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‘True Detective’ Season 3: Despite Changes, the HBO Drama Still Has an Auteur TV Problem

While news of a new season of HBO's singular crime drama might be exciting, it also serves as a reminder that collaboration is key to making great TV.

True Detective Season 2 Rachel McAdams

HBO

The long-gestating third season of “True Detective” appears to have a little extra juice in it, with word that creator Nic Pizzolatto has written two episodes and David Milch has joined as a producer.

READ MORE: ‘True Detective’ Season 3: HBO Says, ‘It Is Not Dead’

For those who loved the first installment, starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as two men investigating one crime over the course of years, the news might be exciting — but those who watched the second season might understandably be a little wary of the news.

That’s because “True Detective” Season 2 was further confirmation of a fact that savvy television viewers are more than aware of: Coming up with one good season of television does not make you a world-class showrunner.

This is especially true if one of the primary reasons for your show’s success — such as a key collaborator like Cary Fukunaga — departs. Fukunaga not only made “True Detective” Season 1 a richly atmospheric experience, but the creative friction between him and Pizzolatto seemed to have made the show stronger. The second season, despite an intriguing cast including Rachel McAdams, Vince Vaughn and Colin Farrell, never found its footing and featured a number of baffling plot choices.

Milch’s involvement is a new concern, given his reputation as a temperamental collaborator. While his credits include brilliant work like “Deadwood” and “NYPD Blue,” the writer has more recently stumbled into plenty of missteps, including “John from Cincinnati” and “Luck.” And then there’s the infamous story about him storming into the “Luck” editing bay with a baseball bat, Negan-style, gunning for Michael Mann’s blood.

The question of how much creative control a creator should receive after a big success like “True Detective” is a tricky balancing act for everyone involved. After all, some showrunners thrive when they have the opportunity to really own their show — Matthew Weiner, for example, gave us seven brilliant seasons of “Mad Men,” and Noah Hawley has truly defined the novelistic approach to television with his adaptation of “Fargo.”

Jon Hamm and John Slattery, "Mad Men"

Jon Hamm and John Slattery, “Mad Men”

Justin Mintz/AMC

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But there are plenty of counter-examples that showcase how too much creative control and not enough checks and balances end up being the ruin of promising series. Just a few examples:

  • The second season of “UnREAL,” which Sarah Gertrude Shapiro took over after collaborating with Marti Noxon in Season 1, was a major critical disappointment in comparison to the first beautifully vicious year.
  • While the idea of giving Kurt Sutter carte blanche to create a medieval period drama sounds good on paper, that didn’t make “The Bastard Executioner” any fun to watch.
  • Joss Whedon’s “Dollhouse” had moments of brilliance, but the level of course correction needed after its sloppy start handicapped the series for sure.
  • And while it is no longer possible to watch Chris Carter’s “The After” on Amazon, that may be the best for all of humanity.

What makes a great TV show? It’s not quite magic, and it’s not quite science. Call it alchemy. And one key ingredient, all too often, is the inclusion of more than one creative voice to say things like, “maybe the line ‘It’s like blue balls, in your heart’ is a little too out there, Nic.”

We’re definitely intrigued by what might happen should “True Detective” return for a third installment. But we’d actually be excited about it if another strong collaborator — the key word being collaborate — gets involved. One of the things that’s made television great over the last 20 years has been the rise of auteur-ship, the concept that a singular voice can drive a episodic narrative. But the downside is underestimating how much other voices can help improve this sort of storytelling. Because more often than not, every creator could stand to be challenged from time to time.

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