True Detective, Season 2 Falls Short in First Three Episodes
Nic Pizzolatto is a name that didn't mean much to many television viewers two years ago, but today makes many stand up and take notice. It's true that the average audience member likely couldn't tell you who the man is, but the observant fan and certainly the critic understands the significance immediately. They know he takes his craft seriously, almost obsessively at times, and they grasp that his work for HBO has helped usher in yet another example of a blindingly bright future for the network's original content. Why?
Nic Pizzolatto created True Detective, which was the most watched first year drama in the history of HBO. The season finale actually broke the network's streaming entity, HBOGo. It was a show steeped in mythology and its creator's various eccentricities and loves for short fiction, hard boiled detective fiction, and science fiction and horror, He also adored HBO drama, finding inspirations in some of the network's biggest hits. You can find pieces of The Wire within True Detective. You can definitely, especially in Season 2, find some scenes drawn from The Sopranos; tone that matches up with Chase or Simon. Luckily, you can't find much from the first season of AMC's The Killing, which he worked on briefly but used more as a learning experience for what not to do as a writer or show runner than a rubric for success.
True Detective is a name that meant nothing two years ago to the vast majority of the world, but in the TV world, it was a curious upcoming show that certainly held promise. When it was announced that Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey were playing the two leads in the unique premium cable drama, it seemed like a can't miss. It didn't miss. Season 1 was highly popular and generated vast discussion of a thing called the Yellow King. It also led to Emmy wins and many nominations, although the acting awards escaped the show. Unfortunately, that's tough for an anthology show, because we knew the cast would be changing for the second campaign.
Casting rumors flew through the sky for months and four names emerged. Those four talents all held name recognition and at various times in their careers, have been highly regarded both for their own acting prowess as well as the quality of the products they selected to advance their careers. So True Detective - which quickly carved a niche into pop culture in just eight episodes of one season of dramatic television on HBO - mixed with four talented actors and excellent secondary and tertiary roles. It's a can't miss, right?
Well, the answer after watching the early stages of Season 2 (the first three episodes were made available to critics) is we're dealing with a full count and the pitcher has owned the batter in his first two trips to the plate.
The season opens with a brief look at Ray Velcoro's (Colin Farrell) recent past. The detective dealt with the brutal attack and rape of his wife and reacted poorly, getting himself tied up with a career criminal, Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn), who helped him find the scumbag that assaulted his bride. That choice leads the morally bankrupt Velcoro down a dangerous path that usually ends deep in a whiskey bottle...or worse. We meet Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), a sheriff's detective, and immediately figure out she's had her share of bad relationships, with much of the problem likely being her pessimism and negativity. Finally, we see war veteran and highway patrol motorcycle officer Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch). He has lived a difficult life that has left him scarred both physically and mentally. Our four main characters are all placed front and center within the first episode and the ties between each member of the quartet slowly fleshes itself out in the latter stages of that first hour. In short, a city manager disappears, affecting the move to legitimate business for Semyon and his gorgeous ex-actress wife, Jordan (Kelly Reilly). Bezzerides ends up the lead detective, with Velcoro and Woodrugh on the team. Ray works in the corrupt Vinci, California police department. Alongside the actual investigation, Ani is also gathering intel on behalf of federal officials that they plan to use to bring down the web of crime within Vinci, which extends to city hall.
That's really all I want to say about the story, because if you're reading this, you're likely planning to watch the season regardless of what I might have to say about it, which is exactly as it should be. I can only tell you what I felt as the episodes unfolded and the internal conflict I attempted to process in my own mind. The story, condensed and stripped of all its color, seems fairly standard but with enough tributaries from the main river that it appears to be a solid rafting vacation. Here's the thing though: Is it fun to watch?
For me, and it's still relatively early, it was more a chore than a delight to get through the first three hours of True Detective this time around. The story is convoluted and more damningly, it's one where often times it's difficult to care who is responsible for the season's whodunit. The biggest issue is in the four main characters, of which outside of Frank, there's not much there to draw the audience into the main story. The tale is perhaps even more overwrought than last season, but doesn't appear to have the same soul. Velcoro is a bad dude, even around his son, and he isn't entirely oblivious to that fact. One scene involving Ray's reaction to the bullying of his son is positively jarring. Even for Outkick, to quote that dialogue would be a questionable decision. It was one of the rawest, most unkempt things I've ever experienced watching TV. The way in which this man unflinchingly talks to children, is terrifying. Ani is good at her job but she's definitely not good at her life and she clearly reacts with hostility to the opposite sex; always fearing the worst. Paul is an emotional mess, caught up in a scandal, but whose past destroys him. He's always running from something and he's not particularly good at hiding what he considers to be mistakes or failures, even needing Viagra before sex with his stunningly hot girlfriend.
