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Robert Downey Jr. and Nic Pizzolatto Need Each Other

Here’s why we’re stoked on their rumored collaboration

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Yesterday brought the news that Nic Pizzolatto — mother of McConaissances, breaker of Fukunagas — is back for another round of Pizzolatting. Nicky P is said to have signed on for what is being called “an HBO drama”: probably not #TrueDetectiveSeason3, possibly a Perry Mason reboot (sure!), with Robert Downey Jr. onboard to star. Details are scarce, but opinions aren’t. And here’s mine: This will work.

Why? One very simple reason: I don’t think Nic Pizzolatto wants to be the star.

I know that can be hard to believe sometimes. I know his average interview comes off like a short story in which a genie grants a dying girl three wishes and she chooses to meet Nic Pizzolatto three times. I know his average press photo looks like an outtake from one of those bad ’90s thrillers where on one hand the teens’ stepdad seems super-cool because he has a pierced ear and he lets them smoke cigarettes whenever they want but then on the other hand why is that shovel in the back of his truck. (It just doesn’t make sense — why is it there? Mom trusts him, and he listens to good bands. I don’t get it.) And most of all, I know Pizzolatto’s average script reads like the screenwriting equivalent of a bull in a china shop.

But I still don’t think Pizzolatto wants to be the star. And that’s because I know Pizzolatto has seen how far not being the star has gotten him.

In the first season of True Detective, the star was Matthew McConaughey. If there was a second star, it was probably Cary Fukunaga’s direction. If there was a third star, it was probably Woody Harrelson (who is an excellent third star). Really, in terms of star consideration, Nic Pizzolatto — along with the Yellow King, Louisiana, and your great tweets :) — was probably fighting for fourth place. And it suited him. McConaughey’s screen presence allowed Pizzolatto to run wild and free: We don’t remember “time is a flat circle” as overwritten nonsense — we remember it as Rust Cohle firing on all batshit cylinders. We remember it as McConaughey taking off from the free throw line and writing his Oscar speech on a blunt wrap in midair. We remember it as iconic. And honestly: Wasn’t it? Would you have rather him said, “Shit repeats”? It was the right line, for the right actor, at the right time. McConaughey’s star power didn’t just give Pizzolatto’s writing an out — it gave it perspective.

In True D’s second season, though, there was no McConaughey. There were no Fukunaga, no Harrelson. We traded the Yellow King for — holy shit, I don’t even remember. We traded Louisiana for California, which I think is French for “so many highways.” And being totally frank: Your tweets fell off. The downside of these shifts was clear from the beginning: The star of the second season of True Detective was Nic Pizzolatto. Some very good actors (and Vince Vaughn) came onboard … but not to star, only to fit in. There was no screen presence in TD2 for Pizzolatto’s script to use as a backboard. When he bricked, that was it — he bricked.

And that’s why yesterday’s news feels so promising. One doesn’t have to look any further than the headline itself: Robert Downey Jr. Teaming With ‘True Detective’ Creator for HBO Drama. Pizzolatto’s name isn’t even in there — which is to say he’s where he does best: off to the side, in the kitchen, Googling “penises wearing leather jackets,” and cooking up THE PULP. Downey is the star. Pizzolatto is the Pizzolatto. All is right and well.

Now that we’re here, though, let’s also state the obvious: Downey needs this. He’s 51 — and he hasn’t made an even pretty good non-Marvel movie since 2008. He hasn’t played an interesting non–Tony Stark lead since 2006. The “one for mes” in his “one for them, one for mes” have been, like, The Judge. (She’s just a small-town Vera Farmiga / Living in a lonely subplot in The Judge.) In other words: If you find Iron Man and three-hour movies about whether or not Robert Duvall deserves a “DNP-Old” on his murder charge a little tedious, then Robert Downey Jr. — one of the most talented and deeply strange actors alive — has basically been a nonentity for the last decade. That’s a bummer.

But if you were going to make Robert Downey Jr. relevant again, I think it’s pretty clear where you’d start. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Zodiac, Iron Man 3, and (generous, but let’s go with it) the first Sherlock Holmes — since his 2000s comeback, Downey’s best moments have all fit a strikingly similar profile: voicey screenplays + solving crimes. It’s no accident, either. Downey’s signature qualities as a performer are exactly what these roles call for: antic, and whip-smart, and talky, and tender. There’s no underwriting Downey, and there’s certainly no overwriting Downey. There’s just Downey.

And that, more than anything else, is the cause for excitement here: Downey working with Pizzolatto doesn’t merely sound like interesting news — it sounds like a good choice. It’s a marriage that already makes perfect sense: fulfilling Downey’s recipe for success (being the smartest and loudest guy in the room) while mitigating Pizzolatto’s recipe for failure (being the star). It’s a project that acknowledges Nic Pizzolatto’s writing as a bull in a china shop — but also presupposes what has become increasingly clear: that the solution was never to build a better china shop.

The solution was to hire a bull rider.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.