True Detective

true_detective_62601There is rough correlation between how many notes I take on a script and how much I enjoy a script. If I am caught up in the story, I don’t like to stop and jot reminders about exposition or subtext. It seems that being entertained by a good script is more important to me than having interesting things to say about a good script when I sum up my thoughts into a review. For True Detective,

I barely took any notes at all.

1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)

Part A) As has been established in many of my prior reviews, ANY TIME there is a voiceover [not in a Coen Brothers film] that voiceover is going to be expository. Therefore, the voiceover which runs the length of this script [it alternates between Hart and Cohle] is expository. As has also been established in many of my prior reviews, exposition is not always bad. When it fits the context, when it creates more mystery than it destroys, exposition works.

I believe True Detective saturates us with the good kind of exposition.

If you go back and read through the script you will see that there is a surface mystery being discussed [the murder of Dora Lange] but the real mystery which occupies the attention of the first episode of True Detective is:

Who is Rustin Cohle?

This mystery is far more important than the procedural mystery involving the murder of Dora Lange. By the time this script ends, I could care less who killed Dora Lange, unless it was Rustin Cohle. Beyond that, I know I will keep coming back to this show because its author has set up the greatest mystery any author can ever set up—Is the person sitting in the Protagonist’s Chair really the good guy, or is he the bad guy? Anytime you manage to get that uncertainty going in the mind of the reader, you’ve struck story gold. (1)

10 out of 10 points.

Part B) No script could create that much uncertainty about its central character and not have done most of the work through subtext. The characters in the script react to Cohle as though he is not only an excellent cop but also as though he is an extremely odd person. One crucial exchange between Hart and Cohle will suffice to illustrate the point. From pages 18-19:

COHLE (CONT’D)
What I think? The only honorable
thing for our species to do is deny
our programming, stop reproducing
and march hand-in-hand into
extinction.

A beat where Cohle seems almost wistful–

COHLE (CONT’D)
A last sunset. Cosmic midnight.
Hart’s deeply offended, angry-

HART
So what’s the point of life, huh?

COHLE
There is no point. Nowhere to go,
no one to see, nothing to do,
nothing to be.

HART
(enraged)
Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ. You
bleeding asshole. Most you’ve said
in three months and it’s gotta bewhat’s
the matter with -Why’re you
on the job, anyway?

COHLE
The only real answer is that it’s
obviously my programming. Just like
it’s yours.

He looks out the window as he speaks, almost to himself–

COHLE (CONT’D)
The reason I tell myself? I’m a
human being. I speak for the dead.
I bear witness. It keeps me part of
things. But mostly I lack the
courage for suicide… Look, if you
want, I could lend you some
Schopenhauer. Start there.

HART
Stop. Stop talking. Shit. Shit.

Back to silence. As Hart grinds his teeth, Cohle stares out
the windows at the ISOLATED FIELDS and RAMSHACKLE HOMES, the
ELECTRICAL LINES against the DESOLATE VALLEY, BROKEN FENCESseveral
tense beats–

COHLE
I get poor vibrations from this
place. You can feel the psychofield
in the air. Like aluminum on
your teeth.

Hart doesn’t reply, drives on, disturbed, hoping Cohle won’t
talk anymore–

COHLE (CONT’D)
Should I bring anything, for
dinner?

Horrified to be reminded of the dinner invitation, Hart recomposes
himself–

HART
Bottle of wine, be nice. I guess.

COHLE
I don’t really drink.

This a final straw of disappointment for Hart–

HART
Of course you don’t, Rust…
And listen, at my house? Don’t
mention any of that shit you just
said to me. You asshole…
‘Extinction.’

COHLE
Of course not, Marty. I’m not some
maniac. Fuck’s sake.

But the truth is, he is some kind of maniac, the whole conversation between him and Hart has just proved it.

10 out of 10 points.

