True Detective (season 1)
|Country of origin||United States|
|No. of episodes||8|
|Original release||January 12 –|
March 9, 2014
The first season of True Detective, an American anthology crime drama television series created by Nic Pizzolatto, premiered on January 12, 2014, on the premium cable network HBO. The principal cast consisted of Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Potts, and Tory Kittles. The season had eight episodes, and its initial airing concluded on March 9, 2014. As an anthology, each True Detective season has its own self-contained story, following a disparate set of characters in various settings.
Constructed as a nonlinear narrative, season one focuses on Louisiana State Police homicide detectives Rustin "Rust" Cohle (McConaughey) and Martin "Marty" Hart (Harrelson), who investigated the murder of prostitute Dora Lange in 1995. Seventeen years later, they must revisit the investigation, along with several other unsolved crimes. During this time, Hart's infidelity threatens his marriage to Maggie (Monaghan), and Cohle struggles to cope with his troubled past. True Detective's first season explores themes of philosophical pessimism, masculinity, and Christianity; critics have analyzed the show's portrayal of women, its auteurist sensibility, and the influence of comics and weird horror fiction on its narrative.
Pizzolatto initially conceived True Detective as a novel, but felt it was more suitable for television. The episodes, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, were filmed in Louisiana over a three-month period. The series was widely acclaimed by critics and was cited as one of the strongest dramas of the 2014 television season. It was a candidate for numerous awards, including a Primetime Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Drama Series and a Golden Globe Award for Best Miniseries or Television Film, and won several other honors for writing, cinematography, direction, and acting.
|Title||Directed by||Written by||Original air date||U.S. viewers|
|1||1||"The Long Bright Dark"||Cary Joji Fukunaga||Nic Pizzolatto||January 12, 2014||2.33|
Vermilion Parish, Louisiana, January 3, 1995. State homicide detectives Martin "Marty" Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rustin "Rust" Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) investigate the murder of a prostitute, 28-year-old Dora Lange. Her corpse is found posed as if in prayer, her head is crowned with deer antlers, and her body is surrounded by twig latticeworks closely resembling Cajun bird traps. Hart and Cohle turn to a five-year-old missing-persons case of a child named Marie Fontenot. Around the same time, another child claimed to have been chased through the woods by a "green-eared spaghetti monster." At the insistence of his wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan), Hart invites Cohle to dinner, but is infuriated when Cohle arrives drunk. While following up on the Fontenot disappearance, they discover another twig latticework.
Seventeen years later in May 2012, Hart and Cohle are separately interviewed about the Lange investigation by detectives Thomas Papania (Tory Kittles) and Maynard Gilbough (Michael Potts). Hart and Cohle have not spoken since an altercation in 2002. The crime scene of a recently slain woman closely resembles the Lange murder scene, suggesting that despite Cohle and Hart's claims of apprehending the killer in 1995, the killer may remain at large.
|2||2||"Seeing Things"||Cary Joji Fukunaga||Nic Pizzolatto||January 19, 2014||1.67|
1995. Animosity between Cohle and Hart flares after Cohle suspects Hart is cheating on Maggie. Reverend Billy Lee Tuttle (Jay O. Sanders), a celebrated evangelist and cousin of the governor, advocates a police task force focusing on "anti-Christian crimes," including the Lange murder. Hart and Cohle's investigation leads them to a remote ranch harboring runaway girls who work there as prostitutes. They find Lange's diary, which contains repeated references to "Carcosa" and a "Yellow King," at the ranch. In the wreckage of a burnt-out church Lange attended, they find a wall painting depicting a human figure wearing deer antlers.
In 2012, Cohle reflects on his daughter's death in a car accident, which led to the collapse of his marriage and his spending four years as an undercover narcotics investigator. His undercover career ended with a lethal gunfight, after which he was hospitalized in a psychiatric institution. After his release, Cohle requested a job in homicide and was partnered with Hart. Cohle reveals that he experiences brief, intermittent episodes of visual hallucinations caused by years of drug use while working as an undercover officer. Shots from 1995 show that Cohle occasionally suffers these hallucinations when he is with Hart, but he does not discuss them. Hart is now divorced from Maggie for reasons unrevealed.
