clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The True Detective plagiarism controversy: explained

True Detective
True Detective
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

HBO's True Detective has been the brashest, most addictive, and most exciting new television show this year. It has the star power of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, the buzz of HBO, and cinematography that's absolutely spellbinding. But what drives this show are the lines and writing of creator Nic Pizzolatto.

When people talk about TD, they don't talk about the plot or McConaughey. Instead, they recite specific lines like "Time is a flat circle" or try to remember the rest of the words to the line that ends with "march hand-in-hand into extinction."

But, according to some, those memorable lines that made the show might actually be works of plagiarism.

What's the controversy?

The allegations are that Pizzolatto heavily borrowed lines, like Cohle's "hand-in-hand" line, from the work of horror writer Thomas Ligotti. Jon Padgett, the founder of Thomas Ligotti Online, and Mike Davis, the editor and founder of The Lovecraft eZine website, looked into a few of Pizzolatto's famous lines and compared them to Ligotti's work, Conspiracy Against the Human Race. In an interview on Davis's site, Padgett pointed out a sampling of quotes that could be traced back to Ligotti:

True Detective:

We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law.


We know that nature has veered into the supernatural by fabricating a creature that cannot and should not exist by natural law, and yet does.

Another example:

True Detective:

The only honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, and march hand-in-hand into extinction.


"...the human race will never do the honorable thing and abort itself..."/ "To end this self-deception... we must cease reproducing." / "And how many would speed up the process of extinction once euthanasia was decriminalized and offered in humane and even enjoyable ways?"

And one more:

True Detective:

I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution.


"...human existence is a tragedy that need not have been were it not for the intervention in our lives of a single, calamitous event: the evolution of consciousness-parent of all horrors/ "...the evolutionary mutation of consciousness tugged us into tragedy."/ "...our captivity in the illusion of a self... the tragedy of the ego."

Davis and Padgett believe there's something more than just influence here. "It is a fact that (in that crucial, character-defining scene) almost every one of Rust's infamous lines is either taken word for word or is a paraphrase of Ligotti's distinctive prose and ideas from The Conspiracy Against the Human Race," Padgett told Davis.

Who is Thomas Ligotti?

Ligotti is a very talented and respected horror writer who isn't as well known outside of the genre. The Washington Post once called him the "best kept secret in contemporary horror fiction," and many believe that he's the literary heir to the great H.P. Lovecraft.

Ligotti is primarily known for his short stories, most of which fall into a category called weird fiction — where humor, strange imagery, and the odd all play together in stories that might not fully be understandable or explained. "An underlying dark sense of humor is more prevalent in his fiction generally than is acknowledged by most critics," wrote in 2011.

Ligotti described his own work to the site too, opting for the word "uncanny":

Quite a number of literary critics and European philosophers have taken an interest in the facets of meaning suggested by the uncanny, which I consider to be interchangeable with the weird. In fact, if I had to use a word that most accurately describes most of my own stories, it would be "uncanny."

Ligotti's Conspiracy Against the Human Race, which lives in the lines of True Detective's Rust Cohle, is actually a non-fiction piece that expresses ideas of philosophical pessimism, speculation, skepticism, and nihilism.

"It's a synthesis of ideas I've formed over my life and of other people's ideas that rhyme with mine," Ligotti said in an interview with the site Teeming Brain. "The disconnect that anyone may perceive in this work between what I think and the way I've articulated it is something they can know nothing about."

Is this plagiarism?

It seems like we've heard a lot and talked a lot about plagiarism in the last couple of weeks. As we found out, not everyone is working with the same definition of plagiarism.

For Pulitzer Prize-winning, Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten, copying a little tidbit of Wikipedia word-for-word isn't plagiarism — he argued that plagiarism is defined by the value of the ideas being stolen (i.e. original thoughts/philosophy are more important than copying facts). Others believe that any word-for-word copying, even if the information might be useless, is an egregious offense.

Pizzolatto's lines consist of a lot of paraphrasing. And it would be hard to for Pizzolatto to make the claim that Cohle's lines are his own organic thoughts.

But you also have to consider Pizzolatto's medium. He isn't writing a school paper or a journalist. He's creating a fictional character, whom, Pizzolatto could argue, embodies Ligotti's views. At the same time, Pizzolatto hasn't explicitly written an acknowledgement of Ligotti into the show. And Davis points out that there's no mention of Ligotti in the DVD commentary.

This also isn't the first time that Pizzolatto's work has borrowed some lines and themes from other people's works. In the season finale there's a portion of dialogue that is similar to Alan Moore's comic Top Ten #8.

Has Pizzolatto ever acknowledged Ligotti before?

The earliest interview that I could find (Lexis search/Google) where Pizzolatto talks about Ligotti was on February 2 in an interview with the Wall Street Journal's Michael Calia. The show premiered on HBO on January 12, close to a month earlier. There was, as Gawker points out, one instance where a different interviewer mentioned Cohle's "Ligottian worldview" some nine days earlier, but that Wall Street Journal interview is where Pizzolatto explicitly mentions Ligotti's work. Calia had written a post three days earlier talking about how strikingly similar Cohle and Ligotti's lines were.

"I read The Conspiracy Against the Human Race and found it incredibly powerful writing," Pizzolatto told Calia, explaining Cole's monologue was an intentional homage to Ligotti. "In episode one, 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," he added.

Davis and Pizzolatto's critics don't think this admission is good enough and feel like the Ligotti acknowledgment came post-facto.

"He could have acknowledged Ligotti any number of times — he didn't. He only did it when an interviewer cornered him with evidence that he lifted directly from Ligotti's book," Davis wrote. "Pizzolatto seems to want the TV-viewing public to think that he came up with those phrases and ideas."

Has Pizzolatto said anything about these accusations?

Not directly, no. While Pizzolatto has talked about Ligotti's influence on his writing, he hasn't addressed Davis and Padgett's allegations.

The allegations, coincidentally, are coming at a time when Pizzolatto is saying some unkind stuff about his critics. He's the subject of a profile/cover story for the latest issue of The Hollywood Reporter. And in that profile, he throws a heaping helping of shade onto New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum (who criticized his portrayal of women).

"When Callie [Khouri], who wrote Thelma & Louise, thinks that that's stupid criticism, I'm inclined to take her opinion over someone with a Wi-Fi connection." he said.

Pizzolatto hasn't been making it simple to like him or take his side.