True Detective: A Game Changer and the Benefit of Good Writing

Warning: There will be spoilers that may or may not be correct depending on when you are reading this.

True Detective
Cohle (McConaughey) and Hart (Harrelson)

Three episodes in and True Detective has its viewers seething – not because of quality or content (though HBO’s ‘sex sells’ policy is pitching a tent), but because they’ve reached a two-week long breakwater due to the Super Bowl; you can hear the chuckle of Sherlock fans as they prepare for another year-long absence. Broadcast earlier this month to HBO’s biggest viewing audience in three years, the show has already nestled in along Game of Thrones as the channel’s leading drama. As they prepare for life without the outgoing Boardwalk Empire, studio executives have offered True Detective’s creator and writer, Nic Pizzolatto, a two-year deal to extend the anthology past its première series. We follow Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) as they recount the events of a religion-fuelled murder back in 1995, and the subsequent manhunt to catch the man responsible; while two present day detectives (Tory Kittles and The Wire’s Michael Potts) question the protagonists in light of a recent, similar crime – but they’ve already caught the killer … haven’t they?

Show creator, Nic Pizzolatto
Show creator, Nic Pizzolatto.

Critics have drawn comparisons with Thomas Harris’ Hannibal novels. We have the grisly crime-scene, the weirdo killer (or suspect), and the detectives hot on their trail. From the outset, True Detective could be lifted from the pages of the next Silence of the Lambs, but delving deeper reveals a narrative rich in character study undercutting the mere shock value of Mr Lector. That’s not to say Pizzolatto’s baby is without the gruesome and demented. A corpse (blue-skinned, bloodied and gashed) wearing a crown of antlers greeted viewers in the first episode. And more recently, we saw a glimpse of the prime suspect, covered in ritualistic tattoos and wearing nothing but his best pair of white undies and a gas-mask – its hose swinging like a devilish pendulum. But what makes the show so endearing? Nic Pizzolatto has a proven track record in his short career as a writer. He is published in the Oxford American, the Atlantic and other magazines, and has plaudits for his writing during his time at Louisiana State University and University of Arkansas. His work, much like True Detective, takes place in the American South. His first novel, Galveston, spans across New Orleans and Texas and takes a critical look at a strong-arm man dealing with lung cancer and a bounty hanging over his head. His writing is soaked in humanism and the boldness of a Cormac McCarthy novel, as pointed out by Gone, Baby Gone author, Dennis Lehane, and this is reflected in his fledgling screen writing vocation.

True Detective
Hart regards him with a certain degree of suspicion and distaste.

From the word go, the man’s screenplay draws you in. His dialogue is thoughtful and provocative, executed to a tee by Matthew McConaughey (who is revelling in his purple-patch here), and the ever-reliable Woody Harrelson. The conversations and interplay between the two are the crux of the show’s foundation. Cohle echoes Sartre and Camus in his existentialist monologues, staring absently out of a cruiser window at the bleakest Louisiana farmland, while Hart regards him with a certain degree of suspicion and distaste – you could say that Cohle is the secular invader to Hart’s walled-off Christian community. He ponders:

I’d consider myself a realist, alright? But in philosophical terms I’m what’s called a pessimist… I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself – we are creatures that should not exist by natural law… We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, that accretion of sensory experience and feelings, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody’s nobody… I think the honorable thing for our species to do is to deny our programming. Stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction – one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.