|3||3||"The Locked Room"||Cary Joji Fukunaga||Nic Pizzolatto||January 26, 2014||1.93|
1995. Hart and Cohle, after speaking with pastor Joel Theriot (Shea Whigham), learn that Lange was sometimes seen at church with a tall man with distinctive facial scarring. Their investigation continues in the face of pressure to turn the case over to Tuttle's new task force. Hart enters a jealous rage when he discovers his mistress Lisa (Alexandra Daddario) with another man. While researching old investigations, Cohle identifies symbols similar to the Lange case in the death of Rianne Olivier, which was classified as accidental. Hart and Cohle visit Light of the Way Academy, a religious school run by Tuttle that Olivier attended, but find it abandoned save for a groundskeeper on a riding lawnmower, whom Cohle questions. They discover that Olivier's boyfriend, Reggie Ledoux (Charles Halford) is an ex-con who was a cellmate of Dora Lange's ex-husband, Charlie, and has since skipped parole. The detectives put out an APB on Reggie Ledoux.
2012. The interviews continue, revealing Hart's questionable moral views and Cohle's nihilistic views of humanity.
|4||4||"Who Goes There"||Cary Joji Fukunaga||Nic Pizzolatto||February 9, 2014||1.99|
In 1995, Charlie Lange (Brad Carter) says he showed pictures of Dora to Ledoux. Hart tracks down an associate of Ledoux's and forces him to reveal Ledoux's meth operation with the Iron Crusaders, a biker gang out of East Texas. Cohle, who had been a member of the gang while undercover, takes personal leave to infiltrate it, saying he needs to visit his dying father. Lisa reveals the affair to Maggie, who leaves the house with their daughters. Hart confronts Maggie at her workplace; Cohle extricates him from a standoff with security officers. Cohle's contact in the Iron Crusaders, Ginger (Joseph Sikora), promises access to the gang's meth supply in exchange for Cohle's (who is known to the gang as "Crash") help robbing a rival gang. The robbery goes badly, with fatalities on both sides and rising chaos in the rival gang's neighborhood. Cohle is forced to take Ginger prisoner and escape in Hart's car.
In 2012, Hart and Cohle both maintain the story of Cohle's sick father in the face of skeptical questioning by Papania and Gilbough.
|5||5||"The Secret Fate of All Life"||Cary Joji Fukunaga||Nic Pizzolatto||February 16, 2014||2.25|
In 1995, Ginger introduces Cohle to DeWall Ledoux (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), Reggie's cousin and meth-cooking partner. DeWall refuses to do business with Cohle, but unwittingly leads him and Hart to a meth lab hidden in the bayou. There, Hart apprehends Reggie Ledoux, who makes cryptic statements about "Carcosa". Hart kills Reggie in a rage after discovering two kidnapped and abused children, a boy and a girl, in the compound. DeWall flees but dies after triggering a homemade booby trap. Hart and Cohle plant evidence to make it look as though an intense shootout has taken place, a scenario they report to a police investigation. They are hailed as heroes at the police station and in the press, and they receive commendations and promotions.
By 2002, Hart and Maggie have reconciled and Cohle is dating again. While Cohle is consulting on a police interrogation, the prisoner asks for a plea bargain in exchange for information about Dora Lange's killer, who he claims is still at large and killing. He mentions the "Yellow King," which gets Cohle's attention. The prisoner kills himself in his cell before Cohle can investigate his claims. Cohle returns to Light of the Way Academy, where he finds dozens of twig sculptures and dark imagery on the walls.
In 2012, Papania and Gilbough tell Hart they suspect that Cohle, who they allege conveniently led Hart to every clue or lead in the case, has been orchestrating the killings. Cohle is also a person of interest in Rev. Billy Lee Tuttle's suspicious death two years earlier, which was around the time Cohle returned to Louisiana. Cohle walks out of his interview after the detectives accuse him.
|6||6||"Haunted Houses"||Cary Joji Fukunaga||Nic Pizzolatto||February 23, 2014||2.64|
In 2002, Cohle links a series of missing persons to Tuttle-funded schools. A former pastor in Tuttle's ministries claims Tuttle covered up child molestation. Ledoux's surviving victim, now institutionalized with regressive catatonia, tells Cohle about a third attacker—a giant man with scars—and begins screaming when Cohle asks her about the man's face. Tuttle complains to the police department following a tense meeting with Cohle, who has been warned to cease his investigation and is suspended from duty. Hart begins an affair with Beth (Lili Simmons), a former underage prostitute whom he interviewed in 1995 while working on the Lange case. After Maggie discovers the new affair, she tempts a drunk Cohle and has sex with him. After she tells Hart about it, he and Cohle fight in the police station parking lot. Cohle quits the police force immediately after the fight.
