HBO’s True Detective, through two episodes, might be the best show on TV — and it’s all about the approach they used

True Detective, the new Sunday night HBO show, has only aired two episodes — which is 25 percent of its Season 1 run — and might already be the best show on TV (currently; at this moment things like Mad Men and The Walking Dead aren’t around). In Episode 1, there were instant comparisons to The Wire — Lester Freamon showed up as a pastor, and Brother Mouzone is an integral part of this show, serving as a cop who’s questioning the events of an investigation years later. It’s remarkable that this show is paired with something like Girls and Looking and still getting buzz, but that’s not even the most remarkable thing about it.

First, a few basics about the plot. It’s Louisiana in 1995, and there’s been a Satanic-seeming murder out in the bayou. Marty (Woody Harrelson) and Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) investigate the case, with pressure (as always on TV shows) from their superiors, the state government, etc. At the same time, 17 years later, two cops are questioning Harrelson and McConaughey on how they worked the case, purportedly because their case files were drowned in Hurricane Katrina — and also possibly because the killer (who theoretically is caught at the end of the series) might be back on the street. There’s a lot of mystery everywhere — McConaughey looks like a ragged drunk in the flash forwards, Harrelson isn’t wearing his wedding ring (his wife on the show in the 1995 scenes is Michelle Monaghan), etc. It’s interesting, well-shot, well-acted, and moves well.

If you were to conventionally guess what or why this show is successful off the jump, you’d probably say “A-List type stars.” McConaughey may win an Oscar this year, for example! Harrelson has come a long way from Cheers. That’s part of the discussion, to be sure. It’s a big part.

But a bigger part, honestly, might be the way the show has been designed.

Every single episode of these first eight was written by the same person (Nic Pizzolatto, who previously wrote two episodes of The Killing as well as a number of short stories) and directed by the same person (Cary Fukunaga, who did the 2011 Jane Eyre movie). This is extremely uncommon in TV: usually TV shows have a team of writers who work together to break down the plot lines of a given season, then break the individual episodes up to be written. Ultimately, the show-runner (a Vince Gillian or Matthew Weiner type person) has the final edit on the individual scripts, and, depending on how much he/she had to do, sometimes takes a writing credit. At the same time, almost every episode of major TV shows is directed by someone different — some shows might have go-tos who do a number of episodes (it seems like Fred Savage has now directed about three episodes of every sitcom on TV, for example). In general, though, directors and writers switch. On sitcoms, this isn’t as big a deal, but on dramas, it can be (the tone and voice and texture and shooting of one episode to the next episode can be very different, and often that can look weird). Great shows like Breaking Bad — where only three people directed more than five episodes in the 62-episode run — make it work, which also goes back to the main editors on the show. Some shows make it look awful.

But this True Detective model is interesting, because the entire writing process

Over the summer of 2012, when everybody else was on vacation, I was locked up in a converted garage in Van Nuys working on the script. It took two and half to three months—it gets hazy—but about five hundred pages. The walls were covered with post it notes filled with tiny handwriting. My office looked like something out of A Beautiful Mind. That was part of the reason why I didn’t put together a writer’s room. I just didn’t know how to explain to anybody what I had been doing. I powered down and got through it. It was intense. The last two weeks of the writing, my wife took our daughter to visit her parents and when they got back she found me on the living room recliner, shirtless, with empty bottles all around me.

— and the directing process

Because, like I said, I could experiment with long format and it could be all mine, whereas I think when you share it with multiple directors it’s more the writers’ vision and you’re servicing the writers’ vision. That is perfectly great — there are amazing directors out there who can do that just fine, who I look up to as master craftsmen — but for me, if I was using multiple directors, I’d rather just shoot a pilot and walk away. This thing I saw as being an eight-hour movie, rather than just an episodic television show.

— were ultimately controlled by two men. That leads to a lot more consistency in terms of arc and tone, and that definitely shows up when you watch the show.

Another interesting aspect of this show is that it’s going to be done in an one-off format (which The Killing probably should have done with Season 2, honestly). Basically, if True Detective comes back for a Season 2, it won’t be Harrelson and McConaughey (makes sense, as they may have film projects). Their arc will be resolved this season, in the next six episodes (I have some theories about what will happen, but that’s for a different kind of post). Each season, then, will be self-contained.

And finally, the other notable thing about the model is only going with eight episodes — they’re each about 57 minutes, so you’re about 24 minutes short of eight hours if you wanted to binge-watch it on HBO Go. Think you couldn’t get through that in a weekend, especially considering how good Episode 1 is (you’ll be hooked)? You easily could. So while HBO is releasing them one at a time on premium cable — unlike, say, House of Cards Season 2 dropping in its entirety on V-Day — it’s still prime for the binge-watching game.

Despite being up against the Golden Globes, the premiere of True Detective was the best HBO opening since Boardwalk Empire in 2010.

Ted Bauer