Picking through the dense literary allusions in True Detective became its own ongoing investigation during the HBO drama’s first season, but for fans of writer Thomas Ligotti, that investigation has turned downright criminal. Jon Padgett, founder of Thomas Ligotti Online, has collaborated with The Lovecraft eZine editor Mike Davis on an article that accuses show creator Nic Pizzolatto of not merely paying homage to Ligotti and other writers, but outright plagiarizing their words and ideas.
They make their argument with a series of side-by-side comparisons of dialogue spoken by Matthew McConaughey’s nihilistic Rust Cohle and excerpts from Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against The Human Race—many of which are echoed, whether paraphrased or directly, in the car ride dialogue between Cohle and Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart from the first episode. As Padgett says, “It is the scene in which True Detective goes from being just another cop buddy procedural to something different, something of exceeding interest to HBO’s audience and a credit to the writer who created Rustin Cohle.” And in Padgett’s estimation, it was Ligotti’s borrowed words that sold not only the audience, but HBO and McConaughey on the show. And without Pizzolatto explicitly citing their source, Padgett says, he may have sold them “goods under false pretenses.”
Of course, Pizzolatto has openly discussed Ligotti’s influence, even saying of that dialogue, “There are two lines in particular (and it would have been nothing to re-word them) that were specifically phrased in such a way as to signal Ligotti admirers. Which, of course, you got.” But Padgett’s argument is that, rather than being a secret shout-out to readers of the obscure philosopher, Pizzolatto was only copping to their being lifted after others began identifying the source.
Padgett points out that The Wall Street Journal interview where Pizzolatto discusses Ligotti was actually a follow-up to a previous article where the same writer had already pointed out the similarities—helped, Padgett says, by research he had submitted. It also took place weeks after an interview on Arkham Digest, where Padgett and some readers accused Pizzolatto of “playing coy” when the interviewer asked him about Ligotti. After the second WSJ article was published, Pizzolatto apparently then emailed a paragraph to Arkham Digest about the accusations, clarifying Ligotti’s influence. (There he said that he was “wary” of discussing Ligotti—or any of the philosophy Cole espoused in early episodes—because he didn’t want that to solely define the character for viewers.) But other than those two instances, Padgett says, Pizzolatto has “only acknowledged Ligotti when he is directly asked about him—in other words, when he has no choice.”
It’s an accusation that has already inspired fierce debate, not only among True Detective fans, but among those who question whether a character that espouses a specific philosophy—even one that borrows from centuries of pessimistic and antinatalist thinking, which Ligotti himself acknowledges repeatedly in Conspiracy Against The Human Race—can truly be said to have “plagiarized” that philosophy. For Padgett and Davis, the similarities between certain phrases, and the lack of attribution anywhere within the context of the show, is enough to deem it “theft of intellectual property.” It’s perhaps not enough to take Pizzolatto to court, but they believe it’s enough to call into question whether he deserves the credit for True Detective’s brilliance (and in more tangible terms, an Emmy nomination for his work).
It’s also not the first such accusation that’s been levied at the show: Many have pointed out that the season’s final scene was a nod and/or blatant “swipe” from Alan Moore. “Time is a flat circle,” arguably the show’s most famous line, is straight out of Thus Spake Zarathustra. And of course, the show is heavily indebted to the many elements it lifted from Robert Chambers’ The King In Yellow, Laird Barron, and H.P. Lovecraft. Still, Pizzolatto has cited all of these writers openly, saying he’ll be happy if the show brings them more attention. (Also, there’s no discounting the other 80-90 percent of True Detective that isn’t steeped in literary allusion.) The question, especially with the Ligotti influence, is whether the use of their ideas constitute homage or outright theft. In Ligotti’s case, Padgett and Davis definitely believe it’s the latter. Their case is laid out for you to draw your own conclusion.
And really, who’s to say what is “theft” in a cold and empty universe, in which every one of us has been stolen from nonexistence, and yanked into this never-ending hurt? (cf. Thomas Ligotti)