In 2012, Papania and Gilbough interview Maggie, who deflects their questions. Hart walks out of his interview in response to Papania and Gilbough's accusations against Cohle. Cohle seeks out Hart and they agree to meet and talk.
|7||7||"After You've Gone"||Cary Joji Fukunaga||Nic Pizzolatto||March 2, 2014||2.34|
|In 2012, Cohle presents Hart with evidence of a cult he believes is responsible for the disappearance of dozens of women and children along the coast in Louisiana. Among the evidence is a videotape, which Cohle stole from a safe in Rev. Tuttle's home, of men in costumes and masks ritualistically raping and murdering Marie Fontenot (the missing-child case they briefly investigated in 1995). Cohle denies killing Tuttle, speculating that others did it to prevent Tuttle from being blackmailed over the tape. Hart, shaken from watching the videotape, agrees to join the investigation. They learn that Tuttle had an illegitimate half-brother with the surname Childress, whose son had scars on his face. They also learn that their former colleague Steve Geraci (Michael Harney) was ordered by his boss Ted Childress—then the sheriff of Vermilion Parish—to cut short his investigation of Fontenot's disappearance. Hart and Cohle accost Geraci to coerce the details from him, threatening him if he should try to go to the authorities or have them arrested. Gilbough and Papania ask the same groundskeeper Cohle encountered at Light of the Way Academy in 1995 for directions to the burnt-out church. They drive off without noticing the lower part of his face is heavily scarred.|
|8||8||"Form and Void"||Cary Joji Fukunaga||Nic Pizzolatto||March 9, 2014||3.52|
|In 2012, the "man with the scars" is shown living in a large house in squalor with a female relative with whom he has a sexual relationship. Later, he goes to work painting a school and watches children on the playground. Hart and Cohle extract details from Geraci by showing him the Fontenot tape. Hart thinks the "green-eared spaghetti monster" may have been the scarred man covered in green paint after painting a house in Dora Lange's neighborhood in 1995. They trace the paint job to a small business owned by William Childress that employed a man with facial scars. They visit William Childress's home and Cohle pursues the scarred man, Errol Childress, through a labyrinth of trees and tunnels that Errol identifies as Carcosa. Cohle briefly sees a hallucination of a sort of spiraling vortex before he is attacked by Errol. Hart runs to Cohle's aid and they both fight Errol. They are all severely wounded, but Cohle manages to kill Errol via a gunshot to the head. While Hart and Cohle recover in hospital, Papania and Gilbough connect Errol to dozens of missing-person cases and murders, including Dora Lange's, finding several bodies buried in the yard. The Tuttles escape prosecution, but are publicly disgraced. Hart breaks down in tears when Maggie and their daughters visit him. Afterward, the two detectives reflect on the ongoing universal battle between light and dark.|
- Matthew McConaughey as Detective Rustin "Rust" Cohle
- Woody Harrelson as Detective Martin "Marty" Hart
- Michelle Monaghan as Maggie Hart
- Michael Potts as Detective Maynard Gilbough
- Tory Kittles as Detective Thomas Papania
- Kevin Dunn as Major Ken Quesada
- Alexandra Daddario as Lisa Tragnetti
- Michael Harney as Sheriff Steve Geraci
- Elizabeth Reaser as Laurie Perkins
- J. D. Evermore as Detective Bobby Lutz
- Madison Wolfe as young Audrey Hart
- Erin Moriarty as teenage Audrey Hart
- Meghan Wolfe as young Macie Hart
- Brighton Sharbino as teenage Macie Hart
- Don Yesso as Commander Speece
- Brad Carter as Charlie Lange
- Lili Simmons as Beth
- Jay O. Sanders as Billy Lee Tuttle
- Shea Whigham as Joel Theriot
- Glenn Fleshler as Errol Childress
- Charles Halford as Reggie Ledoux
- Joseph Sikora as Ginger
- Paul Ben-Victor as Major Leroy Salter
Before creating True Detective, Nic Pizzolatto had taught at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, DePauw University, and the University of Chicago. Inspired by HBO's series The Wire, The Sopranos, and Deadwood, he began working on a short story collection that he later published as Between Here and the Yellow Sea in 2006. He published a novel, Galveston, in 2010, and began trying to write for television. His earlier attempts at television writing were unsuccessful because of a lack of money. Pizzolatto's first major gig in television writing came in 2011, as a screenwriter for AMC's series The Killing. He credits the show with giving him a glimpse of the inner workings of the television industry. Pizzolatto grew increasingly dissatisfied with the series' creative direction, and left two weeks into staff writing sessions for its second season.
