True Detective, HBO’s recent hit television show, just finished its first season. The show’s format is anthological, which is to say that each season is a self contained story; this structure has grown in popularity in recent years, notably (and, as far as I’m aware, most successfully) in American Horror Story. The opportunity to tell a long story over several episodes provides significant room for complex plotting, characterization, and atmosphere, but the one-season cap also demands a sense of direction and closure within the given time-span. In many ways, it’s the perfect combination between a film and television program. True Detective adds a new innovation though: the entire first season is written by one person, Nic Pizzolatto, and directed by one person as well, Cary Joji Fukunaga. Given the critical and popular success of the program, this might mean a new direction for television production. But how exactly has this made True Detective so successful, and does the show merit all of the attention that it has garnered?
For those unfamiliar with the show, here’s the basic premise: two ex-detectives, Martin “Marty” Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rustin “Rust” Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) are being interviewed in present-day, separately, by two detectives, Maynard Gilbough (Michael Potts) and Thomas Papania (Tory Kittles). The subject of discussion is a case they investigated in 1995, wherein a young former prostitute named Dora Kelly Lange was murdered in a highly ritualistic manner. Marty is heavily religious and a “family man,” although his actual obligations to both are contradictory and questionable at best, while Rust is heavily nihilistic and a loner. The former easily falls victim to his emotions, while the latter maintains a disturbing calm. In the present, Rust has clearly fallen into alcoholism, and is looking more than a little bit shabby. As the series goes on, we learn that the case illuminated a lot of disturbing dark corners in numerous circles of Louisiana society.
The plot, though, is auxiliary, as tends to be the case with many nuanced films and shows. That is not meant to undermine it. Features that might be dubbed catalytic should not be shrugged off, as they define the way we perceive the “deeper” resonances like themes, philosophies, ideas, and impressions. Thus, in considering the successes and missteps of True Detective, we need to examine the practicalities: namely, the writing, direction, and performances.
The first two, of course, relate back to the fact that the first season has only one writer and one director. The positive results are immediate: dialogue that develops the story and dialogue that provides characterization are certainly distinct, but both tend to carry gravitas and consistency with who is speaking. Pizzolatto understands his characters and setting, and his singular control over the writing ensures a consistency of voice. His vision of the story allows for themes to be planted early on and explored deftly throughout the massively expanding scope of Marty and Rust’s investigation. Pizzolatto also has some of the most visceral lines for a television program in recent memory. “This place is like someone’s memory of a town,” Rust says of a particularly desolate area, “and the memory’s fading.”
However, issues also take root in Pizzolatto’s problems with story development: the first few episodes build slowly, with atmosphere taking precedent and the story expanding carefully underneath it. As the season enters its last few episodes, the need to resolve aspects of the plot drive the writing; while it contains trickles of the atmosphere and philosophical ruminations of the characters, the tone slowly shifts toward procedural, and suffers for it. True Detective‘s first season might have a significantly darker and more thought-provoking case at the heart of it, but it still takes on all the qualities of a procedural.
Early on, this was significantly less noticeable because Pizzolatto knew that the mood and ideas were more important. One might argue that the conspiracy at the heart of the story needed to be resolved, but much of it wasn’t. And that works for the themes at the heart of True Detective, which dwell in uncertainty and an inability to fix everything. Picking and choosing what to reveal is important, and Pizzolatto could have been far more selective and thus allowed more room for exploration of ideas, but he sadly filled up that space with a bit too much plot. And quite honestly, the actual plot surrounding the crime isn’t that interesting. It’s a stereotypical unfolding conspiracy story that’s pretty much par for the course, just a lot bleaker than most. By the last episode, it’s almost entirely plot, and I really am glad it only had eight episodes, because a continuation of this trend would have spelled disaster.
That being said, I do not mean to imply that the show abandons its vision and thoughtfulness; perhaps I was merely coasting on the ideas from the first half of the season, but I was able to focus on this aspect to make the experience more intriguing for me. After all, Pizzolatto creates a dark vision of Louisiana, one that questions the (non)intrinsic value of deep family roots in an area, or systems built around religions. The vision is brought to life by Fukunaga. The decision to have one director do every episode of the show proves to be the most successful innovation. If television is long-form storytelling, shouldn’t one inherent benefit be increasing comfort and familiarity with the material at the production level?
