Watching the Detectives

Season 2 of True Detective wrapped up this weekend, and internet law dictates we must form an opinion about it as soon as possible, without any pesky reflection or context.  It was, to be honest, a bit of a mess; then again, internet law also dictates that we must either scoff at it as the official Worst Thing HBO Has Ever Done (Post-Dream On Division), or, alternately, take the Contrarian Position that it was not only not that bad, but actually much better than the first season, and possibly the greatest thing that has ever graced a television screen.

Since no one really reads this blog, I feel confident that I can safely ignore internet law and turn in a review that is not only several days late (the finale was Sunday, but in hot-take time, it might as well have taken place during the Elizabethan era), but takes the middle path that True Detective season 2 was, while not nearly as good as the first season and in fact kind of a wreck, a good effort that produced a lot of striking scenes and featured some fine acting from the leads.  It’s become de rigueur to claim that Vince Vaughn made a grade-A ass of himself over the course of the series, but I liked him more here than I have in anything else; it was a quiet, controlled, and frequently powerful performance that was heavily diluted by the hooty dialogue that Nic Pizzolatto stuck in his mouth every half-hour or so.  Taylor Kitcsch and Rachel McAdams, too, showed depth and complexity, and Colin Farrell managed to put a lid on the berserk over-emoting he was known for as a younger man.  Good supporting performances were turned in by Michael Hyatt, Ritchie Coster, David Morse, and W. Earl Brown; even Rick Springfield got in a creepy recurring role.  Only Kelly Reilly as Vaughn’s wife seemed out of her depth.

Visually, too, the show was strong; if it didn’t have the striking imagery and technical prowess of the first season — a fact attributable to the fact that it was made by diverse hands and not the vision of a single director — it still had plenty of chances to show off.  The overhead shots of southern California’s urban sprawl and vast empty spaces were hypnotic, and there were a number of very well-done set-pieces, including the shocking false alarm of Farrell’s shooting, the infamous orgy scene, the discovery of the initial grisly crime scene, the masterfully tense urban shootout, and Farrell’s heartbreaking visit to his son’s school.  Season one set the bar impossibly high, but set against the standards of just about any other show on television, season two acquitted itself with honor.

Where it all seemed to go wrong was in Pizzolatto’s script and plotting.  Loath as I am to blame the failures of a collaborative effort on a single person, especially one as indispensable (and often under-appreciated) as the writer, but he really seems to have dropped the ball here:  the entire season is crammed with ridiculous dialogue, absurd plots, and moments so ridiculous that they strained the credulity of even the most willing suspenders of disbelief.  The overarching plot was so overpopulated with subplots and characters that it needed a scorecard and a notebook; storylines came and went and many were seemingly never resolved.  What, exactly, was the role of the hippie cult?  Whatever happened with McAdams’ sexual harassment charges?  Why did the shootout with the Mexican gangsters and the city bus — which, given just what we saw on screen, must surely have been one of the biggest gun massacres in American history — pretty much never get mentioned again?  How exactly did this all tie in with the high-speed railroad?

Beyond just the plot flaws, and the fact that Pizzolatto’s dialogue, which seemed so weighty and menacing in the first season, just seemed silly and overwrought in the second, there were a lot of scenes that just fell flat.  The final episode provided way too many of these at a time when the show really needed to show us its best face; instead, we got completely out-of-left-field behavior from Farrell, and a ridiculous reverse deus ex machina for Vince Vaughn, followed by the silly desert walk. One dumb cliché (the dying man haunted by the mocking ghosts of his past sins) followed another (the woman who instinctively knows through some unspecified psychic bond that her lover has died). And while Pizzolatto seemed to be trying to address the critics of last season who complained that there weren’t enough interesting roles for women, McAdams’ assumption of the title of true detective came more or less by default because the three lead characters snuffed it, and it doesn’t say much for his conception of the role of female characters when the men are all allowed to die heroic deaths in combat against evil forces, while the two women are left behind to raise a child.

The future of the franchise seems uncertain.  HBO hasn’t said there will be a season 3 of True Detective, and it hasn’t said there won’t.  But with the show reeling from a substantially lowered critical consensus, a noticeable decline in viewership, and extremely harsh buzz about the quality of the writing (as well as some nasty rumors about Pizzolatto being hard to work with), it might be time for a shakeup.  The show belongs to Pizzolatto and there’s probably not a lot the network can do about that, but the second season didn’t seem to have any trouble attracting high-quality directors, so maybe it’s time to pair him with someone with both the skill to realize his vision and the will to reign in his worst instincts.  A director with auteurist tendencies might clash with Pizzolatto’s control-freak tendencies, but the end result could heighten season 1’s almost mystical sense of danger without sinking into season 2’s excess.  This is still a show worth saving, if it can just escape the pernicious influence of the man who created it.

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