On HBO's True Detective, Murder Isn't the Biggest Mystery
by Adam Bryant
Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey
On its face, HBO’s True Detective looks like a number of other dark and twisted serial killer murder mysteries. But it becomes clear very early on that the show’s creator, novelist Nic Pizzolatto, has much more on his mind.
“I’m not interested in creating disgusting monsters or the most bizarre serial killer ever,” Pizzolatto tells TVGuide.com. “My primary concern is always the humanism of the characters. Where the show gains its power for an audience, I think, is in things that aren’t investigative at all. It’s in two men talking to one another in a car. It’s in a man coming over to another man’s house for dinner and eating with his family. Those are the things that always interest me.”
In this case, the two men riding in a car are Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), two detectives in Louisiana’s Criminal Investigation Division who team up for a murder case in 1995. Because the body is staged in a ritualistic manner, Cohle, a relative newcomer to the squad, instantly assumes the detectives have stepped into a much bigger web of darkness. And even though Hart initially tries to tamp down Cohle’s suspicions (“You’ve got to stop saying odd sh–,” he says at one point), he eventually is won over by Cohle’s crack detective skills.
If this sounds like something you’ve see on The Following, Hannibal, or The Killing, the latter of which employed Pizzolatto during its first season, Pizzolatto encourages you to look just a bit deeper. “When I wrote the first script, it was July of 2010. So I can at least say there weren’t quite so many shows like that on the air at that point,” he says with a laugh. “But any genre can do more. With the police procedural, I think there are a couple tropes there that audiences are incredibly familiar with. … [I wanted] to use those things as sort of anchors of familiarity for the audience. Then you use that familiarity to gain their attention and trust and then subvert those conceits… through the characters themselves.”
And these characters have plenty of mysteries to unpack. Cohle has a broken marriage and a checkered past he left in Texas, while Hart struggles with being faithful to his wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan). And though the season will track the murder investigation in 1995, the story is also told from each man’s point of view as they’re being interviewed by a new pair of detectives (Tory Kittles and Michael Potts ) in 2012, 10 years after the former partners have severed their relationship for a reason not yet known. And it’s that mystery that might actually be the key to unlocking the series.
“What happened in that 17 years and how we’re connected is really the fun of the eight episodes,” McConaughey told reporters at the Television Critics Association winter previews. “You’re going to find out, is what I’m telling the truth? Is what he’s telling the truth? Where are our stories the same? Where do they veer from what really happened?”
Despite the timeline jumping, the story is pretty easy to follow, if for no other reason than how haggard McConaughey’s character looks in present day, where he divides his days into two shifts: working and drinking. “[In 1995, he's] a guy who is coming back on to a case, just barely hanging onto the rails. He needs a case to keep his sh– together,” McConaughey said. “In 2012, he’s off the rails. He’s cashed in. He’s fallen prey to his own beliefs. And every day that he’s alive is another day of penance in this indentured servitude he calls life.”
Indeed, Cohle has a rather bleak outlook on life, which is what brings those long car rides between the partners to life. The show quickly transforms into a philosophical discussion of life, masculinity and what it is to be good or bad. “I think one of our overlying themes is the damage men do to themselves, to the people around them, to women and children and to the world,” Pizzolatto says. “There’s this sort of abstract conversation taking place over the whole thing about, are men good or bad and are they good for the world or bad for the world? Cohle and Hart are very much involved in that conversation on a personal level without realizing it.”
Given the show’s anthology setup — future seasons will feature an all-new cast and story — Pizzolatto promises these eight episodes will bring both the murder mystery and Cohle and Hart’s ongoing debate to a conclusive ending. “There’s no way to solve a philosophical discussion, but you can bring it to a nice ending point,” he says. “I take it as my job to resolve or bring to a point of closure every conflict I introduce. … This show needs to give the audience back something commensurate with the energy they’re putting in. The audience should feel like that was worthwhile. They might be depressed, but I want them to feel like it was really worthwhile.”
True Detective premieres Sunday at 9/8c on HBO.