Fukunaga increasingly understands how to capture the world, and this leads to the moments that push many stories past just being great, and into being memorable: scenes that are ethereal, more grounded in emotional and psychological realism than a literal interpretation of the world that we think we perceive. As concepts like the circularity of time begin to show up, Rust sees a flock of birds fly in a spiral. When Rust and Marty learn about a man who might have committed several atrocities, Fukunaga cuts to an other-worldy scene of a man in his underwear and a gas-mask walking through a field with a machete, ending the episode on this image.
The cinematography captures the dark reality that Rust and Marty are slowly uncovering, and the amount of control Fukunaga has over this Louisiana allows him to explore non-traditional ways of capturing the subject matter. The effect is astounding, and one that I don’t often see in major television shows.
The last bit of practicality that needs discussion is, of course, the performances. I’m not the first one to say this, and I won’t be the last, but I have rarely been so impressed by acting, especially in a detective story. Woody Harrelson deserves credit for his humbling and nuanced depiction of a man whose contradictions are shoved in his own face. He makes the anti-hero a complicated but clearly flawed human being, as opposed to a caricature of that which people find wrong with those touting “family values.” Tory Kittles and Michael Potts make their detectives mysterious in all the right ways, and they make the audience feel as uncertain of who to trust as Marty and Rust do. Michelle Monaghan, who plays Maggie Hart, Rust’s wife, cannot be lauded enough for the layering she provides to a character that in lesser hands might be simplified to the scorned wife of a cheating husband. Every secondary character delivers performances that you would expect of a lead.
But, like everyone else talking about this show, I have to throw the bulk of my praise on Matthew McConaughey as Rust. The character always seems half in the grave, entrenched in his philosophy that humanity’s self-awareness is its curse, and that we should destroy ourselves; he cannot fit into Louisiana society and all of its weird obsessions with “family values” and Christian dogma, two thins he does not understand. McConaughey’s performance is so good that when I watch this show, I completely forget that McConaughey is on screen. That might sound simplistic, but when is the last time you watched a performance so good that you didn’t recognize the major Hollywood star portraying the character? Maybe I’m just bad at getting absorbed in a story, but for me, the answer is pretty much never. Rust is one of the most interesting characters to grace television in a long time, and McConaughey deserves as much credit, if not more than Pizzolatto for that fact.
The reason I discuss all of these practicalities is, without them—without every unsurpassably impressive aspect that the writer, director, and actors/actresses bring to this show—no one would be talking about the ideas, contemplations, and personal experiences that have come to fruition as a result. As much as True Detective became a little too much about the story as it went on, it put forward its thematic contemplations early on and with enough vision that they defined the rest of the series, even when it was overly focused on “Whodunnit?”
As has been outlined on nearly every entertainment source on the internet, The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers in no small part defines—or at least clarifies—the philosophical implications of Rust’s philosophy and the story in general. The book of short stories focus on people’s interactions with the eponymous play, which reveals truths about the universe so unsettling that the readers go insane. Rust and Marty’s investigation leads them to dark revelations about what Marty thought to be a state of good people—at least, in regard to family men and Christians. But just because a family’s lineage runs deep in the area and the family preaches the good word, does not mean they lack a propensity for evil. Reality is more complicated than that. These revelations make the world a much more uncertain and confusing place, and Marty—not to mention Rust—will not be the same.
But I would like to draw a comparison to another author who was heavily inspired by Chambers: H. P. Lovecraft. I have discussed the author more than a few times on this site, but I mention him here because the philosophical aspects of the show are important, and in no small way reflect Lovecraft. Rust believes that all of humanity should destroy itself because self-awareness is a flaw in our programming. The evils perpetuated by humans on each other don’t exactly go against what he says. In his mind, humanity is a mistake, and our existence is meaningless.