Part C) The individuation in the voices is spectacular. Hart is as fully realized as his Schopenhauer spouting partner. Look how the scene I just cited ends in the interview room with Hart, now 20 years older, speaking to us by way of voiceover:

HART (V.O.)
I mean, most of us are pretty hard
right, you know? Christians. Good
Republicans. We had pictures of
Reagan, Bush and Nixon in the CID
squad room. And at this point, no
lie–

The CAR shrinks into the dark FOOTHILLS that bound the
country road, vanishing into a red darkness–

HART (V.O.) (CONT’D)
-I just really, really don’t like
the guy.

That is exactly what someone in Hart’s position would say. If you’re being honest with yourself, this is how you feel. Cohle is fascinating, but there’s no way in hell you actually like him.

Of course, as has been established, Cohle is a maniac. And it is a first principle of Story that every True Maniac will be well written. You cannot really screw up Maniacs.

10 out of 10 points.

2. Do the first five pages make me want to read to fade out?

If there is any fault in the stars of True Detective, it comes in these first five pages. These first five don’t grab you and pull you close. They’re interesting but, occasionally, the procedural gobbledygook almost derails the momentum. We’re going along pretty good and then we get a massive block of text like this:

CHYRON: ‘Arkansas State Police CID, Company D / Statement of
Hart, Martin Eric. / Present: Sgt. Thomas F. Papania, Sgt.
Maynard Gilbough / May, 2010’

I get that this is telling us that we are in a police interviewing room, and that the voiceovers we will be hearing will be part of this interview process. But, as a reader, I assumed this, and the copspeak block of text takes too much effort to unravel.

Remember I am the opposite of a lazy reader, and I still feel like this block of text is an unnecessary stab at realism that only assaults the eyes.

I also think there are too many timeframes compressed into the first scene. Having completed the script, I can now appreciate that the dinner between Cohle and Hart’s family, which Cohle does not get invited to until page 13, is actually attended by Cohle on page 2, but at the time I was on the verge of getting lost in a story that was going in a lot of different directions at once.

Believe me, the script works it all out and if you do get lost, you don’t stay that way for long. These five pages may even be worth it for the schizotypal feel they create. But it was a gigantic risk:

15 out of 20 points.

3. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist (c) a pinch point the engine funnels toward and (d) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story. (parts a and d worth 10 points, parts b and c worth 5)

Part A) There is an obvious sense in which the only reveal in the first episode comes on the final page:

COHLE (CONT’D)
It’s started again, hasn’t it? The
killing. Him. And how can that be
possible, when we got the bastard
in 2000?

But, if the premise I stated at the beginning of the review is correct, the killing of Dora Lange is just the surface mystery occupying this story. The real mystery concerns the psychological identity of Rust Cohle and [to a lesser extent] why Marty Hart put up with him so long. That mystery has many reveals.

From page 8:

HART (CONT’D)
Rust was smart.

From page 10:

HART (V.O.)
We didn’t know what he’d been
doing. Before CID… I didn’t know
about all that undercover work
until later.

From page 16:

COHLE
I like to contemplate Christ’s
life. As an existential statement.
The idea of allowing your own
crucifixion.

HART
But you don’t believe He’s the Lord
and Savior?

COHLE
Not at all.

From page 22:

SALTER (CONT’D)
Your op details are redacted. Four
years of duty sealed on the
Louisiana AG’s orders or classified
with DEA. No details.

From page 24:

COHLE
Northshore? Psychiatric hospital in
Slidell. I spent four months there
in ‘88.

From page 25:

COHLE
At the time, I kind of struggled
with my nights… I mean, I didn’t
sleep. Ever.

From page 30:

COHLE (CONT’D)
Relax. I want some.

LUCY
Speed?

COHLE
No. Quaalude. Anything-barbital.

From page 37:

COHLE
Well, Marty, given how long it’s
taken me to understand and
reconcile my own nature, I can’t
hardly imagine I’d forgo it on your
account.

