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TV: True Detective and the Rise of Literary Writing in Crime Television

At the beginning of 2014, the entire world seemed to only talk about HBO’s then-new series True Detective. If you were at work or school, it was your coworkers or classmates at the desks next to you, chatting away about Matthew McConaughey’s mullet. On social media, every other post was someone proclaiming their addiction to this new show. Your friend whom you binge watch television with once a week was texting you about it. You talked to your parents and your dad asked if you had started watching it.

If you did not start watching it immediately, it felt like the entire world was watching it, except you.

When you finally did jump on the True Detective train, you were probably immediately hooked in a very deep way—totally engrossed. You hated waiting a week for a new episode and rejoiced when you would see the new episode saved on the DVR.

There were obvious reasons for the hold that this show had on its audience. It was beautifully shot and featured incredible performances from its leads McConaughey as Detective Rust Cohle and Woody Harrelson as Detective Marty Hart, as well as the recurring cast of characters. There was something bigger than that, though—the writing.

True Detective is the brainchild of show creator, executive producer, sole writer, and showrunner Nic Pizzolatto. Pizzolatto is a relative newcomer to the world of television, but his impact is immense. Outside of True Detective, his only produced television credits were a pair of episodes from the first season of The Killing. Prior to this, Pizzolatto was a novelist and short story writer and taught fiction and literature at The University of North Carolina, The University of Chicago and DePauw University.

While there has been a history of fiction writers working in Hollywood to pay the bills, Pizzolatto still seems like an unlikely candidate to ascend so quickly from total anonymity in screenwriting to having seeming carte blanche over an HBO production.

So how does this unlikely success story happen? How does Pizzolatto even get this shot?

The answer is a familiar one—the writing.

In an interview, Pizzolatto talked about his conception of True Detective coming from a plan for his next novel. This fact is evident at every turn of the show. Each episode reveals more about the case and invites you to question everything you see and try to solve it yourself, but more importantly, each episode reveals more about Detectives Cohle and Hart. The questions raised about each of these men become more important than those about the case itself at times. You know that there are things that cannot be trusted in both of them, but you are constantly left in doubt about what those things are.

Pizzolatto is far from the first person to bring this literary approach to a crime series, but it is still in the minority within the genre. David Lynch and Mark Frost told a very literary story (though a strange one) back in 1990 with Twin Peaks, and the show itself was founded upon Frost’s longing to create a “Dickensian story about multiple lives in a contained area that could sort of go perpetually.

True Detective approaches literary television writing in a very different way, and has an incredibly narrow point of view, in contrast to Twin Peaks, (and its more on-the-rails spiritual sequel The Killing), which has an immensely wide focus and gives us glimpses into the lives of an entire town. However, Pizzolatto’s work on The Killing, and his enjoyment of Twin Peaks seems like an obvious precursor to his dedication to the no-holds-barred literary storytelling that he brought to True Detective.

The differences between The Killing and True Detective are part of the answer to the mystery of what drew viewers in so heavily, as well. When The Killing came out in 2011, people were similarly hooked. Every episode unfurled a constantly widening tapestry of mystery and intrigue and at the end of each one, you were only further maddened by the question of how all of your questions would be answered. The season one finale of The Killing answered this—they wouldn’t. At least they wouldn’t be answered in the timeframe and method the show seemed to be promising, and instead you would have to deal with a hackneyed, disappointing cliffhanger.

If most people had been told before going into watching True Detective that it was created by one of the writers responsible for the gut-punch that was the season one finale of The Killing, they probably would have gone in completely hesitant. It seems that it was Pizzolatto’s own disappointment about his experience on The Killing and the desperate tactics employed by those running the show which led to his demand for total control of his product, and therefore gave us the finished product that is the first season of True Detective.

For every True Detective or The Killing on TV now, however, there are three CSI, NCIS, or Law and Order shows, and countless others that have fallen into the tropes of these shows since the days of Twin Peaks. These shows might have an overarching, season-long plot, but they make their living (and ratings) in the now. There is a new crime each week, with the crime either being shown or discovered in the first act and a conclusion of the case coming in the final act.

These shows are still ratings killers, with the NCIS franchise having two shows in the top 5 in 2014 viewership and CSI, in its fifteenth season, still coming in at number 16. While these shows dominate in ratings, they are entirely lacking in cultural sway. They are familiar and easy to watch, and if you miss an episode, you will not be lost next week, and that’s what they’re designed to be. It seems that almost everyone’s mom falls asleep to NCIS almost nightly and couldn’t tell you what happened at the end of the episode, yet continues to come back for more. As Annie discussed recently, the predictability of these shows is a balancing force against the horrific violence portrayed, which makes these shows easily accessible for casual television viewers, but sucks away any cultural importance they could potentially have.

A huge aspect of what sets True Detective apart from these network procedurals is a look into the grind of solving crimes. When the show brings us into the police station, we see detectives working hard on massive piles of paperwork. There are no supercomputers instantly matching fingerprints. There aren’t daily shootouts. Police work and connecting data is at the forefront. It doesn’t take the easy way out, but instead frequently chooses the hard way, which makes the overall product even more satisfying as it comes to a conclusion.

To say that True Detective or other shows of this same literary vein are devoid of some of the inaccuracies of television crime shows would be far from the truth. There are still shootouts and detectives going outside the law to solve the case (including the most suspenseful and gripping scene in recent television history in episode four). However, these moments are still done from a compelling and literary angle, and not one of familiarity and predictability.

With the immense success and renewal of True Detective, as well as shows such as The Killing (outside of its total failure of a final season), Top of the Lake, The Fall, and the announced 2016 revival of Twin Peaks, a literary approach to crime television is on the rise. While it may never unseat the episodic procedurals in ratings, they have already arrived to a place of pop culture superiority. For fans of well-written television, it is a welcome change.

Words by Zachary Evans

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About zacharymevans (1 Article)
I’m Zachary, a 25 year old creative writing graduate from Boise, Idaho, USA. I have an absurdly wide field of interests, stemming from a childhood filled with ADD. I am a musician (if you can call a bass player that) and spend my money irresponsibly on vintage music gear and going to shows. Otherwise, you can find me constantly reading books (especially short story collections), watching TV shows and movies, or trying to convince my ancient Corgi, Fenway, to love me like he used to.

1 Comment on TV: True Detective and the Rise of Literary Writing in Crime Television

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