Nic Pizzolatto on the Inspiration and Origins of True Detective

This weekend, HBO’s gritty and poetic True Detective embarked on its second season. The show is driven by Nic Pizzolatto, the writer, creator, and executive producer, whose unique approach to television comes from his desire to dissect “narrative and motivation and character.” If that sounds a little heady, well, it is. No spoiler alerts necessary, but here are some insights from his conversation with Steve Paulson about his inspiration for the show’s themes of corruption and the malleability of the “truth.”

What’s the basic premise of True Detective?

It’s a story that uses the popular genre of police investigation to conduct a more nuanced metaphysical investigation into it’s characters and their world…The show [focuses on] the horror that lies in the everyday. In True Detective, the world itself is the crime. One of the functions of all the granular details and background and setting is to suggest this corruption at the root of the world–this poison garden. And the poison at the root of the world is humanity, which is also its only vehicle for meaning.

Humanity has somehow corrupted the world?

The first story I ever heard was a noir story called the Book of Genesis. If you just think about it, there’s sex, there’s palace intrigue, there’s sexual betrayal, there’s vengeance, and then there are two brothers and one of them kills the other one–and this is the first two pages. It’s always been suggested in our oldest literature that we’re living after some kind of spiritual and metaphysical fall.

There’s violence, at least an atmosphere of violence, that permeates True Detective. Obviously, there’s the murder at the center of the story, but more than that, your detectives live in a violent world and it plays out in their personal relationships, and in the social structures that you see. Are you trying to draw parallels between that everyday level of violence and then the violent crime that they’re investigating?

Absolutely. The parallels right off the bat are between emotional violence, the violence of broken trust, and the physical violence enacted in the background of the series. I mean, so much of this is where I’m from. There was always a consistent language of violence when I was coming of age and growing up. And I think that that is probably common anywhere you have a large population of largely powerless people living inside a system and under structures that they don’t understand and haven’t seen the benefit of.

You’re dealing with truth-telling here, which is reflected in the title of your show: "True Detective." This a truth of several levels; there’s the search for the true killer, there’s truth and honesty in personal relationships, there’s how we tell a story–whether the stories we tell are true. The suggestion is that we’re always fudging the truth to some degree.

As much as we might try to strip ourselves of illusions, what you’re ultimately left with is the exact poverty of your knowledge. You know very little about your situation as a human being on planet Earth, and what you do know sounds like a noir story. You’re doomed.

True Detective - Nic Pizzolatto

In a HBO's hit series "True Detective" is an uncanny blend of police procedural and metaphysical inquiry, set in the Louisiani bayous.  Creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto gives Steve Paulson the backstory.

To see Pizzolatto's website, click here.

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