True Detective was intended to be a novel, but once the project took definite form, Pizzolatto thought the narrative's shifts in time and perspective made it more suitable for television. He pitched an adaptation of Galveston, and from May to July 2010 he developed six screenplays, including an early, 90-page draft of the True Detective pilot script. Pizzolatto secured a development deal with HBO for a potential pilot series shortly thereafter. He wrote a second True Detective script soon after his departure from The Killing thanks to the support of production company and manager Anonymous Content, which ultimately produced and developed the project in-house. By April 2012, following a heated bidding period, HBO commissioned eight episodes of True Detective, with a budget of $4–4.5 million per episode. Pizzolatto did not hire a writing staff because he believed a collaborative approach would not work with his isolated, novelistic process, and that a group would not achieve his desired result. After working alone for about three months, the final copy of the project script was 500 pages long.
Cast and crew
Because the series is an anthology, each season has a self-contained narrative, following a disparate set of characters in various settings. Pizzolatto began contemplating the lead roles while he was pitching the series to networks in early 2012. True Detective's anthology format required actors to commit to only a single season, so Pizzolatto was able to attract film stars who normally avoid television series because of their busy schedules. Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey were among the actors Pizzolatto considered for star billing. McConaughey, who had recently finished filming Killer Joe (2011), was contracted well before HBO commissioned the season. Impressed with his performance in The Lincoln Lawyer (2011), Pizzolatto at first assigned him to play Hart, but McConaughey convinced him to give him the part of Cohle. When asked in a Variety interview about his decision to switch parts, the actor replied, "I wanted to get in that dude's head. The obsession, the island of a man—I'm always looking for a guy who monologues. It's something really important as I feel I'm going into my better work." To prepare for the role, McConaughey created a 450-page analysis—the "Four Stages of Rustin Cohle"—to study his character's evolution during the season.
Harrelson was the season's next significant casting choice, brought on to play Hart at McConaughey's request. Harrelson stated that he joined True Detective partly because he wanted to work with certain people involved in the project, with whom he had previously collaborated in the 2012 HBO film Game Change. Michelle Monaghan agreed to play the season's female lead, Maggie, because she felt compelled by the direction of the plot and her character's story arc. Michael Potts and Tory Kittles completed the principal cast, playing detectives Maynard Gilbough and Thomas Papania, respectively. Major supporting roles in True Detective's first season include Kevin Dunn as Major Ken Quesada, Alexandra Daddario as Lisa Tragnetti, and Brad Carter as Charlie Lange.
Pizzolatto narrowed his search for a suitable director to Cary Joji Fukunaga, whom he knew from Anonymous Content, and Alejandro González Iñárritu. Fukunaga was formally appointed as director after Iñárritu pulled out of the project due to film commitments. In preparation for his work on the series, Fukunaga spent time with a homicide detective of the Louisiana State Police's Criminal Investigations Division to develop an accurate depiction of a 1990s homicide detective's work. Fukunaga recruited Adam Arkapaw, director of photography of Top of the Lake, as project cinematographer. Arkapaw came to the director's attention for his work in Animal Kingdom (2010) and Snowtown (2011), and was hired after the two negotiated a deal at a meeting in San Francisco. Alex DiGerlando, whom Fukunaga had worked with on Benh Zeitlin's Glory at Sea in 2008, was appointed as the production designer. Fukunaga said in an interview, "I knew what Alex accomplished in the swamps of Louisiana and given some money, how much more amazing he could be in building sets that would just be used for one or two days and be abandoned again."
Initially, True Detective's first season was due to shoot in Arkansas, but Pizzolatto later chose to film in Louisiana to take advantage of state tax incentives and the area's distinctive landscape: "There's a contradictory nature to the place and a sort of sinister quality underneath it all ... everything lives under layers of concealment. The woods are thick and dark and impenetrable. On the other hand you have the beauty of it all from a distance."
Principal photography took three months (between 100 and 110 days), from January to June 2013, with approximately five minutes of film shot per day. Production staff constructed various set pieces, among them a scorched chapel, Joel Theriot's tent revival, and the Louisiana State Criminal Investigations Division offices, the last of which they built inside an abandoned light bulb warehouse near Elmwood. For the Dora Lange crime scene, the crew filmed exterior shots at a remote sugarcane field outside Erath which, because it was partially burned, inspired what DiGerlando called a "moody and atmospheric" backdrop for the corresponding interior scenes.
