top of page
  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A reinvented ‘True Detective’ plays it cool

Jodie Foster, who stars in Season 4 of “True Detective,”in Los Angeles, Dec. 13, 2023.

By Alexis Soloski

There were times, a year ago, in Iceland, on a glacier, in the dark, in temperatures well below freezing, when Issa López thought to herself: “Who wrote this? What is wrong with this person?” López, the showrunner and director of Season Four of the HBO anthology series “True Detective,” had only herself to blame.

This shivery “True Detective,” subtitled “Night Country,” premieres Jan. 14. Set in Ennis, a fictional town in northwest Alaska, it stars Jodie Foster as the chief of police and Kali Reis as an intimidating state trooper. Opening just as the area descends into months of unrelieved darkness, the six-episode season has an icy milieu and a female gaze forcefully distinct from the show’s past outings.

Created by Nic Pizzolatto, “True Detective” debuted nearly a decade ago as a bayou noir starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. Sultry, macho and spanning two timelines set 17 years apart, it entwined a familiar serial killer investigation with sweaty philosophy and intimations of the supernatural. Though that first season had its critics, it made for essential, much debated viewing. The second season, set in an unglamorous Southern California exurb and starring Colin Farrell, Taylor Kitsch, Rachel McAdams and Vince Vaughn, made a smaller, grimmer splash, as did the third season, which starred Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff and relocated the action to the Ozarks.

That third season, which premiered in January 2019, attracted significantly fewer viewers. That might have meant the end of “True Detective.” But HBO believed the franchise could continue. The network began to search for a new showrunner for Season Four, preferably a woman of color. (Earlier seasons skewed overwhelmingly male and largely white, in front of the camera and behind it.) Among the potential candidates was López, a Mexican filmmaker who had written and directed a roster of Spanish-language features, including “Tigers Are Not Afraid,” a movie about missing and murdered women and children that mingled crime, fantasy and horror.

That film impressed Francesca Orsi, HBO’s head of drama. The essence of “True Detective,” Orsi said by phone in a recent interview, “is the way in which the horror genre is encapsulated within the detective noir narrative.” Confident that López could accomplish this, Orsi invited her to pitch a new season.

López had spent nearly two decades pitching American networks and studios. She understood that network interest was no guarantee that a project would be made. And she knew that when it came to English-language work, she would be considered a risk, untried. So she decided there was no harm in dreaming big. And dark. And cold.

“You write the impossible,” López said during a video call last month. “You write what you want to see.”

Though López grew up in more temperate climates, she is a fan of the John Carpenter horror movie “The Thing,” set in Antarctica, and of the Alaskan vampire comic book “30 Days of Night.” Assuming the project would never be greenlighted, she wrote what she wanted to see: an “existential whodunit,” as she put it, set in Alaska’s farthest, iciest reaches. To her surprise and mild dismay, HBO said yes.

“It was so much fun to dream that world,” López said. “Except then I had to go there and shoot it.”

This season — the first without Pizzolatto, though he retains an executive producer credit — can be seen as a photo negative of the first. It is chilly rather than steamy, shadowed rather than sunlit, tundra dry instead of humid. Despite occasional flashbacks, it restricts itself to a single timeline. In the first season, women appeared mostly as beleaguered wives or prostitutes. Here the gaze and the detectives are defiantly female.

Orsi sometimes doubted the wisdom of having handed a marquee franchise to someone with little television experience, but López’s choices and attitude reassured her. “Every step of the way, I was taken aback by how confident she consistently was about what we were asking of her,” Orsi said.

That confidence also inspired Foster, who hadn’t done substantive television work since her breakthrough role in the 1976 film “Taxi Driver.”

“I read the script and I was like, this is beautiful,” said Foster, sitting beside López. “There was so much that I was curious about and that I wanted to learn from. Then I met Issa and that really nailed it. I could tell that she had a collaborative spirit.”

The initial episode finds Foster’s Liz Danvers called into investigate the sudden disappearance of the employees of an Arctic research station. (These men are later found naked and frozen into a single block of human ice. Call it a cold case.) The mystery reunites her with Reis’ Evangeline Navarro. Former colleagues, they fell out years ago, in the wake of a gruesome domestic violence case.

In the initial drafts, López wrote Navarro as Latina. But after researching the region, López decided that the character should have Native ancestry, specifically Iñupiaq. Foster asked for other changes. She felt that Danvers, a somewhat blinkered white woman whom she nicknamed “Alaska Karen,” should be aged up and that she should cede the story’s center to Navarro.

As Alaska lacked the infrastructure for a six-month shoot, the production had to make do with an area outside of Reykjavik, Iceland, and some computer-generated caribou and polar bears. The shoot was, Foster said, an intimate experience, with the dark and the frigid mitigated by the camaraderie and the beauty of the Northern Lights.

Perhaps that beauty softened some of the script’s elements. There is no shortage of existential horror, but the show entertains the possibility of justice and the notion that if other people are the source of most suffering, they can also provide comfort.

All these months later, López can look back on the experience warmly. “I learned to love the ice and the cold air, and now I miss it,” she said. “I would love to go back there for a vacation. Never to shoot again, though.”

103 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page