Did Nic Pizzolatto Plagiarize Dialogue In True Detective?


There is a fine line to be walked between homage and plagiarism, particularly in our current, pastiche-crazy culture. Filmmakers have been accused of lifting large sections of novels, plays, poetry, and other films to be cast pell-mell into their own works, prompting accusations of “hack” work as well as praise for these directors as post-modern pastiche artists. But what happens when whole sections of dialogue are lifted from other works and remain unattributed in a film or television show? Is that homage, plagiarism, or some nebulous category in between?

That’s the issue now facing the hit show True Detective and writer/creator Nic Pizzolatto. Pizzolatto is being accused of plagiarizing work by the horror writer Thomas Ligotti, among others, and using it in dialogue without attributing it. Conversation has begun between The Lovecraft E-zine‘s Mike Davis and Thomas Ligotti Online‘s founder Jon Padgett (via The Playlist), to the tune that certain scenes in True Detective contain are not just references to Ligotti’s work, but actual and unattributed quotations.

One of the lines in question is lead character Rust Cohle’s words in the second episode of True Detective: “The only honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing and march hand-in-hand into extinction.” According to Padgett, that line and many others are lifted almost directly from Thomas Ligotti’s “The Conspiracy Against The Human Race” without acknowledgment of the writer’s work. Padgett feels that the unattributed aspect of the character-defining dialogue is what makes this plagiarism and not homage: if Pizzolatto was trying to pay homage, he would make it evident that the words are not Cohle’s own thoughts, but come from another source. Padgett claims that by not attributing the quotations, Pizzolatto is trying to make the public think that he’s the one who came up with those lines.

Padgett further points out other lines from other sources that are either taken directly or paraphrased in True Detective. The show seems to be borrowing freely from William S. Burroughs, Albert Einstein, and Alan Moore, all without direct or indirect attribution. The season finale even ends with direct quotation from one of Alan Moore’s comic books – again, without acknowledging the source.

This is a thorny issue and probably a bit more complicated than the “intellectual theft” that Padgett claims. Pizzolatto has admitted to paying “homage” to Ligotti and other sources, but not to the extent that Padgett is saying he’s taking lines directly from the writer. It’s a heavy accusation, and while it might not result in any legal proceedings, it does call the artistic integrity of True Detective into question.

While there has not been a response from either Pizzolatto or HBO on this topic, they will probably have to address it before long. We’ll let you know if and when they do.