The scene in which Cohle, taking Ginger hostage, escapes a housing complex amidst gunfire, was captured in Bridge City as a single six-minute tracking shot, a technique Fukunaga had employed in Sin Nombre (2009) and Jane Eyre (2011). Shot in seven takes, preparation for the scene was extensive and demanding: McConaughey trained with Mark Norby to master a fighting style for his character, and the nature of the shoot required a team of stunt coordinators, make-up artists, and special effects crew on hand during its entire course. Elsewhere, shooting took place at the old Kenner High School campus and nineteenth-century Fort Macomb, located outside New Orleans.
The entire season was shot on 35 mm film, which the production staff chose to achieve a certain texture, as well as a "nostalgic" quality. The season was filmed using a Panavision Millennium XL2 camera, and the choice of lens corresponded to the period when a scene took place. Scenes set in 1995 and 2002 were captured with Panavision PVintage lenses, which produced a softer image because they were made of recycled, low-contrast glass. As these scenes were written as a reflection of Cohle and Hart's memory, production sought to make them as cinematic as possible, to reflect what Arkapaw called "the fragmentation of their lucid imaginations back through their past." To achieve this, they relied on wider lenses to exaggerate composition. The 2012 scenes were shot with Panavision Primo lenses: the visual palette in comparison was sharper and had much more contrast, lending a "modern, crisp feeling" to the images, and, according to Arkapaw, pulling "characters out from their environments to hopefully help audiences get inside their heads".
Joshua Walsh was responsible for creating True Detective's artwork. His work for the show consists of over 100 individual "devil's nests"—twig sculptures created by the killer—along with wall paintings and miniature sculptures of men made of beer cans, among others. According to DiGerlando, Walsh's interests in hunting and taxidermy made him "the perfect dude for the job". A blueprint for the devil's nests was not well established in the script, other than specifications that the structures be able to stand on their own and feature a spiral motif. DiGerlando and Walsh went with a tripod design that showed a spiral when viewed from the base, and contained ladder-like crossing elements that symbolized the killer's desire to ascend to a dark spiritual plane. Each design had subtle differences from one another. DiGerlando cited the work of Henry Darger and James Charles Castle as strong stylistic influences and sought a primitive look for the sculptures, one that revealed the workings of a man with "some deep inner urge to express himself". To reflect this, Walsh built devil's nests using mud, secondhand children's clothing, reeds, roots, and other materials he felt the killer would use.
The season's title sequence was a collaboration between director Patrick Clair, his Santa Monica-based studio Elastic, his Sydney-based studio Antibody, and Brisbane-based company Breeder. The design team emphasized southern Louisiana's industrial landscape because it reflected the characters' traits and personal, inner struggles. Clair stated that from the start he had an "unusually clear" vision of True Detective's finished opening sequence. Using Richard Misrach's photography book Petrochemical America (2012) as a template, the production team initially photographed the local scenery, and the resulting images were woven together to form the core of the title sequence. By the time production began animating, they faced several problems: the photographic stills were too grainy and the footage was too jagged. As a result, many shots were digitally altered and slowed to about a tenth of their original speed, which, according to Clair, "evoked a surreal and floaty mood that perfectly captured what we were after."
Creation of a 3D effect required the design team to use an assortment of low-poly meshes, or 3D geometric models. Using a variety of animation and special effects techniques, these images were later superimposed "with painstaking care" to avoid a sterile, digitized look. Clair said, "The most crucial thing to me was that this didn't feel digital, so we went to great lengths to incorporate as much organic imagery as possible." For some stills, the design team created digital doubles to develop more texture. The sequence's final cut was polished using optical glitching and motion distortion techniques. The Sydney Morning Herald included the opening sequence in a list of ten of the best title sequences on television.
Season one's opening theme is "Far from Any Road", an alternative country song originally composed by The Handsome Family for their 2003 album Singing Bones. The True Detective soundtrack features a compilation of gospel and blues music, which were selected by Pizzolatto and T Bone Burnett. The pair opposed the use of Cajun music and swamp blues for the season's musical score because they felt it was overdone. Burnett said the score was intended to be character-driven, rather than inspired by other crime fiction drama. Songs by Bo Diddley, Melvins, Primus, The Staple Singers, Grinderman, Wu-Tang Clan, Vashti Bunyan, Townes Van Zandt, Juice Newton, and Captain Beefheart appear in season one. Burnett also composed original pieces with Rhiannon Giddens, who used a Swarmatron synthesizer, and Cassandra Wilson. HBO released an abridged soundtrack album, featuring 14 tracks from True Detective's first two seasons, on August 14, 2015, through physical media and iTunes.
