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True Detective was never really about catching the criminal

The show True Detective may have had a killer, but the focus of season one wasn’t really on the murder.

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Season 1 of “True Detective,” directed by Cary Fukunaga and written by Nic Pizzolatto, is widely regarded as the series’ best work to date, and production on season 4 is currently underway. Rapid production of the second season was mandated by the positive response to the first, but viewers were ultimately divided. Season 3 of the show got back to the things that made the first season great, but Pizzolatto and Fukunaga, who had worked together on the entire first season, never quite found their groove again. The show’s second and third seasons had a rotating cast of directors and writers, diluting the unique perspective that two constant creators would bring to the table.

The style adopted by Pizzolatto and Fukunaga for their pilot episode of “True Detective” was a major factor in the show’s success. You might assume that the goal of this crime drama, like those of other genres, is to identify and apprehend the perpetrator. In the bleak and philosophical world of “True Detective,” however, the capture of the killer was merely a byproduct of the journey taken by Cole and Hart.

The Characteristics Of A Probe

Nic Pizzolatto, in a video for Behind the Curtain, explains how the nature of a crime story allows for a wide range of introspection within the story’s setting beyond the crime and the killer: “The crime story not only provides you with a plot and a set of escalations and pressures to apply to your characters, but it also provides a cross-sectional view of the society in which the crime occurs. As a result of your investigation, you will be exposed to many different aspects of the area.”

More than revealing who committed the gruesome crimes, “True Detective” focused on the development of its characters. Pizzolatto’s interest in creating compelling characters drove his choice of a crime drama setting “Using the tools of the procedural to explore themes that fascinate me—namely, the inner workings of people and what drives them, as well as a worldview that can encompass and reflect those themes—was one of the series’ primary structural goals. No one would have given me a green light to make a TV show about two guys in a car chit-chatting, so I had to throw some murder into the mix.”

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Pizzolatto’s clever use of the public’s obsession with serial killers as a hook for a more engaging interpersonal story is not lost on him. In the same video, Pizzolatto discusses how a simple procedural structure would allow for more philosophical discussion: “I couldn’t get a TV show made if it was just two guys in a car yakking all the time, so I threw some murder in there. The public’s obsession with serial killers has almost elevated them to the status of comic book villains, so I was looking for one whose backstory wouldn’t be so convoluted as to prevent us from solving the case. If your story’s premise is strong and straightforward, you’ll have more room to experiment with narrative techniques that haven’t been used before and to take discursive detours in dialogue and scene construction.”

Hart and Cole’s relationship is the driving force behind the events of True Detective’s first season. Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson’s portrayals, which spanned several decades and did justice to the insightful dialogue written by Nic Pizzolatto, made for a compelling story. Fukunaga and Pizzolatto’s dedication to their characters over the crime story is evidenced by the fact that the show is structured around the two leads discussing their relationship with each other for the majority of its running time.

The Way Love Evolves

Flash-forwards at the beginning of the first season of “True Detective” show the two main characters in very different situations from when the murder first takes place, increasing the intrigue surrounding both the murder and the characters’ complicated relationship. In an interview with The Guardian, Pizzolatto explained that this was precisely the point: “I was interested in analyzing the evolution of their friendship. Doing what everyone else was doing wasn’t something I was interested in. The goal was not to produce yet another serial killer drama.”

The first season of “True Detective” featured multiple intriguing mysteries, the most intriguing of which concerned the characters’ relationships with one another rather than the criminal investigation at hand. Season 1 of “True Detective” is fascinating because of the way Rust and Cole’s grudging respect for each other evolves into deep distrust and then reconciliation. Season 2 of “True Detective” featured a more complex story, with multiple characters who were a part of interweaving storylines, which detracted from the first season’s focus on the more personal and intense relationship between two characters.

Mahershala Ali’s character’s crippling mental state drove the story forward in the third season, which harkened back to the show’s roots in the first season by following a similar structure of revisiting an older case. Season 1 of “True Detective” was never about the murderer, but rather about the two detectives and what they discovered about each other and themselves.

Click here to read our ranking of the top 15 anthology series currently airing on television.