Monday, March 17, 2014

True Detective: A TV show writers can learn from

Image from HBO's True Detective opening
I know, it’s been more than a week since the conclusion of this innovative show aired. But I’ll argue that I have let my impression process in the back of my mind, and now I’m ready to make a more carefully considered evaluation.

True Detective, in case you missed it, was an eight-episode series on HBO starring Woody Harrelson as Detective Marty Hart and Matthew McConaughey as Detective Rust Cohle, investigating a series of ritualistic murders. Through the series, the two detectives pursue clues that lead them to a group of "devil worshippers," who abuse and kill children from poor, marginalized communities, including prostitutes, as part of their rituals. While the geographic setting stayed on the Louisiana coastal plain, the series jumped between three time periods: 1995, when Rust Cohle, the new guy on the force, joins partner Marty Hart; 2002, when the partners fraught relationship finally breaks down almost irreconcilably and Cohle leaves the police force and Louisiana; and 2012, when on Cohle returns to Louisiana in pursuit of the same cases he had started on in 1995, which leads to an internal police investigation.

The mystery begins with the discovery of a murdered girl, 

her body blindfolded and tied in a praying position in front of a tree. Antlers are tied to her head and strange symbols are painted on her back. Clues lead to a similar cold case from years earlier, and the detectives then find the same symbols on the bodies painted on the wall of a ruined rural church.

McConaughey's character, Rust Cohle, took extensive
notes during his investigations. He created a believable,
if emotionally damaged persona.
As the episodes progress, the clues seem to point to involvement of preachers, politicians and other prominent men in the area. A preacher, Billy Lee Tuttle, attempts to take the investigation away from Hart and Cohle in favour of a special task force to investigate anti-Christian crimes. 

The series jumps between 1995 and 2012, with occasion glimpses into 2002. The main visual clue is hair: while Harrelson only has to remove his toupee to age, McConaughey goes from a typical cop haircut to shaggy hippie/dirtbag look, with full handlebar mustache.

The strength of the show was the writing. 

The plot was sharp and engaging, the characters flawed, vulnerable and absolutely believable. The dialogue was genuine and perfectly credible. 

Even though the time setting kept changing, it was never hard to keep track — the hair was one visual clue, but that was the least of it. The dialogue and the progression of the story always made it clear what era we were watching. Every scene made me want to see the next one, even though the subject, ritualistic sexual child abuse, was the toughest imaginable.

The story actually reminded me of two things: one was the actual police investigation in Cornwall, Ontario, of a pedophile ring including priests and other community leaders who shared their victims; and the other is an excellent book by Gae-Lynn Woods, Devil of Light, a mystery set in east Texas with a plot very similar to the first season of True Detective.

The only downfall to True Detective was the final episode. 


I cannot believe I just told part of my audience to stop reading my review. Ah, well.

The whole show seemed to be building up to the two cops busting open a decades-long scandal, a ring of men, including some prominent and "respectable" community and state leaders, kipnapped, abused, raped and murdered children, then covered it all up. But when Cohle and Hart find the centre of the abuse ring, the abandoned "Carcosa," they only find two men, neither of them prominent or powerful. There is a satisfyingly gruesome final fight scene, the bad guys are killed and the good guys vindicated.

But it felt, to me, like a cop-out. 

The evidence implicated powerful, rich men in the state, including senators, religious leaders and teachers, but none of those were ever caught. There is a throw-away line: "We didn't get them all," one detective says to the other at the end. "No, but we got some," is the reply.

In the final episode, the heroes take the battle to the enemy's lair. But what the heck is this thing?
While that may be more authentic — the Project Truth inquiry certainly did not lead to widespread convictions in Ontario. But it's not satisfying from a storytelling point of view. As a viewer, I want tom find the villain, and I want to see him/her/them if not defeated, then  at least some kind of acknowledgement. True Detective alluded to the villain, and then forgot about them in the final episode, where the story becomes more of a straightforward cop shoot-em-out.

In sum, True Detective was an excellent series: engaging, entertaining and thought-provoking. Well worth watching live or recorded — and a lesson for anyone who wants to know what good writing is.


  1. Scott! I read this with much interest as I ADORED this show - just one thing! I thought what they did with the end was simply set it up nicely for series 2 - when Cohle and Hart will continue to uncover more! Matthew McConnaughy produced it, as you probably noticed - I am sure he has more than one series up his sleeve!

  2. You're right, if the series is going to continue in the next season, but from what I've read, True Detective will the an "anthology" show, kind of like the old pulp magazines. So, according to this theory, the next season will have a completely different cast, setting and story. It's a risk, sure, but it will be interesting.

    1. Oh, I see - most interesting! But a shame, too - I love the McConnaughey and Harrelson duo, it so works, and they're both such marvellous actors!

  3. Any more, I've been analyzing the writing behind the characters of different TV shows. There's a lot of genius out there as well as what were they thinking types. Talk about writing tension through each episode!

  4. I've only saw one episode of the show in a hotel since I don't have HBO. But reading your post I couldn't help but smile that what you felt were the shows strengths were what I've always thought made of great stores: the characters. Granted a story needs a good plot, but what keeps us turning the page, or planted in from of the screen, are characters we care about.

    Good thoughts here.

  5. I don't have HBO, but I love the stuff they've been putting out over the last couple of decades… it all started with the Sopranos, I think. Great review. :)