Of course, this doesn’t sit well with his partner or his new surroundings, but neither does he. Pizzolatto presents two very different people, both tarnished, and perched at either end of the spectrum. As of yet, they are both working together and, using the term loosely, cooperative; but Cohle’s relentless dedication to the case has proved a threat to the delicate foundations Hart has placed to separate work and family. This relationship is the of what Pizzolatto is trying to convey. He uses the murder as a vehicle to guide the show as a tense and brooding character study. The riveting script is only one pillar of strength supporting this juxtaposition; the other being the astonishing talent of the leads and supporting cast. Harrelson has always been a strong and reliable character actor with a knack for giving performances that lend a certain gravitas to the end product. He juggles his wife (Michelle Monaghan), his children and the job with increasing difficulty as the show progresses – and at the same time struggles with a jealous affection for his mistress (Alexandra Daddario). It makes it difficult to root for him, but Harrelson plays the part with conviction. During the 1995 segments, his temper rages higher and higher without slipping into Al Pacino overacting territory, as the walls of a carefully-planned lifestyle start to crumble. In the flash forwards (or the present day, depending on how you look at it) he seems assured, but occasional glances and messing with a naked ring finger hint at the desolation of his marriage; something we half-expect three episodes in. He confides in his wife:

I get the feeling like, I can see forty and it’s like I’m the coyote in the cartoons, like I’m running off a cliff, and if I don’t look down and keep running, I might be fine. But I think I’m all fucked up.

Yes you are, Woody, at least we think you are. At this point, the audience may have read that he means more than just his adultery here. You can look into his young daughter’s explicit drawings, and his tendency to lose grips with his anger (when his lover sleeps with another man, and when Cohle catches on to the affair) as possible indicators of an insidious agenda – though this is just curious guesswork.

A ragged Matthew McConaughey recounts the events of 1995.
A ragged Matthew McConaughey recounts the events of 1995.

McConaughey, however, extends a run of career-best performances that have culminated in Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild success (not to mention an Oscar nomination) for his turn as Ron Woodruff in Dallas Buyers Club, and will be the one who receives all the plaudits. Having already snagged a role in Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi project, Interstellar, this year may be his best yet. In a nutshell, he’s a bit weird back in ’95, then he got weirder. We see his character, ragged-haired and gaunt, casting aside sobriety in the modern-day (though he still delivers a mean, southern-drawl sermon on existentialism). He translates the script so well on the television screen, his low-key delivery and subtle nuances betraying a man haunted by the death of his daughter, we cannot take our eyes off him for a second. When his younger self rambles, the viewer clings to his every word. When he moves, he does so deliberately; straight-backed and proper – unless he succumbs to alcohol’s temptation in his introverted grief. In fact, everything he does seems so meticulously plotted by actor, director and writer to present a jarring and shattering representation of a man’s unique struggle with depression, that it does so with a disconcerting realism in extraordinary circumstances.

McConaughey and Harrelson have stated they won't return to the roles.
McConaughey and Harrelson have stated they won’t return to the roles.

McConaughey and Harrelson have both stated that they will not return for a second series. Like American Horror Story, the show is anthological. By the end of the eighth episode this case will be closed, and Cohle and Hart’s story finished. People are questioning whether it will suffer as a result, but essentially the format will remain the same – and this is what gives the show the added edge against the competition. As opposed to other popular programmes, Pizzolatto has penned every single episode of the first season, and will continue this practice into the future. He has also employed the firm hand of director and cinematographer Cary Fukunaga for all eight. This has ensured a continuity in quality that may not be present in other shows – essentially the components that add up to make the finished product will remain the same and viewers will be less likely to see a dip in quality or an aversion from the established tone. Breaking Bad, as glorious and well-loved as it was, suffered from this on one occasion. The episode Fly slowed the tempo of the show to a sudden halt and though Rian Johnson is a terrific director in his own right, his input at this point in Heisenberg’s story was somewhat off-key (of course, we forgave him after Ozymandias aired last year). Rest assured, the two-week respite from True Detective has only strengthened its grasp on the viewing audience, as the internet and minds race with clues, guesswork and rumours. We’re not even at the halfway stage and we’ve fallen deeper into the psyche of Cohle and Hart than Alice did down the rabbit-hole. With a tight script, powerhouse performances and writer and director working in unison in the long-term, we can expect great things for the rest of the show, and more of the same in the coming years. Oh yes, True Detective is most certainly a game changer.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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A self-proclaimed 'cinephile' who spends too much time obsessing over an out-of-control film collection, I am a lover of all things imaginative.

