How To Get Away With Being A Damaged White Man

Nic Pizzolatto and Matthew McConaughey. CREDIT: RICHARD SHOTWELL INVISION/AP
Nic Pizzolatto and Matthew McConaughey. CREDIT: RICHARD SHOTWELL INVISION/AP

For context, I send you to Alessandra Stanley’s New York Times piece, “Wrought in Rhimes’s image.”

When Nic Pizzolatto writes his autobiography, it should be called How to Get Away With Being a Damaged White Man.

On Tuesday, Mr. Pizzolatto introduced the cast of True Detective season two, yet another HBO season from his acclaimed drama to showcase a conflicted, long-suffering white man. This one — well, actually, there are two — will be Ray Velcoro, “a compromised detective whose allegiances are torn between his masters in a corrupt police department and the mobster who owns him” played by Colin Farrell, and Frank Semyon, “a career criminal in danger of losing his empire when his move into legitimate enterprise is upended by the murder of a business partner” played by Vince Vaugn, “And that clinches it: Mr. Pizzolatto, who wrought Rust Cohle on True Detective and Martin “Marty” Heart on True Detective, has done more to reset the image of white men on television than anyone since Matthew Weiner.

Mr. Pizzolatto didn’t just construct a series around one white man. (He did it around two white men.) He has also introduced a set of heroes who flout ingrained television conventions and preconceived notions about the depiction of alcoholism and adultery.


His men are (fallen) authority figures with sharp minds and potent libidos who are respected, even haughty members of the police force. They are not prostitutes or corpses or bitter spouses, because women have those bases covered already. Be it Matthew McConaughey on True Detective or Woody Harrelson on True Detective, they can and do get pretentious and existential. One of the more memorable ramblings in soap opera history was Cohle’s “time is a flat circle” rant.

Mr. Pizzolatto has embraced the trite but persistent caricature of the Damaged White Man, recast it in his own image and made it enviable. He has almost single-handedly trampled a taboo even Ben Franklin couldn’t break.

His heroes are not at all like the blue-collar, dopey, salt-of-the-earth working-class men who have been fumbling and d’oh-ing on screen ever since Dan Castellaneta played Homer Simpson, the husband and dad on The Simpsons.

They certainly are not as benign and reassuring as Danny Tanner, the serene, moral widow, father and dedicated waker-up of San Francisco on Full House.

Even now, six years removed from the George W. Bush presidency, race and gender remain a sensitive, incendiary issues not only in Ferguson, Mo., but also just about everywhere except True Detective, which somehow fails to address these topics in any meaningful way whatsoever.


In that homogenous world, there are many white people at the top of every profession. But even when his hero is the only white person in the room — oh actually, that is never the case, but anyway, if it were to be the case — it is the last thing he or anyone around him notices or cares about.

And what is most admirable about Mr. Pizzolatto’s achievement is that in a business that is still run by note-giving, nit-picking, compromise-seeking network executives, his work is mercifully free of uplifting role models, parables and moral teachings, unless you count nihilism as a moral teaching.

On True Detective, Cohle is a brilliant drunk who infuriates everyone around him. Hart of True Detective is the married man with a mistress while also maintaining an on-again-off-again bro-ship with his partner.

In the second half of the first season, Hart gets even worse: He ignores his daughter’s problems, then slut-shames her when she’s a teenager. (He also betrays her mother.)

As Ray, Mr. Farrell, 38, is sexual and even sexy, in a slightly menacing way (I assume) but the actor looks exactly like the typical star of a network drama, or any drama. Ignoring the pretty flexible beauty standards some white men are held to, Mr. Pizzolatto chose a performer who is under forty, light-skinned and less classically handsome than Mr. McConaughey, or for that matter Jon Hamm, who plays Don Draper on the AMC series Mad Men.

Mr. Pizzolatto is a noir writer who understands the need for more spice than sugar; his heroes are mysterious, complicated and extravagantly flawed, often deeply and interestingly. They struggle with everything, including their own identities, so unconcerned about race that it is barely ever mentioned.


Nobody thinks Nic Pizzolatto is holding back and nobody is asking to see the real Nic Pizzolatto. He’s all over the place.

A tip of the hat to Alex Abad-Santos for tweeting this.