Dare to enter the True Detective Subreddit and what you’ll find is a bottomless rabbit hole of insanity and obsession. If even a few of the multi-layered theories and tenuous connections atop tenuous connections proposed by readers are true, then show creator Nic Pizzolatto isn’t merely a writer — he’s a vast reference library of every literary work ever written, a theoretical physicist, and a mechanical engineer, all rolled up into one constantly tightening spiral. (“That spiral!”) Even casual viewers of the HBO show know that there’s much more lurking just beneath the surface of the narrative than meets the eye and that True Detective seems to quietly revel in the grim, foreboding picture of a “fallen world” that it paints in very dark colors. From the very beginning of the season just six episodes ago — with only two left — it was a show tailor made to be pulled apart and examined from every angle.
And those two facts about True Detective — the quick length of its season and the audience involvement it cries out for — are what make it the perfect show for our current media culture.
The notion of binge watching back episodes of a show in order to catch up with current ones is something we’re all familiar with by now. Netflix made that as simple as a few clicks. If a show generated online buzz and you felt like you wanted to see what all the hype was about and get in on the action, all you had to do was dedicate a week or two to bringing yourself up to speed. With True Detective you don’t even need to do that; you can watch every episode of the show over a period of a night or two. And with a compressed season and an anthology format — the entire storyline wrapping up in just eight hours, beginning to end — there’s genuinely no time to get bored. Pizzolatto has created a show that caters flawlessly to our culture’s 140-character attention span. Whether or not this was done intentionally adds an entirely new layer to a series that’s already knee-deep in self-reference.
One of the more fascinating theories about True Detective, and it’s one that Nic Pizzolatto has all but confirmed, is that it’s a work of meta-fiction — that the characters are in some ways archetypes, with Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle even acknowledging that they’re all merely characters and are strangely self-aware of each of their roles to the extent that it’s a source of conscious and subconscious conflict. The 1895 Robert W. Chambers book The King in Yellow — a story-within-a-story about a play that drives people insane once they see it — is a recurring theme within the narrative of True Detective. Pizzolatto has said he intended that reference to act as a kind of road map for deciphering the dark mystery of the show, but he enjoys the fact that it’s open to interpretation and that it has been interpreted and reinterpreted in different ways by the audience.
With that in mind, is there a meta-reference at work in the show’s relationship to its audience? Pizzolatto’s 36-years-old and therefore very likely has a firm grasp on how social media works. Knowing this, you have to wonder whether there was any part of him that created the show knowing full well that it was the sort of thing that might be descended upon by the internet. One of the debates on Reddit has been whether there’s any significance to the name True Detective, whether Pizzolatto was simply invoking another archetype or was, in fact, trying to make the subtle suggestion that only one of the two main characters qualifies as a real detective. But if we once again think about it as a work that references the reality of its own existence, there could be an alternate meaning in the title True Detective. Haven’t thousands of amateur “detectives” been going about their own investigations into just what’s going on with the case portrayed on the show: who might be responsible, what all the clues add up to, what it all means?
At one point during the fifth and best episode of the show yet, “The Secret Fate of All Life,” Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart character comments somewhat wistfully to the detectives interviewing him (and to himself), “You know the detective’s curse? The solution was right under my nose, but I was paying attention to the wrong clues?” Well, what if all this time the true detective in the show has been you — the person watching every detail, reading every think piece, coming up with your own theories, and conferring with your partners on the internet in an effort to get to the truth? I seriously doubt that this is exactly what Nic Pizzolatto was going for, but he’s shown a shocking adeptness at conveying multiple meanings through singular actions. Almost nothing on the show can be interpreted in only one way. If Pizzolatto was even tangentially aware of the way his work might be received beyond the realm of the show itself — and his own comments suggest he is — it would add just one more circle to the spiral. One that’s been right under all our noses while we were looking at all the other clues onscreen in front of us.
True Detective, with its compact format, its references to well-worn cultural archetypes, and the audience participation it demands, is in many ways the defining work of our current media climate. It’s a show very much of its time.
Chez Pazienza was the beating heart of The Daily Banter, sadly passing away on February 25, 2017. His voice remains ever present at the Banter, and his influence as powerful as ever.