HBO’s True Detective

true detective mm focus

For the true mystery lover, there is only one thing that comes close to snuggling in with a well-written, carefully-plotted, page-turner of a mystery novel: the announcement of a well-written, carefully-crafted new mystery TV series on premium television. HBO’s “True Detective“, which premiered Sunday Jan. 12th to 2.3 million viewers, HBO’s largest audience for a premiere drama series in years, appears to be just that TV series.

The show stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as Louisiana State Police, chasing both a serial killer and their own demons across a staggered time frame. McConaughey’s character is odd enough to do a loop around the stereotypically troubled cop in TV shows as of late, and circle back around again to intriguing.

There are a few things that make “True Detective” unique to most hit TV shows. First, the entire first season, every script, was written by one man. Nic Pizzolatto created, wrote and executive produced every episode. Pizzolatto learned the ropes writing on (the American version of) “The Killing,” and now it is time for him to show the world what he can do on his own. Rather than have a team of writers with a single showrunner to steer them (as the traditional open-ended drama series process is usually written, according to the wonderful book Difficult Men), he wrote each script himself. I think this will be interesting to watch, as it may be an evolution of sorts in a way we think that medium must work. I imagine some people might work better solo, and maybe developing a television series with a single writer will create for a more specific vision than developing it with a team. Pizzolatto wrote one mystery novel, Galveston, published in 2011. Hopefully the popularity of the TV show will help create some more interest in the book, as it has good reviews (the Kindle edition is only $2.99 right now). I added it to my endless list of things to read next.

The second unique aspect of “True Detective” is that it is an anthology. I wasn’t even sure what this meant for a TV series specifically. I looked it up: each season the cast and storyline will be totally different. The message here is to not get too attached: McConaughey and Harrelson will be gone next season, and Pizzolatto told the New York Times the show might next set its scene in Los Angeles, acknowledging the rich noir history of that city.

true detective magazines 2

True Detective magazine, via

With a name like “True Detective”, an anthology series and homage to noir would make sense. True Detective was also a true crime (some would say pulp) magazine launched by bodybuilding and health enthusiast Bernarr McFadden in 1924. McFadden originally wanted to share his passion about health with the world, and he created Physical Culture magazine in 1899. Physical Culture received letters, and McFadden, like every successful businessman, capitalized on these personal tales. He created the magazine True Story: Truth is Stranger than Fiction in 1923, and a trend was created. From the wildly popular True Story, a confessional magazine, countless others were developed, including True Detective.

While True Detective was originally a true crime magazine, targeted towards those interested in investigating and attempting to solve murder mysteries at home, fiction also worked its way into the magazine: Dashiell Hammett, author of hard-boiled classic The Maltese Falcon, and Jim Thompson, considered a classic pulp author, both wrote for True Detective.

As much as we’ve fallen in love with the open-ended story arc, an anthology program certainly has its appeal as well. As with the original True Detective magazine, I wonder if the story surrounding one crime will become less important than the process of investigation surrounding all crimes–there is a sort of process here, and there are those who put that process into action all over the country, continuously. Examining an investigation for a season-long snapshot seems like it may be just as intriguing as examining a single case over several years, which never seems to be as satisfying as we all long for it to be.

Of course the best mystery shows tend to be character studies, investigating not only criminals but the struggles of those who spend their time chasing bad guys. If there is one thing that is most promising about “True Detective,” it is that Pizzolatto seems to fully realize and embrace this aspect of the crime drama. The show’s promo carries the tagline “Man is the cruelest animal,” and after watching the first few episodes it is unclear who the message is meant to refer to: the killer the police are chasing, or the police themselves.

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