Film & Media Studies Theory

Whitman College – FMS 387

“The Dark Thrills of ‘True Detective'” and A Killer Legitimization Via Auteur

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“Just a few years ago, Pizzolatto — an intense, hyperverbal dude with a serious Faulkner jones — was in a very different place. Before he became the creator and showrunner of True Detective…Pizzolatto was the author of a little-read novel, Galveston…and had a tenure-track job teaching literature and creative writing at tiny DePauw University, in Greencastle, Indiana” (“The Dark Thrills of ‘True Detective'”). 


Aside from blatantly stating that producer/professor Nic Pizzolatto is the “creator and showrunner” of the new HBO series, True Detective, Jonathan Ringen’s article frames him as the auteur of the show itself by highlighting aspects of him as they relate to those of the characters and story. For example, Ringen draws parallels between the setting of the show, various scenes and even character perspective as specifically relevant to the life of Pizzolatto. He observes that, “Pizzolatto set his tale in a place he knows well: the swampy, oil-refinery-studded coast of Louisiana, where he grew up in a deeply Catholic family, obsessed with comic books and The Twilight Zone” (Ringen). Not only does he explicitly identify the physical location that Pizzolatto and True Detective share, but also brings to attention sources of conflict and content within the narrative as they ground themselves in Pizzolatto’s childhood. The inclusion of the “deeply Catholic family” and his obsession of “The Twilight Zone” allow the reader of the article and viewer of the show to draw their own similarities between the two, remembering that characters of True Detective such as Rustin Cohle are at extreme odds with the devout religious practices of the region. Drawing comparisons between the life of Pizzolatto and his show indicate Ringen’s belief in his auteurship as well as a form of legitimization.


This legitimization of television, as discussed by Michael S. Newman and Elena Levin’s chapter on “The Showrunner as Auteur,” occurs through the alignment between the personal experience of the showrunner and the show itself. Making these connections filters the “fictionalized narrative” of the show and is able to “further guarantee the artistry of individual production and downplay the collaborative nature of industrial media-making” (Newman & Levine). As stated before and again in this quote, the relationship between the personal experiences of the showrunner and the content of the television show not only claims the isolated auteurship of that showrunner, but also legitimizes the show in that it is considered unique to the artist rather than industrialized. By primarily focusing his article around Pizzolatto’s background, Ringen makes the argument for True Detective’s legitimacy through the showrunner’s auteurship and personal relationship with its content. 


To further observe this argument for auteurship and legitimization through the individualized differentiation provided by the show’s creator, the remainder of Ringen’s article on Pizzolatto’s creation of True Detective practically speaks for itself. He concludes the piece by emphasizing that both Season One and Season Two are entirely written by Pizzolatto because he has become so invested in his work that he cannot possibly see how others might contribute (Ringen). This not only suggests that the work is entirely his own rather than the product of a team, but also that the work itself is so genius that multiple artistic contributions might actually weaken the product. As an article entitled “The Dark Thrills,” it is clear that Ringen’s favorable review of the show is, at its core, a legitimization of the show through the attribution of its successful qualities to the unique and isolated artistry of its showrunner and auteur, Nic Pizzolato. In light of this argument, the viewer is more likely to respect the show as a piece of art that is separate from and even superior to other, mainstream television, not to mention the validity of television as an art form itself. 


“The Dark Thrills of ‘True Detective’” by Jonathan Ringen (Rolling Stone)




Author: Denali Elliott

I am an undergraduate student at Whitman College and will graduate with a Film & Media Studies major, English and Politics double minor in the spring of 2015. Aspiring to become a multimedia, international journalist, I enjoy creating short films or experimenting with photography and writing through both academic work and free time. My latest films and photographs will be the product of my travels to Zurich, Switzerland and Paris, France over spring break. In addition, I share my work from an Advanced Filmmaking class, The Pioneer (a school newspaper), and projects or classes prior to this year.

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