That last detail seems out of place, but I felt I needed some kind of television blue pill to find lasting interest in the sometimes dull, exceedingly dark tale of crime, excess, prurience, and corruption. I couldn't and still can't free myself from the sludge of Nic's narrative. Occasionally, I was bored and indifferent within the trappings of hell the show creates to set its scene. Make no mistake, you won't be smiling while you watch, but that's not the general reaction to a drama, so it isn't a slight on the proceedings. It's a tough show to take in, because at least once in each of the first three episodes, something takes place that will make you cringe or will lead to your jaw dropping straight to the floor. But, almost all of it feels like grit and grime for grit and grime's sake.
The acting is very good, occasionally great. Each of the four leads gets time to shine and takes advantage of the screen time they receive. Unfortunately, the story just doesn't match up to the glitz on the marquis. I believe Pizzolatto has a plan and it's quite possible it just takes a while to really open up, but after three episodes, enjoying each less than the one that preceded it, the trajectory feels wrong. Just as with Season 1, True Detective's sophomore year is an eight-episode affair. Nearly halfway through, I find myself disinterested in the case, not adequately invested in any character, and waiting for that one moment that hooks me, because I desperately want it to be there. I want to love this show the way I loved that other show, the one with Woody and Matthew, but here's the main takeaway.
It's just not the same. Something immense is simply absent from this show, and whatever that something is...it's what made the show what it was in Season 1.
The aura isn't there. That brilliant Rust Cohle dialogue isn't there. The chemistry of Rust and Marty isn't there. The beer can totems aren't there. The strange, almost supernatural element certainly isn't there. Alexandra Daddario and her eyes are tragically not there, and I haven't gotten over it yet. The entertainment is somewhat difficult to find. It still looks incredible and the music is truly perfect. The highlight of the season thus far is the opening sequence, which is absolutely stunning. As a big Leonard Cohen fan, they had me immediately, but you're really going to dig "Nevermind" from his latest album, Popular Problems. The way both the shots and the art pop during the introduction is beautiful stuff. It's awesome.
Pizzolatto throws every possible dramatic and hot button trope into these opening hours, from child abuse and custody issues to impotence to homosexuality to suicide to emotional disjointedness the likes of which we haven't seen in quite some time. Some of it works better than others, but not all of it feels natural. Again, it's grit and grime or sadness and depression without a bigger reason to exist. Three hours in, I know what drives these characters and where they're most vulnerable, but I recognized as each minute passed that I didn't care about them to the level the writers intended. Of the four, Frank Semyon is the most interesting. Vaughn tells his wife a story in bed to open the second episode that was riveting to say the least. Vince can play crazy guy pretty well, which isn't a surprise to anybody who saw Clay Pigeons in the 1990s. Glimpses of brilliance in the backstory of each character are there, but they're brief, surrounded by a plethora of content that is mediocre at best and confusing at worst.
True Detective Season 2 isn't awful, but three episodes in, it's not particularly good. It doesn't stand out like you expect. It feels like the story has no real identity, which is what helped shape Season 1. If you had never seen the first year of the show, there's little chance outside of the acting talent itself that you'd be able to loser yourself in it. For veterans, if you didn't know it was True Detective, I'm not sure you'd realize that's what it actually was, because the show doesn't look or feel like what you've grown accustomed to experience from the property. Nic has said over the past several months that it's the same show it was last time around, but I don't see it, not at this stage at least. That's not entirely a bad thing, because an anthology should be unique and different from year to year.
Outside of the heavy hitting leads, Nic Pizzolatto has amassed an exceptional supporting cast, from Reilly to David Morse (Treme, John Adams) to Lolita Davidovich to James Frain to Afemo Omilami and Christopher James Baker. The acting isn't a problem, not by a long shot. In fact, it's what will keep you watching the show if, like me, you start to realize the story isn't fully holding your attention. It just seems like this guy knows what he's doing and you want to trust in his process. But, it's becoming harder to give him the benefit of the doubt as the ambivalence creeps in and you start checking your watch. In season one, time stopped. In season two, I feel like I have seven clocks in the room. I want to love this show. I do love the talent. I do love the concept. Visually and artistically, it's unquestionably top notch and hits the right tone.
Narratively, I don't know what the hell it is yet.
That's one enormous freaking pachyderm inside one segment of the domicile. It's a mystery that needs to be solved. Maybe if I could reach Velcoro, Bezzerides, and Woodrugh, they could help me figure it out.
Overall, if the first season was a home run, Season 2's early stages are closer to a broken-bat single. It feels flat. It feels like a prospect that isn't adapting well to higher expectations. It's trying too hard. But, it was still a damn fine player in college. The skill is undeniably there; Coach Pizzolatto just has to nurture it and build its confidence in the back half of the season.
I will be reviewing each episode as the season progresses, hoping desperately to eat my words. Trust me, I'll do it with a huge grin. I still have faith, but I'm concerned.
The second season of HBO's critically acclaimed drama, True Detective, starring Colin Farrell, Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams, and Taylor Kitsch, premieres Sunday, June 21, at 9 PM ET.