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True Characters in 'True Detective'

Alright, alright, alright, as of last Sunday <em>True Detective</em> is over. It has been a great eight weeks of watching these two swinging dicks mix it up against a sweaty backdrop of Louisiana, faith, and murder.

Alright, alright, alright, as of last SundayTrue Detective is over. The finale was the last time we’ll see Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in the roles of detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hart. It has been a great eight weeks of watching these two swinging dicks mix it up against a sweaty backdrop of Louisiana, faith, and murder. The anthology series (which, in essence, frames each season as its own miniseries), written by Nic Pizzolatto and directed in its entirety by Cary Fukanaga, is a great study in literary adaptation to the small screen’s longest of forms.

Although True Detective is not based on a book, its characters, ambience, setting, and submission of women are taken straight from the Pizzolatto fiction playbook. Rather than an adaptation of a particular story or novel, it is quite literally an adaptation of his writing. Meaning, the artist has switched mediums, which is why the series feels so literary (exemplified by references to Friedrich Nietzsche and to Robert W. Chambers’s supernatural story collection, The King in Yellow), and also why the show is not really about solving the crime as much as it is about the bromance between our White Kings, Rust and Marty.

Generally speaking, I don’t think it’s particularly easy for novelists to write screenplays. They tend to write in too much damn dialogue. Now, maybe, if we want to get more nuanced, we should distinguish teleplays from screenplays, and even miniseries/anthologies (especially those made for HBO) from long-running series, because there is more room to experiment on television. Compared with film, there is a lot more narrative time to fill, so the stories can handle more plot development without imploding and still have character development on par with the best movies. And the miniseries, as a form, inherently creates the expectation of long-form story development, whereas a normal series is more episodic. I’d argue that our favorite TV series nowadays, like Breaking Bad and The Wire, took on the narrative connectedness you find in a miniseries. Their popularity helped forge an audience for immersive anthology shows like True Detective and American Horror Story. This anthology format gives True Detective the shape and structure of a book more than a film or a conventional episodic television show.

How many film directors would love to have their characters and stories live beyond the tacitly agreed-upon two-hour time limit? If you look at The Wolf of Wall Street, a film Martin Scorsese extends to the three-hour mark, you realize that increased time is really about a director in love with his characters and their world. Scorsese is a director with the impetus to explore all aspects of such a world instead of crafting a tight dramatic arc. Every person who said The Wolf of Wall Street was one hour too long would be singing a different tune if the material were presented as a miniseries. No one has said, “True Detective is one hour too long,” or “I wish True Detective were only four episodes instead of eight.” In fact, the eight-episode arc almost feels too short compared to the hundreds of episodes it took to cover Walter White’s rise and fall as the meth king of Albuquerque. Because there are different expectations of these different forms, the creators are able to give us more of that good, deep material that we often complain is lacking in films. But this is because, when we see it in films, we complain that it lingers on the characters too long and we want it taken out!

Pizzolatto’s first novel, Galveston, which was published in 2010, begins in the same Louisiana backwaters as True Detective, where Pizzolatto was born, before transitioning to the Texas town where the book gets its name. At Galveston's center is a gun-toting thug who’s running away from Louisiana to Texas with a hooker with a heart of gold and her three-year-old sister after his former mob boss steals his girlfriend and tries to kill him. I hear that, thanks to True Detective, Galveston will be turned into a film, but some things may have to change. The protagonist has the very Walter White–esque handicap of terminal cancer, by this point a proven strong narrative device that allows the character to commit desperate acts with the audience’s implicit approval and prompts a deep soul search within the character. We’ll see how they handle that narrative twist in the wake of everyone’s favorite drug-dealing cancer victim.

The greatest similarity between Galveston and True Detective is the stories’ use of prolepsis, or flash-forward. The beautiful narrative structure in True Detective, in which the first half of the series is a recounting of the significant backstory by our duo ostensibly because of a virtually unexplained, vaguely defined internal-affairs probe into the case by two African American officers, has its precedent in Galveston, where we find that our cancer-ridden hero is actually recounting his adventures from 20 years in the future (a strange twist that actually undermines the ticking clock of the terminal cancer mechanism set up at the beginning of the story). Pizzolato, if anything, is a master of layered, subtly self-referential storytelling, where the varying perspectives of time give different, often erroneous accounts of the main action—see the True Detective episode where the boys cover their hasty murder of two suspects, or when Marty’s wife lies to the officers about her affair with Rust in “present” time, while the images jump to the past and we see that they actually did screw standing up in a kitchen for all of 10 seconds (unfortunately, there are no McConaughey dick shots).

The detective stories that I love the most are incredibly engaging, but in hindsight many of their most mysterious plot elements don’t hold together so well. This is probably because of the storytellers’ inclination to bait the audience with red herrings. Emerging on the other side of the story, the herrings are revealed to be empty. On the other hand, I guess it could be argued that this is like life, where many questions are left unanswered in the end. This would be a problem if mysteries were actually about the whodunit, but the best ones are usually about getting to know the protaganists as characters and meeting all the crazy fuckos they encounter along the way. For instance, the famous six-minute tracking shot in episode four, where Rust goes undercover as a biker and is an accomplice to a gang shootout, makes little narrative sense to me: They are investigating a single murder and Rust finds it necessary to be an accomplice in the murder of half a dozen Black gang members by a White biker gang in order to gain access to a possible suspect? It’s kind of stupid when you think about it. Still, none of that matters because the story has true characters. With McConaughey’s compelling portrayal of a nihilistic detective, we are just in awe of the filmmaking. How many bodies are lost along the way, or whether they are ultimately successful in finding the killer, is not our concern. Our concern is for Marty and Rust, as humans, which is what all good stories are about at their core.

In fact, I wish they hadn’t found the spaghetti-faced dude. We could’ve potentially had another season with our boys. Pizzolatto has a lot to live up to.