From page 47:

HART (CONT’D)
Anyway- we were married for twentyfive
years. And for the last
fourteen I worked with Rust Cohle.
I mean, that long a time, a
relationship becomes lots of
different things. Different
incarnations… Rust changed a lot,
back and forth. We both did. And
yeah, we left it bad. But, you
know, I can say this: he was a
great detective. Things I saw Rust
do—

All of that and more… including a nuclear tower and a question about ghosts. In other words, there is no shortage of reveals in this script which, at first glance, seems very short on reveals.

10 out of 10 points.

Part B) Without question the engine that drives this story is the audience’s need to find out if one of the good guys [Hart or Cohle] is really the bad guy. I find this to be exquisitely interesting, bordering on the metafictive.

I suppose there is also surface propulsion generated in the literal story of ‘who killed Dora Lange’, but we all know we only continue to read/watch to find out if Cohle [or possibly Hart] did it. This is an ingenious story construct, yet it falls outside the realm of established story constructs. Usually, things break down like this:

1 The good guy is really the bad guy but the writer hides it—The Usual Suspects
2 The Bad Guy is the Bad Guy but we kinda root for him anyway—Silence of the Lambs
3 The bad guy fools the good guy into thinking he’s a good guy but the audience isn’t fooled—Amadeus
4 The bad guy fools the good guy and the audience until the last reveal—The Fugitive

But where is the pre-established construct for True Detective?

5 No one in the story or the real world knows who is the good guy and who is the bad guy.

I’ve paused here for a while trying to think of a story [any format] that succeeds at this, and I’ve failed. True Detective makes you a part of its world in a way that most works of fiction do not.

5 out of 5 points.

Part C) Clearly, this episode does not have a pinch point. It has a Sixth Sense moment at the very end that is meant to catapult you into the next episode. This works, but it prevents the episode from being a stand alone piece of art. I could be lenient because of the medium, but I choose not to be.

0 out of 5 points.

Part D) The theme of this episode is stated, but is not fulfilled. I find it in the tail end of the highly philosophical conversation between Hart and Cohle I quoted earlier. When Hart asks Cohle why Cohle bothers with trying to bring criminals to justice given the fact he believes there is no point to life. Cohle replies (page 18):

COHLE
The only real answer is that it’s
obviously my programming. Just like
it’s yours.

This means we all do whatever it is we’re programmed to do or:

We do whatever we’re fated to do.
Or,

There is no such thing as free will.

I can’t give all the points now [because a theme like this has to be finished to be judged] but man am I interested in seeing where this setup goes. Today’s author has either gotten REALLY lucky with his story design, or he REALLY knows what he is doing:

5 out of 10 points.

4. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)

Part A) The first episode of this story is COMPLETELY unoriginal. We’ve all seen this story a thousand times before. There is not a plot point in here that wasn’t in something else.

2 out of 5 points.

Part B) However, the writing– the recombination– of these old devices and plot points is… startlingly original. It is worth reading and studying:

5 out of 5 points.

5. Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script? Did it make us want to be a better person? (10 points)

Okay, so I can’t say that True Detective inspired me in the usual sense. It did not make me want to celebrate my humanity because of its story, its characters, or its viewpoint. However, I did finish it and immediately want to get into my review so that I could celebrate the author. An outstanding beginning was made in this story and I want to see where it leads. My fingers are crossed, and my hope is high. And that, is a cause for celebration.

The pilot episode of True Detective is better than any of the scripts I read which were nominated for Academy Awards this year (2013).

8 out of 10 points.

Total Score: 80

Footnote:

1 I can’t think of stories that actually do this, now that I’ve written it down. Maybe one of you can help me out with an example of the type. It seems like an easy request at first. But the number of stories that manage to do what True Detective does is [to my knowledge] vanishingly small.

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10 responses to “True Detective

  1. The thing I loved about True Detective is that the enormous popular response was driven by the nuts and bolts of the mystery (Who is the Yellow King?) while the critical response was driven by the depth of character of Rust and Marty. Writers, you can have your cake and eat it too, but this script is the level you must execute on. Good luck.

