled reader! See kids, tumblr dreams come true!