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  1. BuilderP

    I’m loving this show! Very smart, well written and Mathew McConaughey is just brilliant as Rust Cohle. I enjoy trying to figure out his convuluted diatribes and what he’s attempting to convey. He’s obviously a very philosophical and cynical character, but trying to understand who he is an exercise in futility and I’m certain his character was written this way on purpose. An enigma. I certainly hope others aren’t turned off by these types of procedural dramas because I enjoy being challenged to think while watching this show. HBO has a real winner here!

    • Dale Barham

      He definitely is enigmatic, and that’s what made me think he was the killer at first, but that’s the beauty, the writing keeps you guessing and guessing.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. casstaker

    It feels like it was originally a great novel that they’re just adapting for TV because of how strong the writing and characters are. The setting is also one of the most unique I’ve seen, in backwater Louisiana. I’ve never wanted to watch an episode of a show the number of times I’ve seen True Detective. Something about it feels so unique. Of course McConaughey should win an Emmy for Best Actor and Woody hopefully gets nominated for supporting actor so he wins as well.

    And of course some say it’s slow. Some people need ADD style television, which is why most shows are structured the way they are. The pacing of this show is so unique from everything else. It takes its time but it doesn’t waste time. Everything feels so measured and purposeful. And I can honestly say I have no idea how this one will end. It’s been too unconventional thus far for it to be predictable in the future. It doesn’t try to baby you by revealing obvious things in a way they think is surprising. I feel like the show respects its audience as being intelligent, as opposed to so many other shows which need to re-establish every single detail or clarify 100x everything that happens. I’m gonna rewatch the third episode right now as a matter of fact.

    • Dale Barham

      If you have a chance, you should read Galveston. I completely agree with what you say about the programme feeling like a novel, that’s just a testament to how good his writing actually is.

      Thanks for reading!

    • This illustrates that there is no singular right way to write a script (or anything else for that matter), but there are definitely wrong ways to write.

  3. I really want to watch this programme now! Great article yet again! Always love reading your articles!

  4. Haven’t seen the show but i like the idea of a show having an ending. although i do fall in love with characters, i hate it when a show is cancelled and is left on a cliffhanger or has too many seasons and the plot is all over the place just to keep it running

    • Dale Barham

      That’s what drew me in originally … well that, and McConaughey – it feels comforting to know that this story will be resolved by the end of the season but at the same time, I just don’t wanna have to say goodbye to the main characters.

  5. Adam Rios

    This show is insanely awesome! Some truly excellent writing, the characters are multi-layered and realistically complex. It has the familiar tropes of detective stories and procedurals but the focus on character and the depth of the writing really sets it apart. Also great that all eight episodes have the same writer and director so we can expect some consistent quality out of this. Can’t wait for the next episode!

    • Dale Barham

      I feel, it gets to the point where you are so interested in Cohle and Hart, that you want to hear more about them and sometimes forget there’s a killer on the loose!

  6. Matthew Mcconaughey just looks so weird in this series. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but he just looks really weird. Love the series tho. Definitely one of the best series running right now.

    • Dale Barham

      I’ve noticed this as well. I think he was either preparing for Dallas Buyers Club or just done filming and struggling to get his weight back up. Either way it suits the character and adds an extra layer to his performance.

      Thanks for reading!

  7. Justin Ingram

    Nice post. The way I see it is Hart is the 2012 killer and Cohle was able to figure it just from looking at the picture in episode 1. The 2012 detectives told Cohle about the murder but not Hart. I think their trying to lull Hart into slipping up during the interview. But what I really wonder is who is being interviewed first Hart or Cohle? I would bet who ever is being interviewed second is the suspect. I also think the little girl who went missing from episode one was the young prostitue from episode 3. The madam mentions she was running from an uncle, and that LSU pitcher Hart was fawning over was the little girls uncle.