Lovecraft, in no small sense, popularized this view of humanity’s place in the universe in the horror genre, with stories that have strong thematic and atmospheric influences on True Detective. Evils perpetuated by ritualistic cults often take center focus in Lovecraft’s stories, and are often set in small, desolate towns. Lovecraft uses them to explore the evils of humanity; but more importantly, these evils are indicative of something bigger: a universe that does not care about human beings, one in which far greater forces have existed long before us, exist with no notice of us, and will continue to exist long after we are gone. To Lovecraft and his cosmic philosophy, humanity is nothing in the scope of the cosmos, a concept that clearly flies in the face of Christian mythology. Our attempts to find meaning in our existence are frivolous, often leading to self-inflicted misery as a result of narcissism.
Cosmicism is the name of this philosophy, but True Detective takes it a step further: whereas Lovecraft had giant monsters that represented the uncaring universe, ones that posed a threat to humanity’s existence, True Detective has the systems and institutions that humanity makes in attempting to find significance. The evils in True Detective are massive, unknowable forces that are the makings of human beings, ones that risk destroying people’s sanity and sense of comfort, or even freedoms. In Chambers’ mythology, which Lovecraft adapted into his own, Carcosa is an other-worldly place of mysterious evil; True Detective makes it a location on Earth to emphasize that the dangers of evil do not come from the universe but from ourselves; we are so insignificant that nothing even bothers to inflict misery on us. Our desires to make ourselves meaningful, as sought by cruel human beings, cause our miseries. Lovecraft’s philosophy illuminates Pizzolatto’s ambitions as a storyteller, because we need to understand what they define as “evil” or “darkness” and how they see the purpose of humankind in order to understand the implications of the show’s philosophy.
I discuss all this because, besides being an important lens through which to view True Detective, it’s also incredibly new for television. This portrayal of humanity’s place in the cosmos is bleak and terrifying, but also incredibly important. The stories we tell can be full of truth, but when we believe in the stories rather than the principles, we muddle our understanding of ourselves and create systems of oppression and pain that mask themselves under unquestionable abstractions like “family values.” Pizzolatto is not saying this is only related to the South and Christianity; he merely uses this location to reveal that humanity does this, in many different ways. And in that sense, True Detective is the most Lovecraftian thing to ever hit the screen, despite not truly exploring the supernatural.
True Detective is, I think, a somewhat brave television show, because it turns our critical eyes on ourselves and dares us to accept what it believes to be our place in the universe, and our complacence in the perpetuation of human suffering. But lest this seem nihilistic to the point of misery, I want to emphasize the primary focus of this season: human stories are not meaningless. If Pizzolatto merely wanted to say, “Nothing matters, everyone is pointless,” or “Stories make us do evil things,” he wouldn’t have made us care about the people and the suffering that Rust and Marty want to stop. He wouldn’t have made us care about uncovering the terrible systems of oppression, because if nothing mattered, then certainly that wouldn’t either. No, Pizzolatto wants to show us that just because we are not the center of the universe, does not mean that we must despair and fade. Just as Rust learns to care about people and causes, and even arguably understand love, we must learn that pessimism is not the answer; we need to care more, because blind faith and attempts to declare dogmatic self-importance leads to suffering; if our only purpose is to live our lives, then no one should do so while suffering. True Detective is the story that illustrates the principle; we should not obsess with the plot, because the plot isn’t the point. The principle is.
And that is, as I interpret it, Pizzolatto’s vision. He might have lost some focus as the show went on, but the concept shines through, and as a result True Detective‘s first season is a huge success, a daring new entry into the world of television that has the potential to redefine not only the production process of long-form storytelling, but the range of ideas that can be explored. True Detective is a detective show, yes, but it understands the potential of the format—although, to some extent, the detective aspects are by far the weakest. What the next season might hold, I can’t say that I know for sure, but I do know that Pizzolatto and Fukunaga have revealed an exciting new territory for television to explore. I hope that Pizzolatto treks beyond Carcosa next season, but more importantly, I hope that others take this opportunity to explore the new worlds to which True Detective has opened the gates.