True Detective, Heat, Twin Peaks, and Pulp Storytelling

It seems that many of us have misread True Detective. The second season hasn’t been received particularly well, with the casting choices and the dialogue coming under particular scrutiny.

But Nic Pizzolatto’s show isn’t a representation of reality, it’s not designed to tell a cop story steeped in real world conventions; instead it borrows and reuses from pulp storytelling devices.

To understand the tropes of HBO’s anthology crime series you need to consider its creative contexts. From 1924 – 1995, True Detective was a published collection of crime stories in a magazine format. It contained lurid and pulpy detective tales, full of murders and betrayals. It wasn’t praised for its realism, or its dialogue choices, but it was an entertaining, and dark, anthology of fringe characters who lived within titillating contexts.

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A True Detective edition containing the story of the Yellow King – a story familiar to fans of season one.

Pizzolato brought the same sort of pulp fiction storytelling to cable TV, and for many viewers who expected gritty realism similar to The Wire, or The Sopranos, True Detective’s second season has been disappointing. Season one managed to bridge that gap, partly due to the excellent performances from Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, but season two is far more invested in telling a pulp infused story.

Perhaps it’s easiest to view the second installment of True Detective as a purgatory of sorts, a collision point for pop culture tropes and conventions. It clearly exists within a constructed world, one that’s separate from the reality we know and experience.

It reminds me of a description of Cormac McCarthy’s book No Country for Old Men, written by James Wood in The New Yorker:

‘…the book gestures not toward any recognizable reality but merely toward the narrative codes already established by pulp thrillers and action films. The story is itself cinematically familiar.’

This is certainly an apt description of Nic Pizzolato’s narrative set in thefictional city of Vinci, California. It’s a place that exists to tell this story, and Pizzolato uses the tools and conventions that we’re already familiar with to ground his seedy tale. You shouldn’t watch True Detective with the intention of experiencing realism, or even a traditional cop show. Instead it’s a narrative full of archetypes, of troubled good guys and sinister bad guys.

It’s easy to describe season two through other pop culture tracts. There’s the bar that Frank (Vince Vaughn) and Ray (Colin Farrell) frequent late at night with its sombre female singer performing on stage – a setup that’s immediately familiar to fans of Twin Peaks.

The True Detective ‘version’ is darker thematically, and it’s grounded in the conversation between Ray and Frank. Theirs is a violent world and the soundtrack is used in place of dialogue, and their actions are more reminiscent of a Mexican stand off, than two pals drinking at a bar.

But this scene could also be described via Michael Mann’s Heat and its tense late night conversation over coffee.

It’s an immediate and effective tool. Nic Pizzolato sets his crime narrative within a world that we already know, but it’s a place that no one has visited, at least not tangibly. He crafts his narrative through conventions that we understand, perhaps even expect, but he does subvert them too.

When you consider the influence of pulp fiction, the True Detective magazine, and hard boiled detective tales from film noir, you can understand what Pizzolato, and the actors are aiming for. It’s an American story, it’s a narrative that reiterates our shared cultural tropes and landmarks, and it exists in a world of semiotic confusion.

The narrative is the signifier, and the detective/cop/robber story is told through a decidedly convoluted, and at times badly constructed lens. But what’s more interesting is what’s signified, or the concepts that the narrative tropes represent. Pizzolato’s True Detective is a throwback to stories from the past, but it adds contemporary twists, and it transforms the expected narrative into something darker, and more subversive in the process.

Vince Vaughn’s character, Frank, speaks in a monotone, in many ways he’s the archetype of a poorly drawn bad guy. He’s corrupted, down on his luck, and his sparse existence is quiet, mundane, and lonely. There are times where he explodes with anger, but for the most part Vaughn plays Frank with little imagination.

This has troubled viewers, and left audiences feeling cheated by Vaughn’s poor performance. But it’s arguable that his depiction of Frank is deliberate, that it’s a stylistic choice reflective of Pizzolato’s vision for the show. In fact the dialogue is so bad at times that it’s surprising that it made it onto TV, especially prime time HBO – unless it was constructed deliberately.

But if you view the dialogue as moments in a pulp publication, snapshots of speech bubbles frozen in time, it starts to make more sense. Pizzolato even uses a freeze frame shot of his three ‘heroes’ after the startlingly violent gun battle at the end of episode four. There’s a certain vintage tint to the composition, a retrospective gaze, but one that firmly belongs to its contemporary contexts too.

Taylor Kitsch’s character Paul Woodrugh emerges as a dangerous and competent killer, reflecting his time in the military, and Rachel McAdams Ani Bezzerides is shown to be a survivor – highlighted by her going for her knife when she runs out of ammunition.

This is a pop culture moment, but one that is updated and made even more violent through its unflinching confrontation between cops and gangsters. Once more it’s reminiscent of Heat, but this time it’s reflective of the rolling gun battle in LA between cops and robbers in Mann’s crime opus.

Nic Pizzolato’s second foray into the world of pulp crime fiction is one that we should approach with a love of pop culture and its tropes. It’s clearly different to season one, it’s bigger in scope, and it borrows from notable film and TV conventions, but it tells its own story in the process.

There’s the strong female lead in McAdams Bezzerides, there’s the troubled homosexual back story for Kitsch’s Woodrugh, and then there’s the more conventional alcoholic cop story told through Farrell’s character Ray. But combined they add a new voice to the tired police procedural format.

The Vinci setting is a dark one, and it exists within clear cut lines that we all know and understand from the media that we consume. To understand True Detective you have to know TV and film, and you have to apply that understanding to Pizzolato’s cop show. Without those keys you can’t unlock the latent meaning and the creativity inherent in its narrative.

True Detective’s season two does falter when it comes to its anthologised format. It’s an approach to televised storytelling that’s still being honed and tweaked. But it’s in the form that the narrative takes, and the tropes it uses, that the second season comes into its own.

Nic Pizzolato uses conventions that culturally we’ve agreed upon, and he applies filmic storytelling devices to his characters and their actions. Don’t discount the show because of its clunky dialogue, or its archetypal characters – accept them as stylistic choices. It’s a show that expects you to understand its intentions. They’re pulpy, sprawling, and often times archaic. It’s a show about influences, it’s concerned with storytelling conventions, and in that it starts to find its own sort of legacy.

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