    • Dale Barham

      Thanks Justin. I have pretty much the same theory as you but I didn’t click onto the young prostitute idea you mentioned, I think it’d make sense – but I think the writing is stronger than to let us guess before the halfway mark.

  8. It’s a great series! Awesome performances from the lead, great atmosphere, tight writing. As depressing as he is to listen to, I find myself agreeing with a lot of what Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) has to say. I guess I have a somewhat pessimistic world view…

    • Dale Barham

      I have quite an invested interest in philosophy so I do find his ramblings endearing. The quote I included here is one of my favourite’s of his. I also liked that one about ‘the promise of an after-life’ or something along those lines from the last episode.

      Thanks for reading!

  9. Troy Fox

    I’ve been really enjoying this show so far. The writing and atmosphere is excellent. The acting from Harrelson and McConaughey has been top notch. And it’s managed to keep a great pace so far. My only real complaint is McConaughey’s character is dangerously close to being yet another emotionally/mentally disturbed genius detective that we see in way too many cop shows these days.

    • Dale Barham

      I have seen comparisons with Sherlock Holmes and Cohle floating around the internet lately …

      But I completely agree, the show sticks to its guns and keeps at its own pace, which is promising for the rest of the season.

  10. Constantine

    Top reasons (in any order)
    Reason #1: incredible writing
    Reason #2: some of the best acting out there
    Reason #3: Alexandra Daddario

  11. a little scene in episode 2 makes this show just a bit worth watching I think. in all seriousness I’ve really enjoyed True Detective so far, it kind of has a Bridge/Se7en vibe (for those of you who watched the bridge, TD is understandably a lot better so far)

  12. Ragging on Fly? I thought the consensus was that that was one of the all time best Breaking Bad episodes.

    True Detective is, of course, amazing.

    • Dale Barham

      Not so much ragging, it was just a very different episode to the ones that surrounded it. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the episode and Rian Johnson’s work.

  13. I never expected to love this show as much as I do and it’s only three episodes in! The writing is fantastic, the characters are so unique. I’m usually not into things that are so slowpaced but this show as the complete opposite effect on me, it’s great!

  14. This show is seriously starting to replace the gaping hole Breaking Bad left in my heart after it finished. Definitely a great contender for next year’s Emmy’s and Golden Globes.

  15. What I find interesting is that both our leads Hart and Cohle are everything I hate about Christians and atheists. Hart is a total hypocrite who doesn’t really follow what Christianity teaches, and Cohle acts as if anyone who doesn’t believe the way he does is stupid and of sub par intelligence. What I do like is when they call each other out on the other’s BS.

  16. Misagh

    The 4th episode was a game changer for sure. That final 6 minute single take tracking shot… wow! The tension watching that scene… I wish I could forget it so I could watch it again for the first time. Outstanding series.

  17. It’s strange to see Matthew McConaughey such great roles lately such as this show, Mud and Dallas Buyer’s Club. As a teenager I had come to know him as the romantic comedy actor who can’t keep his shirt on in any of his roles. I never took him seriously as an actor but he has had great roles lately. I hope he keeps it up.

  18. I agree whole-heartedly Dale; True Detective is a brilliant show. It’s got terrific characters, an outstanding script, and ever shifting plot. But what I appreciate about it the most is what you described as the “disconcerting realism” of the show, particularly in respect to the dialogue. I remember last year I watched Ridley Scott’s thriller The Counselor which was written by Cormac McCarthy (by the way, you’re double right about this shows writing, it oozes the Southern Gothic tone of McCarthy’s works). The problem is that while that film did have very intriguing philosophical dialogue, it just didn’t feel real. It was too stagey, if that makes sense. It didn’t feel like the words were flowing naturally from the characters. Matthew McCounaghey and Woody Harrelson on the other hand completely nail the existentialist/tragic/philosophical dialogue that Pizzolatto has written. It is a master class of both acting and screenwriting.

    I hope to read more from you in the future Dale 🙂

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