Themes and analysis
Masculinity and depiction of women
Commentators have noted masculinity as a theme in True Detective. Christopher Lirette of Southern Spaces said the show was about "men living in a brutally masculine world" and women are depicted as "things-to-be-saved and erotic obstacles" à la Double Indemnity (1944) and Chinatown (1974). Slate's Willa Paskin said True Detective's depiction of its female characters—as sex workers, the deceased and "a nagging wife"—seemed to reveal an intent to reflect the protagonists' "blinkered worldview and the very masculine, Southern cop culture they inhabited". Some commentators saw Hart's characterization as a manifestation of this idea, evident through his conventional view of women as virgins and whores, as well as his treatment of Maggie and Audrey. When Hart confronts the two men who had sex with Audrey, he is in essence "charging other men a price for infringing on the daughter he sees, in a muddled way, as both deserving of protection and badly in need of being controlled".
In her piece for Salon, Janet Turley said that the women "become reflections of the men", given that the True Detective universe is seen through the eyes of the show's male leads. Sam Adams of Indiewire contended that the story was about "the horrible things men do to women", many of which are never reported to or investigated by authorities. Adams wrote, "No one missed Dora Lange. Marie Fontenot disappeared, and the police let a rumor stop them from following up". He said the role of women was more profound because Cohle suffers through his ex-wife and deceased daughter and Hart is unable to "deal appropriately with the women who are there". According to Scott Wilson, a cultural studies lecturer at Kingston University, women are categorized as "the superegoic, the obscene and the sacred". Maggie, in Wilson's interpretation, is portrayed as the superegoic wife who "constantly makes demands on her guilty husband or partner tying him or her down and deflecting him or her from his symbolic role as police".
The philosopher Erin K. Stapleton subscribes to the theory that Dora Lange's corpse serves to "provide the initial territory or orientation through which the communities of True Detective are formed." It is through Dora's corpse that Cohle and Hart's partnership is first clearly articulated and in addition to their own bond, "the intimate knowledge" of her body is the basis of all of the other relationships in their respective lives. Her narrative thus, by proxy, influences both men's character development as they delve into the case.
True Detective explores Christianity and the dichotomy between religion and rationality. Born into a devout Catholic household, Pizzolatto said that as a child he saw religion as storytelling that acts "as an escape from the truth". According to Andrew Romano at The Daily Beast, the season alludes to Pizzolatto's childhood and creates a parallel between Christianity and the supernatural theology of "Carcosa": "Both ... are stories. Stories people tell themselves to escape reality. Stories that 'violate every law of the universe.'" Romano believed this message is not critical of religion per se; rather it shows how the "power of storytelling" and religious zeal "can wind [you] up in some pretty sick places." Jeff Jensen from Entertainment Weekly has opined that the show becomes more self-aware through Cohle's harsh critiques of religion, which he viewed as a vehicle for commentary about pop culture escapism. Stapleton observed that the crimes on True Detective—through its victims and the implications of sacrifice and sexual violence—"respond to the conservative Christianity from which they originate, and seek to exploit the opportunities for the pleasure of transgression such a structure offers."
Theorist Edia Connole saw connections to Philip Marlowe and Le Morte d'Arthur's Lancelot in True Detective's presentation of Cohle, all "knights whose duty to their liege lord is tempered with devotion to God." Other aspects of True Detective evoke Christian imagery, including the opening scene, which Connole felt mirrored the crucifixion of Jesus. The author and philosopher Finn Janning argued that Cohle's evolution illustrates an affinity between Buddhism and philosophical pessimism. A self-proclaimed pessimist, Cohle is, however, changed by a near-death experience in the season finale, in which he has an epiphany, seeing death as "pure love": this echoes the Buddhist concept of rigpa.
Philosophical pessimism and influences
Critics have offered many readings of the influence of weird and horror fiction on True Detective's narrative, often examining the influence of Robert W. Chambers' short story collection The King in Yellow (1895) and Thomas Ligotti. Allusions to The King in Yellow can be observed in the show's dark philosophy, its recurring use of "Carcosa" and "The Yellow King" as motifs throughout the series, and its symbolic use of yellow as a thematic signature that signifies insanity and decadence. Pizzolatto was accused of plagiarizing Ligotti because of close similarities between lines in True Detective and text from Ligotti's nonfiction book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (2010)—accusations Pizzolatto denied, while acknowledging Ligotti's influence.
