Published on June 25th, 2014 | by Clint Davis

Why ‘True Detective’ was a return to HBO’s glorious past

I didn’t get to watch True Detective on its first run but after months of jealously reading glowing reviews and the myriad theories from fans regarding the show’s deeper meanings, I couldn’t wait for the show to be released on DVD. When the first season box set hit shelves earlier this month, my wife and I binge-watched all eight episodes in the course of 48 hours.

As I’ve documented on this site numerous times, Matthew McConaughey has methodically become the most exciting actor in Hollywood over the past five years, thanks to a string of mesmerizing performances including Killer Joe, Mud and his Oscar-winning turn in Dallas Buyers Club. Landing this guy at the height of his career for his first starring role in a television series was a coup for the folks at HBO.

But True Detective is hardly just a vehicle for McConaughey, the series also boasts arguably Woody Harrelson’s best work ever, a setting rich in dark atmosphere and sharp storytelling from creator Nic Pizzolatto. I enjoyed the show immensely although I think there’s a lot of room for improvement in the upcoming second season, about which details have been few and far between.

true detective spiral

McConaughey’s Rustin Cohle stares into a menacing spiral of birds in one of the show’s cryptic moments.

Pizzolatto showed a remarkably focused structure, a rare attribute in the first season of any series. He created an elaborate mythology surrounding the show’s “Yellow King” killer and while the ultimate reveal was a letdown, the amount of possibilities were fascinating. All you need to do is click to the show’s Reddit page to read theories on every onscreen detail that obsessive viewers can pick apart–something I’ve missed about TV in recent years.

The dedicated, over-analytical viewing that True Detective inspired reminded me of the endless discussions happening in the glory days of “The Chase Lounge” during the run of The Sopranos. I essentially learned how to properly watch for subtext by taking part in those message boards back in the day. Mad Men has created moments of intense analysis but I feel the last show to generate it before True Detective was ABC’s Lost (I’m still trying to figure out how the polar bears got there).

Was Maggie’s father involved in the cult? Was Maggie herself some kind of satanic priestess sacrificing her own daughters to the group? Was Audrey a victim of molestation herself? Who were the other four people present in the grisly Marie Fontenot video? True Detective created way more questions than answers, most probably not even dreamt up by Pizzolatto himself.

true detective dolls

Maybe the most discussed image from True Detective‘s first season.

Some people may not agree with the title of this post because HBO’s mainstream popularity has soared in recent years, even if subscription numbers haven’t. Sure, more people watch Game of Thrones and Girls than ever tuned in for Oz or The Wire, but those shows will never be my cup of tea. Forgive me GoT fans but there’s just something hokey about a bunch of guys decapitating each other against a Middle Earth-esque backdrop.

Since The Sopranos went off the air, HBO has been replaced by AMC (and don’t forget FX) as the network for smart, top-tier television drama. HBO hasn’t won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series since 2007, meanwhile AMC has taken home five of the last six. I have a feeling True Detective will change all that and return the trophy to HBO come August.

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About the Author

Clint Davis is a Cincinnati, Ohio-based journalist who dropped out of film school to write news! Email him at

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