True Detective Season 2: What Went Wrong, Whose Fault is it, and is it Worth Fixing?

I always thought True Detective was a stupid name.

It sounds like it would be your average, cliché, takes-itself-too-seriously cop drama, doesn't it? But, of course, it wasn't. True Detective: Season 1 exploded the buddy-cop murder-mystery trope into something new: the time-jumping narrative structure, the endless, seething, roiling landscape of backwater Louisiana, the nihilism and heady philosophy made it feel deep on top of being dark.

True Detective: Season 1 was much-lauded, and so HBO and the show's writer, Nic Pizzolatto, decided to make a second season. And, in a maneuver that is only possible in our beautiful Golden Age of Television (Redux), they decided to make the second season something wholly different: new actors, new characters, new city, new plot. Same great writer. Same dumb name.

In the issue before True Detective's second season premiered, Rich Cohen wrote an article for Vanity Fair called Can Nic Pizzolatto, True Detective's Uncompromising Author, Do it Again?  In it, Cohen explored the history of writers' relationships with Hollywood. F. Scott Fitzgerald and his cronies, should they find themselves making deals with the celluloid devil, would take an arms-length arrangement for cash, "forswearing deeper participation in a medium they considered second-rate." Cohen posits that this distant, disdainful relationship between writer and movie persisted until television's resurgence made possible the now-ubiquitous Creator-cum-Writer-cum-Director-cum-Watchful-Parent role of today's television gurus. (Think David Lynch and Twin Peaks through Matthew Wiener and Mad Men.) Cohen writes: 
Pizzolatto is now attempting to take the next evolutionary step. Some part of the success of The Sopranos is attributed to James Gandolfini. As some part of the success of Mad Men is attributed to Jon Hamm. As some part of the success of True Detective is attributed to Matthew McConaughey. Credit and power are shared. But by tossing out that first season and beginning again, Nic has a chance to finally undo the early error of Fitzgerald and the rest. If he fails and the show tanks, he’ll be just another writer with one great big freakish hit. But if he succeeds, he will have generated a model in which the stars and the stories come and go but the writer remains as guru and king.
Cohen's article compounded my already-bubbling excitement for this new season: not only was a fun, entertaining show coming back (yay, entertainment!) but we close-watching audience members were about to bear witness to a monumental sea change in who controlled television. And this time, we could be ready for it! This wasn't some revolutionary show slipping under the radar, only to be found and explored and revered in retrospect. This was an industry milestone that we got to watch happen in real time; this was a Hollywood shift that our generation could discuss and enjoy (largely) together. This was our lazy millennial's moon landing! 

And so there we were, all inflated and panting and perched on the edge of our seats. And you know what? Season 2 lived up to its name. It was a pretty clichéd cop drama that took itself too seriously. (I've been calling it True Detective: Vice City.) To be clear: the second season is not terrible; it's not even bad. But the collective sigh of the internet determined that it was not what it could have been. So what went wrong this time?

First, its A-list actors lacked a fundamental chemistry. Collin Farrel, who showed great range and subtlety, was forced to mope around like a sopping-wet Sam Merlotte, all self-loathing and poor decisions, right down to his soggy final choices. Rachel McAdams, dewy and radiant despite her best downtrodden, butchy, lady-cop impression (complete with requisite gratuitous sexy makeover scene, because every tomboy hot girl in Hollywood has to slink into an undercover cocktail dress at some point), is incapable of being anything but mesmerizing and genuine on screen, but wasn't given the depth or the dialogue she needed to flesh out her sad, sexed, broken character.
True Blood's Sam Merlotte vs. True Detective's Ray Velcoro
And poor, dear, wonderful Vince Vaughn gosh, he was just working so hard to dig into the pulpy, overwrought, beaten-boy, daddy-never-loved-me faux-vulnerability of his character that he just looked exhausted. In fact, all of the actors (save the perfect Kelly Reilly as Jordan Semyon) seemed to be working too hard the kind of acting where you can see all the gears turning. Everyone had that determined, tired, vaguely panicked look of an athlete who's not really sure where the finish line is.

Second, and to me, more fundamentally problematic, was the setting. The first season takes place in rural Louisiana, where the long, flat highways running along the long, flat swampland stand in as a visual echo of Matthew McConaughey's ruminations on the metaphysical and the undulations of time. The scenery itself feels like a hallucination (and maybe it is?). The bayou sprawls, uninhabited, endless, uncertain, secretive, living ground, a wormhole of dark magic and space and time and crime.

But Season 2 was set in sunny, sanitized Los Angeles. Granted, it was a gritty underbelly version an industrial city called "Vinci" out in the adjacent desert but California nonetheless. And California is nothing of if not fake and dry and hackneyed. Louisiana is always bubbling under the surface; California is just all surface. And that surface is populated by all the things we've seen before: it's Sopranos II, if Tony and the gang had made their way to Vegas, Corleone-style, to pit-boss casinos and murder prostitutes and deal hard drugs.

There are other problems, too: the decision to eschew one series-long director in favor of a "revolving carousel of megaphone-wielders," the "ludicrously overwritten" dialogue, the convoluted plot, the endless bleakness of every character's life with no "counterweight to despair," and many others.

But what really hurt the show more than these choices was something Nic Pizzolatto couldn't control: the hype. This season was punished by high expectations the same way last season was bolstered by low ones. (And I agree that the first season was "both better and worse than its reputation would have you believe.") The truth is, Season 2 is a totally different show that happens to have the same name as another show we really liked. If it had been called something other than True Detective, let's say Vini Vidi Vinci, because that's a ballin' name, and had been the same show, would it have been received differently? Would there have been more forgiveness for its flaws? It may still have been considered the sophomore slump of a great writer, but I think we could've given it a fairer chance if it had stood alone.

So, we're left on the disappointing side of Rich Cohen's ultimatum: maybe Nic Pizzolatto is just another writer with one freakish hit. But I don't think this semi-failed experiment closes the door on the concept. I still think it's possible to take the bones of a show and slap it onto an entirely new storyline. I think people want it a show arc that's not maintained by actors or characters or city or plot or crime, but merely by the writers. But maybe there has to be something more than the name connecting the seasons; maybe we need a stronger thread to tie a show together.

HBO is in talks with Pizzolatto about a Season 3, and I really hope it happens. I think we all not least poor Pizzolatto deserve to see where this thing can go. Maybe Pizzolatto can learn from the mistakes and the feedback. Or maybe we just need to be patient, like we all were when we started the season two of The Wire, that slow-moving, total departure from season one. Sure, maybe he's a one-hit wonder, nothing up his sleeve but more antiheroes and dreary misanthropes. But maybe we need wait for the whole thing to unravel, because there might be some purpose to these pieces.
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