    Now, question for Barish: Do you feel like, if you continued to review pilots, the rubric you use for features is an adequate lens to view them through? Or would it require some adjustment?

    I mention this not because of any weakness in the criticism (because, clearly, big fan) but because I recently wrote a pilot for the first time and found there were some new muscles getting worked in the process. There are many similarities in craft, of course, but a feature and a pilot are not quite trying to do the same thing. As you mention in your review “An outstanding beginning was made in this story and I want to see where it leads.” I mean, that’s all a pilot really wants to accomplish. In fact if it accomplishes more then that, you may hurt the pacing of your show overall.

    While writing I got this feeling that features were closed worlds and TV shows were open worlds. A movie looks like a circle but a TV show looks like a branching path, like a tree trunk, that extends into infinity. In a feature, every single moment has to be essential, relevant, or paid off later. Whereas in TV, what you’re trying to do is breathe a sort of life into your story, and elements you introduce may (nay, should) only come into play past some unseen horizon.

    I also have noticed (in a very small sample size) that their is some confusion among the “gatekeepers” as to this difference. TV material seems to get evaluated through the lens of feature material. Which is why I think it’s a worthy discussion.

    • I think the format requires adjustment for use with pilots. The reasons you note are a big part of what needs to be accounted for in a better scaling system.

      You’re right that the open endedness which defines the first episode of True Detective is exactly what a writer should have in her sights. This sort of thing is disastrous in features [The Matrix Reloaded is the first example I can think of]. But, it is perfect in a vehicle which aims to get people back in their seats, same time next week.

      The other thing I like about True Detective is the limited scope. This is an eight episode story. One of the reasons I think it worked so well is because no one tried to stretch it into 22 episodes. Can you imagine how much of the “JJ Abrams sprawl” this story could have tolerated, and still been a phenomenon?

      I wish those in charge of greenlighting pilots would prize quality over quantity.

      [Since I am not a serious television watcher, I would love to know if there are shows in the longer format that are consistently good week to week.]

  2. There are quite a few. As with anything taste varies but there is extremely strong writing in television (many would argue, better then in film) these days.

    Some select shows with great pilots that have a very high bar for quality on an episode by episode basis would be —

    The Wire (this show probably gets the most critical agreement as the “best” written show ever on television. I lean that way)
    Mad Men
    Deadwood
    Battlestar Galactica
    Breaking Bad

    True Detective is also worth finishing — it more then delivers on the promise of the pilot.

    • I will have to check those out, especially The Wire. I reviewed the pilot for Breaking Bad a long time ago and thought it was well-written. I would be very impressed if these shows are able to [week after week] deliver top quality writing.

      I soured on Network TV [and TV specifically] [[and JJ Abrams non-specifically]] after Lost. It became a phenomenon, so I started watching it. I made it through four episodes before I quit. The first couple were good… and then it became an obvious story-telling front for filling up airtime. Lost convinced me that quality matters over quantity.

      I quit watching TV until Sherlock. It became a phenomenon so I gave it a shot. Since the quality was high and the quantity was low, I felt my episode hypothesis [derived from Lost] was confirmed.

      Then I gave True Detective a shot… and enjoyed the whole series. It hardened my hypothesis into a theory.

      But as with every theory, I could still be proved wrong by a series that manages to deliver both quantity and quality!

  3. Question for Joel Dorland: what did you find were some of the biggest differences in switching from features to pilots? I am planning to attempt the same thing this year.

