True Detective: When great writing becomes glorious television or; Why Nic Pizzolato is my new hero



Created by: Nic Pizzolatto Starring: Matthew McConaugheyWoody HarrelsonMichael Potts, Michelle Monaghan

Do you remember TV before HBO? Rubbish, wasn’t it? Endless soap operas, sit coms which were stuck in the 1970s, endless game shows, with an occasional gem like Twin Peaks appearing every decade…  OK, so we still have the soap operas and sit-coms, but we also have wonderful, glorious EVENT television shows. Shows that you go out of your way to series-link on your Tivo, you know, putting some real EFFORT in.  US shows like The Wire, Band of Brothers and The Sorpranos appeared on the network and gave us all pause for thought; could a TV series actually be as good as a film? Do we have to separate actors into “TV actors” and “Film actors” to mark the different vintages? “No!”, cried HBO, “we can afford to give you beautifully made pieces of entertainment which we’ll let you watch at home!Actors can be on TV AND in films if they like! We just love STORIES.” We did want to give HBO a big kiss, but HBO was in America, and we were in the UK. We felt quite sad as we had to wait for box sets to be released, or Sky or Channel 4 to import shows months after they’d aired in the States. Suddenly TV producers all over the world caught on to the idea too, and we were blessed with a plethora of high quality TV offerings like The Killing, Broadchurch, Breaking Bad, The Bridge and Sherlock which have been peppered among the latest talent shows. Netflix’ arrival into the world of original TV production upped the ante even further, with a stunning remake of UK show House of Cards along with original content like Orange is the New Black. It seems TV may have changed forever. Now it’s commonplace to be excited about TV- Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men, Hannibal, The Returned, Top of the Lake… heck, there are too many excellent TV shows to mention these days. Praise be.

True Detective is the latest  HBO gem, and is very much in the new vanguard of Quality TV Shows (yes, it needs capitalisation), with high production values, excellent writing and a cast you may remember from that big dark place where they sell popcorn. Like many of the new QuaTS (what? I can’t think of anything better) True Detective falls into what Netflix might call the “Dark  detective  drama” category, but is already  marking itself out as being a bit different from it’s predecessors.

Show creator and writer Nic Pizzollato was a college professor who had never written for TV until two years ago. Indeed, he had never even written a SCRIPT until 2 years ago, concentrating instead on his love of literature. He went to an ordinary school, worked two jobs to get through college and had no links to the TV industry. He had his first novel, Galveston (which he wrote in 3 months while his wife was heavily pregnant), published in 2010, allowing him to leave teaching and write full-time. One result of his labours was an idea for True Detective, which he sold to HBO in 2012. His love of writing really shows in every element of the show, it being one of the most well realised worlds I have seen in a TV show in a long while. He wants to take the anthology format and make it really work for TV, and so far he seems to be doing a god job.

Each season will see one story emerge from beginning to end, taking us on a journey with one writer, one director and 2 key actors.  The result is undiluted and uncompromising, with the characters feeling far more rounded than on many of even the highest quality shows. This feels like it is coming from one man’s mind, like a novel playing out on the screen.

Season one sees Matthew McConaughey play detective Rust Cohle,  the yin to his partner in crime-fighting Martin Hart’s (our second star, Woody Harrelson) yang. Set in Louisiana in 2012, the first 3 episodes have been made up of flashbacks to a case the pair worked in 1995, flashbacks prompted by the pair’s (notably separate) interviews by two present day detectives, indicating they may not have closed the case. The pair could have been the classic chalk and cheese buddy-cop combo, but even by the end of the first episode there is clearly a very different relationship at play. Rust Cohle is a troubled soul, seemingly having retreated into himself after a great tragedy befell him. He is intelligent and a deep thinker, whose personal philosophy and interior world has been the backbone of the first few episodes of the show and the filter through which we get to see the events unfold.

“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; an accretion of sensory, experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody. Maybe the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal. ” Rust Cohle, episode one

Woody Harrelson’s Martin Hart is the blunt tool to Cohle’s complex machine, “a regular dude… with a big ass dick” as he quips to one of the interviewing detectives. He is a family man, and the old-school cop, telling lude jokes with his buddies at work, then reading his daughters bedtime stories.

Except neither character is that straight-forward, and three episodes in we are already seeing Hart and Cohle as far more than the good cop/ bad cop caricatures. They feel like real people, with Harrelson and McConaughey really seeming to become the characters, with truly stunning performances.  Their names could be a play on “heart and soul” as has been suggested elsewhere, but I suspect events won’t be as clear cut as that implies.

Marty’s wife, Maggie (Michelle Monaghan) is also of note, as she is clearly going to have a more substantial role than “put-upon woman who picks up the pieces,” having already been at the centre of several disagreements between the two men.

Then there’s the story. Ah yes, the story. They are investigating a case, or rather two cases involving a dead woman being found naked and posed in a field (“How could it be him if we already caught him in ’95?”), but they are largely a vehicle for us to explore the world these two men inhabit. At times it feels almost as if they are aware they are in a a TV show, with some truly meta-dialogue, such as Cohle’s observation “This place is like someone’s memory of a town, and the memory is fading”.

Beautifully written, shot and played, True Detective is proving to be an individual and thrilling take on a TV trope that was feeling very well-worn.



Further reading:

An interesting take on Hart and Cohle from Psychology Today

A great Daily Beast interview with Nic Pizzalatto


2 thoughts on “True Detective: When great writing becomes glorious television or; Why Nic Pizzolato is my new hero

  1. Wow!! This sounds fabulous!! I can’t believe McConaughey is doing TV, either. I am so, so happy you wrote about this as I just got access to HBO GO again and I was floundering a bit, watching Veep instead of something more substantial. You mentioned a handful of some of my favorite TV shows of all time so I cannot wait to try out your recommendation. Cheers!

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