Other philosophers and writers identified as influences include Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Gilles Deleuze, Ray Brassier, Emil Cioran, and Eugene Thacker. Mathijs Peters, in a piece for Film International, argued that True Detective probes Schopenhauerian philosophy through its approach to individuality, self-denial, the battle between dark and light. Ben Woodard noted the show's evolving philosophy, which examines a setting where culture, religion and society are the consequences of biological weakness. Woodward wrote, "Biological programming gets recuperated and socially redistributed visions, faiths, and acerbic personalities take the reins of uncertain ends creating a world where 'people go away'." Even the setting, Fintan Neylan argued, emphasizes a world "where the decrepitude of human ordering cannot be hidden". "This is not a place where hope fled; it is a place where hope could never take root. It is with these people and environs that the real horror is sourced". Neylan observed that Cohle's actions are not motivated by misanthropy, rather a drive to challenge "those who try to either disguise or manipulate this frailty of humans for their own benefit". Cohle ultimately confronts "an entire philosophical history which has taken its task as that of sweeping frailty away". Christopher Orr at The Atlantic said True Detective was "Fincherian in the best sense", a fusion of Se7en (1995) and Zodiac (2007), because of its subject matter, sleek cinematography and "vivid, unsettling" aura.
Some commentators noted further influences from comic book literature. Adams likened Cohle to the protagonist of Alan Moore's The Courtyard and drew parallels with Grant Morrison's The Invisibles for the show's brief exploration of M-theory with one of Cohle's monologs. ComicsAlliance and New York columnist Abraham Riesman cited Top 10 as the inspiration for the season finale based on dialogue from the episode's closing scene.
Another major topic of discussion among critics has been True Detective's auteurist sensibility. Auteurism (from the French auteur, "author") is a critical framework in which films (or other works of art) are assessed as reflections of the personal vision of individual authors, typically the director or writer. Authorship of a television series is most commonly ascribed to the showrunner, usually a creator of a series who fills a dual role as head writer and executive producer. For example, the crime drama Twin Peaks (1990–91) is often interpreted as a product of the contrasting visions of its co-creators, David Lynch and Mark Frost, each of whom exercised varying degrees of control over the course of its first two seasons and later sequels. Colin Robertson at The List saw Twin Peaks as the most notable artistic antecedent to True Detective's first season, seeing that both shows challenge generic crime drama cliches and "use the genre conventions of a whodunnit-style mystery as a sublimely subversive diving board, and leap off from there to tell a broader story."
From the perspective of auteur theory, the first season of True Detective is noteworthy for its reliance on only a single screenwriter and a single director: not only did Pizzolatto serve as showrunner, but he and Fukunaga were at the helm of each episode as sole writer and director, respectively. The partnership of a sole writer and sole director was virtually unique in the traditionally collaborative medium of television production, as most series involve a writing staff and a set of several directors working in tandem over the course of a season. Scott Timberg at Salon noted that Pizzolatto's previous writing experience was not in film or television but literary fiction, a "more purely auteurist form" for which total creative control by an individual author is the norm.
Fukunaga did not return for the second season, which instead featured six directors across eight episodes, and Pizzolatto retained control of the writing. Met with mixed reviews, season two prompted critics to reevaluate the "auteurist" perspective on the previous season. A critical consensus held that, in hindsight, the response to season one had overestimated the extent of Pizzolatto's individual creative responsibility. Ryan Lattanzio at IndieWire posited that Fukunaga's direction of the first season in its entirety had resulted in a consistent vision that counterbalanced "Pizzolatto's tendency to overwrite, and undercook". Conversely, Brian Tallerico of RogerEbert.com recognized the common view that Fukunaga had provided "balance" to "Pizzolatto's overwriting" but argued "the balance came equally" from Harrelson and McConaughey playing against type in serious roles, as both actors were "widely-known as 'laid-back dudes,' often in comedies as much as drama".
True Detective debuted to 2.3 million U.S. viewers, becoming HBO's highest rated series premiere since the pilot episode of Boardwalk Empire. Ratings remained steady and peaked at the finale, which drew 3.5 million viewers. Overall, season one averaged 2.33 million viewers, and its average gross audience (which includes DVR recordings, reruns, and HBO Go streaming) totaled 11.9 million viewers per episode, thus becoming HBO's highest rated freshman show since the first season of Six Feet Under 13 years earlier.
