There’s certainly no shortage of cops chasing killers across our TV screens this spring, and True Detective — the moody HBO-made crime drama examining a grisly Louisiana murder through the eyes of the investigators — might, at first glance, look little different. Even its creator and writer, Nic Pizzolatto, is happy to admit as much. “Cops find a dead body right at the start and there’s something weird about it — ever seen that before? The cops are riding along in a car and they don’t quite get along — ever seen that before?” he asks.
But alongside the two Hollywood big hitters — Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, who head up the cast — there’s an unusual level of sophistication about True Detective. “My idea was that these familiar tropes could act as a way to ground the viewer, before subverting them,” explains Pizzolatto. The show’s US premiere last month gave HBO its biggest audience since the launch of Boardwalk Empire in 2010, and some reviewers are already comparing it to the critically acclaimed the Wire.
In its opening scenes, a woman is found ritualistically murdered. Detective Rust Cohle (McConaughey) suspects a serial killer, and no one but fellow ’tec Martin Hart (Harrelson) believes him.
The story is then told partly in flashbacks, across a 17-year span, starting in 1995, when the pair begin their investigation, and revisiting them in 2002 and then 2012, when both are questioned by a second set of investigators.
While the two lead actors, close friends in real life, have worked together before on comedies Surfer Dude and EDTV, True Detective is as far from comedic as it is possible to imagine. Hart and Cohle may journey along highways together, but their in-car conversations are not about coffee and doughnuts; instead Cohle philosophises darkly about addiction and the futility of existence.
Pizzolatto is an award-winning novelist and former academic, whose script McConaughey refers to as a “450-page film”. “When I was getting my graduate degree there was a time when The Sopranos, The Wire and Deadwood were all being shown on a Sunday night, and I began to realise that my hunger for fiction was being satisfied more by those three shows than by any of the contemporary fiction I was reading. It seemed more vital, it was more culturally engaged, it mattered,” says Pizzolatto, when we meet in Los Angeles, ahead of the show’s US launch.
Though he has written episodes of the US remake of the Danish hit The Killing, this is Pizzolatto’s first full solo script, so hooking in talent such as McConaughey and Harrelson is no small achievement. “I really admire Matthew. He stepped back and completely redefined his career, and that takes a lot of courage,” says Pizzolatto. “He had just done The Lincoln Lawyer and I knew he was doing Killer Joe — which is a play I really love — and I just thought if he was willing to do something like that, then he might be interested in this.”
His suspicion was correct, although when McConaughey was sent the first two episodes to read by the show’s producers, it was with the idea of him playing Hart. The actor asked if he could, instead, take on the (initially, at least) darker role of Cohle, and suggested his friend Harrelson for Hart. “Woody was already on a very short list of actors we were interested in, and when Matthew suggested him too, we were like: ‘Maybe you could help us with that?’” says Pizzolatto.
The eight-part drama was filmed entirely on location on the Gulf coast of Louisiana, near where Pizzolatto, 39, grew up. “My earlier novel, Galveston, is set in these same areas, but it’s strange, I never wrote about the place until I was gone.” He is based in LA these days.
This is not the Louisiana of colourful, jazz-soaked New Orleans, however. “It’s very post-industrial, end-of-empire. There are beautiful trees beside ugly refineries, strip clubs and dancing academies, all right across the street from each other,” he says.
And while the show explores themes of ritual abuse and the dark side of religious fanaticism, Pizzolatto says he was not influenced by any specific cases.
“It’s the stuff that had been accumulating in my head my whole life. It’s got all my typical obsessions: death, sex, memory… there will at times be differences between what you’re being told and what you’re actually seeing on screen. So the voice may lie, but the image won’t. That’s part of the memory thing.”
Unlike most contemporary television dramas, Pizzolatto wrote the entire script single-handedly in just three months. “I was alone in a converted garage with every wall filled with sticky notes, all covered with this tiny little script.” he says. “There was one wall for 1995, one wall for 2002, one wall for 2012. My office looked like something out of a Beautiful Mind.”
Though the first season of the show is a discrete, complete story, Pizzolatto has plans for further instalments of what he calls an anthology. “There could be a season that’s more of a widespread conspiracy thriller, a season that’s a small-town murder mystery, or a season where nobody is murdered at all, and it’s a master criminal versus a rogue detective,” he says. “But there will be seeds that we’d take from season to season.”
True Detective is on Saturday 22 February at 9:00pm on Sky Atlantic