  4. Hmm…

    Well the major difference to me is the one mentioned above — it’s kind of a feel thing — where in a spec feature you are basically trying to, over the course of your story, narrow it down to a point where all ends meet –

    In a spec pilot it feels like you are doing the reverse. Gently opening your story up — reveals that cause the narrow point of story potential to scatter into many fractals or possibilities — stay tuned until after the break. You gotta make em’ want to know “what happens next”

    Also — for me — the scenes breath a little bit more. In features I’m always thinking about acceleration. Get in, get out, maximize, minimize, communicate intent and gogogo. In TV land, I got the characters talking a bit more — listened to them — played with them — discovered what they had to say to each other — took my foot off the gas and admired the view for just a few seconds more.

    That might sound a little wishy-washy so some nuts and bolts things I like that you could chose to follow would be —

    1)Hit a major reveal or unique character introduction on every act break at a minimum — so you should have 4 of those at least. I almost wouldn’t bother writing a pilot without that benchmark.

    2)Do some Barishy theme-work for the arc of the series — what’s it all about, bumper-sticker style — so that hopefully a whiff of it can bleed into the pilot in some fashion.

    3)Even though TV shows tend to be about communities, anchor your reader in whatever world you’ve chosen by focusing on one major relationship between two (max four) characters as you introduce your world. Readers will always appreciate this. You can open things up after the pilot when you’re swimming in development $$$ (Note almost all the great shows break this rule so there you go)

    4)Think about establishing micro mysteries and macro mysteries that leave open intriguing questions that bring the viewer back both small picture (episode 2) and big picture (tell their friends to watch the series)

    5) Read the pilots in my comment above before starting — they’re all great, and each for different reasons.

    And by the way, if you’re breaking in cold with queries and stuff, feature specs is still the best way to do it — that’s my experience and that’s what I’ve been told, but I’m far from an expert. TV writing is much more of an apprenticeship/work your way up through the system type deal. With the growing demand for that content stream, maybe that will change?

  5. Wow, thanks for your thoughtful and detailed reply.

    You hit on some of the subjects that concern me; I have spent so much time learning how to pare things down and as you say “accelerate” that I am a little wary of learning a different approach to story architecture. As a writer, I find the closed world of features to be very attractive.

    I was dropped by my manager of three years last fall, and one of the issues was my reluctance to add a pilot to my portfolio. It is not that I am against pilots or television, just that I felt that I hadn’t even gotten any good at features yet and that it was like moving the goalposts.

    I think that although it is highly unlikely that an unknown would sell a pilot, a lot of managers want their clients to demonstrate an interest in and affinity for series writing. It makes sense from the reps’ point of view, there are a lot more writer paydays in television. And they are all hoping you will be the next Mickey Fisher.

    Anyway thanks again for your advice. I still have two features to finish before I attempt to change horses midstream.

  6. Hey now that I have had a little more time to digest your comments, I have a couple of questions. I like the idea that even secondary characters will have the space in a series to arc, but how much do you plan these things in advance, and in how much detail? How many storylines will the (presumably one-hour) pilot bear?

  7. There are no right answers for these things. That’s why you read good pilots, to get a feel for some things that work. Even at this relatively short point I’ve gotten so many contradictory notes that it’s pretty damn obvious that nobody really knows anything — everyone is just feeling it out — and all that matters is if someone connects with the material or not.

    The pilot (or a spec for that matter) will bear or not bear as much or as little as you can execute effectively. I will say this — everything you leave open in a pilot will be held against you. But if you did a good job, everything you can slip into the pilot without closing up will make the series stronger — so it’s about finding a balance. I’m more of a minimalist myself — I like linear stories, usually about just one thing — but I will say that whatever you do, go for simplicity and clarity.

    As to planning, I highly recommend it. Why? Because I wrote a decent pilot and I am getting ALOT of requests for a bible now and I kind of wish I had just fucking wrote one in the first place — and I think, although I am not sure, that having the bible will allow readers to forgive (haha) the various subtleties that are in the pilot.

  8. Yes I have seen them every which way, with obvious future episode fodder dangled in the pilot, with bibles and without, with it broken down into episode synopses and little character bios.

    Best of luck with your querying. Do you plan to enter any of the contests that accept pilots?

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