True Detective was a short-lived HBO anthology series, with each season covering a different plot, sort of like American Horror Story on FX. That’s where the comparisons with the longer-lived show end. True Detective combines multiple sub-genres within pulp, including noir, saucy sex, and supernatural horror, and uses a framing device of police interviews to weave together a complex non-linear narrative into a coherent whole, in much the same way that Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan have done with Pulp Fiction and Memento, respectively. This sort of device shows up frequently in literature and film, including pulp, though it becomes far more widespread after Citizen Kane and Rashomon.
The two main characters are Louisiana detectives investigating the possible resurgence of a dormant serial killer. The show is set against the backdrop of a dilapidated and decaying urban infrastructure filled with corruption, decadence, and possible devil worship, all of which were worsened by the one-two combo of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Toss in equal parts crazy Matthew McConaughey and relatively sane Woody Harrelson as the beaten-down police officers and you get the sleeper hit that was the first season of True Detective. McConaughey plays Rust Cohle, a detective who slips into nihilism after his early experience tracking down the killer. It is Cohle’s obsession with the case that drives most of the plot. Harrelson’s Marty Hart is a flawed philandering husband whose dedication to his job is apparently unmatched by any officer other than Cohle. The interpersonal conflict between the two, besides Cohle’s reputation as a nutty maverick, is almost entirely because of Hart’s belief in Christianity and Cohle’s utter contempt for organized religion. You could look at the mismatched detective partners as cliché since it really has been so codified that alternatives are hard to conjure up, but it isn’t played for laughs here as it is in, say, 48 Hours or Lethal Weapon or even HBO’s own The Wire.
That covers the noir and sidesteps the saucy sex, but what about the supernatural horror? If you are familiar with Robert W. Chambers’ 1895 short story collection The King in Yellow, then you’ll be pleased to find direct references to the work sprinkled about the series. The collection itself is pretty good read if you haven’t had the chance, and is a direct influence on HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos stories. I won’t go much more into that as that could reach into spoiler territory, and unlike Pulp Appeal articles that tend to reference works from almost 100 years ago, this one’s still fresh enough to warrant some spoiler protection.
As I was getting ready to publish this, I found out that it may be coming back for a third season, starring Mahershala Ali, fresh off some very successful work including the Academy Award winning Moonlight and the hit Netflix show Luke Cage.
It’s a shame they went and completely botched the second season, abandoning almost everything that made season 1 great. It’s like Halloween III: Season of the Witch, or Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. We’ll see if Season 3 manages to recover from the misstep.