It has been nearly two years since True Detective returned for what was supposed to be a triumphant second season on HBO. Since then, it’s been a little hard to tell if the show—whose towering first season won endless accolades for HBO, its cast and its creator, Nic Pizzolatto—really had a future. Now there’s reason to believe in True Detective again.
Entertainment Weekly reported Monday that Pizzolatto is working on a third season, and he’ll be joined in some creative capacity by David Milch, creator of Deadwood and one of the most influential figures of television’s last 35 years. Milch is one of Pizzolatto’s creative heroes—he gave stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson Deadwood DVDs to study before True Detective began shooting—and he could be the shot in the arm the series needs after a stiff, underwhelming sophomore effort.
When I first heard of Milch’s involvement, a brief bit of dialogue from True Detective’s first season entered my head—an exchange between the tormented-yet-righteus Detective Marty Hart (Harrelson) and his pessimistic-yet-brilliant partner, Rust Cohle (McConaughey). In fact, it’s the very first dialogue from the very first trailer I saw for the series.
Hart: You wonder, ever, if you’re a bad man?
Cohle: World needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.
In both its first and second seasons, True Detective is obsessed with bad men who keep the other bad men from the door. The show faced criticism for lack of strong women in Season 1 and more criticism in Season 2 for the creation of Sgt. Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams),a character as much defined by her reaction to bad men as anything she does as an indivual. To make matters worse, the antiheroic men of True Detective Season 2 were invariably defined almost solely by what Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff termed “penis problems”: impotencies both real and imagined that were often derivative and sometimes even cartoonish. Take this line from Colin Farrell’s broken detective Ray Velcoro.
“I used to want to be an astronaut, but astronauts don’t even go to the moon anymore.”
If you think that line reads less like something from True Detective and more like something from a parody of True Detective, I can assure you that you’re not alone.
There is some good stuff in True Detective’s second season, and Pizzolato is still a prodigious talent. The problem may have been that, after delivering a legitimate masterpiece the first time around, he tried to bottle lightning again and just couldn’t. Few writers in televison can keep up the pace on their own, and by the time Season 2 was over, even HBO seemed determined to work through Pizzolatto’s fierce auhorial independence and give him some help for the third time out.
Enter David Milch.
Milch has been a force in TV for nearly four decades, thanks in large part to some very good writing about bad men. He started on Hill Street Blues, where he won an Emmy for his very first cript, then co-created NYPD Blue and further explored law enforcement antiheroes and boundary-pushing TV in the 1990s. Then came Deadwood.
Experience is tragic, and in its tragedy can be discovered redemption. You just gotta keep showing up.
Deadwood, a Western drama about a mining town trying to hammer out civlization on the frontier, is a masterpiece—a dynamic work of endless depth that never faltered in its three seasons at HBO, and still inspires cries for a revival. Though it’s perhaps less watched than either of them, Deadwood belongs alongside fellow HBO revolutions The Sopranos and The Wire in the endless debate over the greatest TV series of all time.
With Deadwood, Milch also joined the pantheon of HBO’s Three Davids, a holy trinity of showruners who redefined longform television and antiheroic characters around the turn of the millennium. If David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, is the Pensive Novelist of the group, and David Simon, creator of The Wire, is the Activist Poet, then Milch is the Philosopher King: fiercely intellectual, obsessive in his storytelling and deeply sensitive to ideas like this one, which he calls a major inspiration in crafting Deadwood:
“[Saint Paul] was himself a conflicted personality. Someone once said in times like these the heart breaks and breaks and lives by breaking. And Paul understood that, and embraced it as the premise of human organization: that experience is tragic, and in its tragedy can be discovered redemption. You just gotta keep showing up.”
In Deadwood, Milch sought not just to create antiheroes and explore how they worked in a Western setting with as much depth as possible (Antihereoes in a Western? How original!), but to craft a societal foundation populated with hardened people on the fringes of the civilization, trying to make sense of a brave new world. Deadwood is the dawn of a civiization in microcosm, with all the moral dilemmas and high body counts such a thing demands, and Milch’s characters are far more than a few bad men. There are women who range from reformed outlaws to broken innocents to rising phoenixes, often in the span of the same character. There are dimwitted politicians and crafty bandits and doctors who can’t even heal themselves. There are good men standing in defiance of temptation, and evil men defying their very nature. Oh, and Milch also crafted, with apologies to Walter White and Tony Soprano, the greatest TV antihero of the last 20 years: Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), a crime lord turned frontier empire builder with his own sometimes fluid code of honor.
Milch, perhaps more than any other writer in televison right now, knows how to write bad men, but he also knows how to write women, and outcasts, crusaders and plain-old nasty villains. He has one of the best noses for character you could ever hope to encounter, he’s a master craftsman of the season-length arc and he seem to effortlessly root it all in a sense of thematic philosophy to rival any Great American Novelist. I know I’m building him up quite a lot, but Milch really is that good, and his storytelling sensibilities mesh pefectly with True Detective. He knows all of Pizzolatto’s tricks, and he can perhaps do them all better. If you’re still intent on writing complex, relevant stries about Bad Men in a world lousy with warmed-over antiheroic shows that seek to be the next Deadwood without any of the soul, Milch is the guy to help you do it right.
The world needs bad men, and the bad men of True Detective need David Milch.