True Detective, coming as it does after what was arguably the best year for dramas in at least five years ... just puts an exclamation point on the topic of excessive quality.
The American press considered True Detective to be among the best television shows of 2014. Many critics complimented the work of both lead actors, often singling out McConaughey for further praise, with his work described as "jaw-droppingly great" and "simply magnetic". Some reviewers singled out simple conversational scenes, often in claustrophobic interiors, as some of the best acting in the series. The characterization received mixed reviews: Cohle's speeches, described by HuffPost as "mesmerizing monologues", and by Vanity Fair as dense and interesting material, were criticized by the New York Post as "'70s-era psycho-babble" which slowed down the story. Several critics viewed the portrayals of women as stereotypical: "either angry or aroused", though Michelle Monaghan was praised for her performance in a "thankless role".
Pizzolatto and Fukunaga, as sole writer and director of the entire series, were able to exercise much stronger control over the show than is usual for a TV series, which let the show take risks: the pacing, dialogue, and cinematography all departed at times from the expectations for a television drama. Pizzolatto's scripts drew occasional criticism as "self-consciously literary" and overwritten, and several journalists attributed mistakes in the script to Pizzolatto's inexperience in writing TV drama. Despite the criticism, the Daily Telegraph and Uproxx described the season as "ambitious" and "dense with event and meaning". The flashback structure also divided critics: it was described as "impressively seamless", and "a major asset", but the fragmented approach to storytelling was considered a flaw by others. Uproxx praised Fukunaga's atmospheric and "hauntingly beautiful" cinematography, and The Boston Globe complimented the "spare, hollow, percussive" soundtrack, with Uproxx crediting the creative control the two men wielded for the quality of the result.
The story of two mismatched detectives working on a case was described by several critics as a cliché, though many reviewers felt this was made into a strength: The Daily Beast, for example, described the narrative as having "the potential to be revolutionary", and the Grantland reviewer felt that "the form is truly radical and forward-thinking", though he added that "the content is anything but". Emily Nussbaum, writing for The New Yorker, was also critical, considering the real story to be "a simpler tale: one about heroic male outlines and closeups of female asses"; she described the philosophical monologs as "dorm room deep talk" and argued that the show had "fallen for its own sales pitch". Other reviewers were more positive: comments ranged from "as frighteningly nervy and furious in its delivery and intent as prime David Lynch", to "one of the most riveting and provocative series I've ever seen".
As the nominations for the 66th Primetime Emmy Awards approached, early media reports named True Detective among several potential miniseries candidates, due to a revision made by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences that recognized film and miniseries content as distinct categories. By March 2014, HBO had submitted True Detective as a drama series contender, an unconventional move given the show's anthology format and fierce competition from the likes of Breaking Bad and House of Cards. HBO's decision was censured by FX president John Landgraf, who remarked to reporters at a press event: "My own personal point of view is that a miniseries is a story that ends, a series is a story that continues. To tell you the truth, I think it's actually unfair for HBO to put True Detective in the drama series category because essentially you can get certain actors to do a closed-ended series – a la Billy Bob Thornton in Fargo or Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in True Detective – who you can't get to sign on for a seven-year [regular drama series] deal." Nevertheless, True Detective emerged as a frontrunner heading into the Primetime Emmy season, and in July 2014, was nominated for twelve awards; its closest rival, Breaking Bad, received sixteen nominations. The series ultimately won five Emmy awards: Outstanding Directing (Fukunaga), Outstanding Casting, Outstanding Main Title Design, Outstanding Make-Up, and Outstanding Cinematography.
True Detective was a candidate for a variety of awards, most of which recognized outstanding achievement in direction, cinematography, writing, and acting. It received four Golden Globe nominations, among them for Best Miniseries or Television Film, and a TCA Award for Program of the Year. Among the show's wins include a British Academy Television Award (BAFTA) for Best International Programme, a Writers Guild of America Award in the Dramatic Series category, and a Critics' Choice Television Award for Best Actor in a Drama Series (McConaughey).
On June 10, 2014, HBO Home Entertainment released the first season of True Detective on DVD and Blu-ray Disc formats. In addition to the eight episodes, both formats contain bonus content including interviews with McConaughey and Harrelson, Pizzolatto, and composer Burnett on the show's development, "Inside the Episode" featurettes, two audio commentaries, and deleted scenes from the season. During its first week of sale in the United States, True Detective was the number two-selling TV series on DVD and Blu-ray Disc, selling 65,208 copies.
In 2020, the show was available on HBO's streaming service, HBO Max.
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