As we move toward the debut of season two of True Detective, everyone is asking the same question: can Nic Pizzolatto do it again?
Undeniably, he had the right formula in the first season. The world sat on the edge of its seats while Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson fumbled towards enlightenment. The easiest thing in the world would have been to put together a second season that used some of the tropes developed in the first. Pizzolatto wasn’t having any of it. According to all sources, for season two he’s ripped everything up and started again. Writing for Vanity Fair, Rich Cohen describes what for many in Hollywood seems like madness.
The second season of True Detective dispenses with just about everything that made the show a hit: character, plot, setting. Though Nic pitched it this way from the start—each iteration will be a new story with new actors—the success of Season One makes it all seem a little nuts.
Though there are detectives in season two, this is not a detective story as much as it is a human one. So why detectives?
“It puts you in everything,” he explained. “That’s why they’re great engines for stories. They go everywhere. A detective story is really just the way you tell a narrative—you start with the ending. At the end, this person is dead. Now I’m going to go back and piece together the story that led to it…. It’s about the final unknowability of any investigation.”
As we discover, Pizzolatto was an academic first. But writing called early:
At Louisiana State, he found the canvas too confining. His best pictures were like stills from films that had never been made. He learned to write in order to finish the stories glimpsed in his art. Action and violence, the gun moll, the cheap wisdom—it was all there from the start. He got a creative-writing M.F.A. at the University of Arkansas, which led to teaching, fooling with phrases between office hours—the wild young prof who is a shade too intense. He took jobs at the University of North Carolina and the University of Chicago, selling stories on the side, small literary magazines, big literary magazines, The Atlantic Monthly. After publishing a collection in 2006—Between Here and the Yellow Sea—he began work on a novel. Soon after it was finished, he had the first of a cascade of epiphanies: I hate this book! It’s lifeless and nowhere and dead. Scribner was ready to publish, but Nic killed it. Because screw this and hell no. At that moment, he decided to take the life he wanted rather than settle for the life he had.
But with a child on the way, Pizzolatto got down to business and wrote Galveston, his first book, published in 2010.
A New York Times review by Dennis Lehane seemed to secure the younger writer’s future. Lehane wrote: “Galveston, in its authenticity and fearless humanism, recalls only the finest examples of the form. Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past and David Goodis’s Down There, Carl Franklin’s One False Move and James Ellroy’s Black Dahlia.”
But even Lehane’s stamp of approval wasn’t enough to move the book. “Of course, artistic approval is not the same as commercial success,” writes Cohen. “As good as it was, the book did not sell.”
Which led to Nic’s second epiphany: if you want the big audience, you have to go where the people live, which is in front of the TV. Nic had fallen under the spell of a new kind of show by then, the cable epic that unfolds in chapters. TV was experiencing a renaissance. Florence in the 1500s. They were building cupolas and domes. “The Sopranos was the first shot across the bow,” he told me. “Deadwood and The Wire continued that upper trend of layered, textured, ambitious, character-driven, adult storytelling.”
And the rest is pretty much history. (And what is not history is covered in Cohen’s piece.)
Season Two airs later this month. We’ve previously written about it here and here. Time will tell if Pizzolatto will be able to duplicate his earlier success. And with less than two weeks to go, it’s not really much time at all. Meanwhile, Cohen’s excellent Vanity Fair piece reflects far, far more than has been excerpted in this space. You can find it here.