Is True Detective Returning to Greatness or Regurgitating a Tired Formula?


When True Detective first premiered on HBO in January of 2014, audiences gleefully joined in on the investigation into the show’s central mysteries, congregating on social media to spout elaborate theories backed by painstaking attention to this richly detailed world.

There was the question, of course, of who was responsible for the string of seemingly connected murders in Vermilion Parish, Louisiana.

But fans eager to pick apart this stylistically adventurous series were interested in far more than figuring out whodunnit.

They wanted to understand the show’s philosophy, to figure out what was real and what was hallucinatory.

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In short, they wanted to figure out what this show was trying to say.

Now, most artists will tell you that they don’t appreciate when audiences attempt to crack the code of their work as though it’s some kind of puzzle to be solved.

But this series seemed to invite its viewers to speculate, pontificate, and try to solve not only the mystery of who killed Dora Lange, but the larger philosophical conundrums that did just as much to perturb and perplex Detectives Rustin Hart and Marty Cohle.

To the disappointment of many, showrunner Nic Pizzolatto showed no interest in returning to Vermillion Parish or the events of True Detective Season 1 in either of the two seasons that followed.

Instead, the show went in an anthology direction, maintaining the gritty tone of the Rust and Marty episodes but with new cops, new mysteries, and new settings each time.

A decade later, however, it looks as though the auteur who has replaced Pizzolatto might be interested in reopening that cold case.

And many of the online sleuths who were eager to put the pieces together ten years ago appear to be along for the ride.

Viewers have been eagerly calling out the many Easter egg allusions to the first season that new showrunner Issa Lopez has hidden throughout the first two episodes.

The most obvious, of course, is the crooked spiral symbol used by the murderous cult at the center of Hart and Cohle’s investigation.

It’s already popped up several times in True Detective Season 4 (also known as True Detective: Night Country — more on that later), most notably tattooed on the flesh of two murder victims and one possible murderer.

But that’s not the only callback to the Hart and Cohle days. Far from it, in fact.

The Tsalal research station that was home to a group of scientists before they were brutally murdered?

It’s owned by the Tuttle Corporation, which was up to all sorts of evil shenanigans in Season 1.

Oh, and spooky possible ghost Travis, the one who pointed out the mass of frozen bodies to Rose Aguineau?

Well, it looks like he’s the father of Matthew McConaughey’s drunken detective.

That hasn’t been explicitly confirmed on the show, but Travis and Rust have the same last name, and Rust explained in Season 1 that he spent part of his childhood in Alaska, where he lived with his pops, a troubled Vietnam vet.

None of this comes as a total shock, as Lopez confirmed at an HBO event in November that there would be strong links between her season and the one that introduced True Detective to the world.

“There are Easter eggs throughout that you will find, and there’s a big, big thing in Episode 6 that you will discover in time,” she said at the time.

“It is its own story, but it’s still connected. The spiral is there, the way that there are those dark and ancient gods (perhaps yes, perhaps not) working behind the scenes. It is the same universe.”

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On social media, the news that time is a flat circle and True Detective is taking us all the way back to 2014 has received a very mixed response:

There’s the “cool!” contingent, folks who are excited to find out if Lopez will be able to link the two seasons in a satisfying way — and maybe even answer some long-lingering questions.

And then there are the “why” guys (and gals), who think it’s a case of odd timing at best and intellectual property theft at worst.

Pizzolatto parted ways with HBO on very bad terms, and he’s made it clear that he doesn’t approve of the network’s decision to resurrect his signature show without his involvement.

“I certainly did not have any input on the story or anything. Can’t blame me,” the former showrunner recently posted on X/Twitter.

Pizzolatto went on to assure fans that they should not expect a cameo from McConaughey — and then hinted that the beloved star also doesn’t approve of the new season.

“Matthew doesn’t show up, nor would he,” he tweeted.

We won’t get into whether or not Pizzolatto deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the success of Season 1.

(There are those who say that Cary Fukunaga, who directed every episode and pioneered the show’s unique visual style was the true auteur.)

The fact is, HBO — a network that once prided itself on its commitment to the creative vision of its showrunners — went ahead and revived the popular True Detective franchise without the consent of the guy who created it.

Initially, there were claims that the execs responsible were only interested in brand recognition, and that they could’ve just as easily produced Lopez’s show under the title of Night Country.

But two episodes in, we can see that Lopez’s interest in the world created by Pizzolatto is genuine.

She’s not just piggybacking on his success — she genuinely wants to revisit the themes and characters he left behind in Season 1.

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Many fans are now wondering if such a return trip can possibly yield satisfying results.

Every work of mystery fiction has to reckon with the fact that fans are sure to obsess over the ending to the relative exclusion of every other aspect of the story.

That’s a lot of pressure for any writer.

And there’s even more weight on Lopez’s shoulders, as she chose to reopen a case that began 10 years ago and had already been solved to the satisfaction of most viewers.

Maybe it was a savvy move for Pizzolatto to move on in the subsequent seasons and, thus, leave us wanting more.

Maybe he’d said all that was worth saying about Hart, Cohle, the Tuttle Corporation, and that creepy spiral.

On the other hand, maybe Pizzolatto’s work from a decade ago has now inspired a gifted filmmaker to build on his themes and enrich his original concept in ways he never could’ve fathomed.

Frankly, we’re not sure which outcome would infuriate the famously cantankerous showrunner more.

Whatever the case, Lopez has certainly managed to pique our interest with her opening episodes — but much will depend on whether or not she’s able to solve the mystery of who killed the Tsalal staff in a way that will remind us why we fell in love with True Detective in the first place.

What do you think? Is True Detective Season 4 fresh or stale?

Hit the comments below with your thoughts.

Tyler Johnson is an Associate Editor for TV Fanatic and the other Mediavine O&O sites. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, cooking, and, of course, watching TV. You can Follow him on X and email him here at TV Fanatic.

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