Time is a Flat Circle: How Best to Approach the Next Season of 'True Detective'
However you quantify your favorite television shows, there’s little argument that True Detective belongs in the medium’s upper echelon. Rarely has an original freshmen series arrived so justifiably self-assured. Nic Pizzolatto’s creation is, six episodes in, arguably operating on a creative level Golden Age stalwarts like The Wire and Breaking Bad didn’t reach until seasons three and four, respectively. Equal parts dense, brooding, literary, thrilling, obsessive, and hypnotic, True Detective is the first series in years that vigorously challenges television’s creative boundaries through a potent mix of writing, acting, and directing.
With only two episodes remaining in the Rust Cohle/Marty Hart saga, our attention is beginning to turn toward the show’s inevitable sequel. Who will step into the gargantuan loafers left behind by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson? And how can a second season possibly clear or even meet the ridiculously high bar set by the first?
Those are certainly fair concerns. That said, I’m struck by both the fixation on next season’s cast and the assumption that the story will again follow two detectives’ hunt for a killer. For a show this steeped in symbolism, mythology, theories, and allusion, it’s surprising that cast — not plot — is the question we most want answered.
The actor obsession is understandable. McConaughey, through a performance alternately subtle and showy, created an iconic character in Cohle. It sounds clichéd, but there truly isn’t anyone on television like him — a remarkable achievement in today’s crowded marketplace. Attempting to replicate Rust can only end in disaster. And Harrelson, while occasionally overshadowed by his partner’s showpiece scenes, brought Hart’s flawed, driven policeman to life in three vivid dimensions. The two actors’ (who are friends offscreen) natural familiarity gave their strife-ridden relationship the sort of authentic, lived-in feel rarely seen on television. Escaping their long shadow will be difficult for whoever inherits the mantle.
But solely attributing the show’s popularity to McConaughey’s and Harrelson’s performances shortchanges the phenomenal writing and directing. Yes, the acting serves the story. But the reverse is also true. Almost more so. Time-capsule-worthy lines like “If you get the opportunity, you should kill yourself,” and “I’m just a regular type dude with a big-ass dick,” didn’t just come bubbling out of the psychosphere. Pizzolatto crafted those gems alongside unsettling esoteric monologues wrapped inside a hyperliterate overarching narrative. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga owns the establishing shot and masterminded that ridiculous project raid tracking scene. This isn’t meant to slight either lead actor’s ability — those juicy lines are dazzlingly delivered. It’s merely a reminder that brilliant acting is just one component of a layered, meticulously constructed tableau.
Time may be a flat circle, but imitating this season’s plotline in the hopes of recapturing lightning squanders the anthology format’s main creative advantage — flexibility. Regardless of whether Hart and Cohle unravel the Yellow King mystery or the murders remain unsolved, their story ends in two weeks. Like game night at the Cohle residence, that’s both depressing and potentially exciting. We’ll have to bid farewell to Cohle and Hart, but next season can focus on almost anything provided it’s a compelling, multi-layered story tangentially tied to crime. That’s the only pre-requisite. And that’s why the show can thrive even as Hart and Cohle become memories.
Can you imagine how liberating the anthology format must be for the creative team? Pizzolatto and Co. get to start fresh — new actors, locations, plotlines, and mythology — while leveraging the brand’s cache to attract elite actors and premium resources. If more fertile television ground exists, it hasn’t been farmed. Ideally, the same team would write and direct each season. Creative continuity has paid tremendous dividends so far. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Pizzolatto and Fukunaga need to overburden themselves. Remember, Pizzolatto is a novelist. Other than penning two episodes of The Killing back in 2010, this is his first foray into screenwriting. Compressed deadlines rarely stimulate literary, exacting writers. Better to slow-cook that meal. While the show is Pizzolatto’s baby, there’s certainly no shortage of talented storytellers out there with six- or eight-hour yarns to spin. If HBO needs content ready to go by summer, they could cycle Pizzolatto and Fukunaga in every other year and use the brand as a showcase for other genre writers and directors. This would alleviate the creative pressure while still keeping the brand fresh years into the future.
Or maybe not. Sorry, Nic.
Anyway, in this expansive environment, it’s difficult to overstate where the series can go from here. Past, future, alternate history, other worlds — nothing is off limits provided the writing supports it. To wit:
This list took 20 minutes to brainstorm. Imagine what someone with talent and, like, twice as much time could accomplish.
As tempting as it is to approach the second season with lowered expectations, True Detective is better positioned to repeat or improve upon its initial success than almost any recent prestige drama.* Thanks to the anthology format, the showrunners aren’t trapped by convention or forced to continue exhausted plotlines. Yes, this is the end for two spellbinding characters and their bleak, foreboding world. But next year’s ensemble has a massive canvas on which to create more of both. Wherever the story heads after next Sunday, with whichever actors sign on to help carry the series to its next milepost, there’s no reason to believe it can’t be just as transfixing, rich, and fulfilling as it is now.
Brian Byrd is just a regular type guy with a big-ass cat.
*Game of Thrones is the obvious exception. However, the dynamite source material laid down some pretty sturdy track to for David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to follow.