It’s official. True Detective’s second season is a disaster.
I’ve waited this long to say so for a few reasons. The first is that, despite its flaws, I still hold season one in high regard. Say what you will about its excessive machismo or unfulfilled expectations, but Marty and Rust gave the season an electrifying spark—one that made me care less about the Carcosa or Yellow King mythology and more about two guys butting heads in a police cruiser.
That in and of itself was a feat, considering the fan-obsessing web of conspiracy drawn by series creator Nic Pizzolatto. Knowing what he was capable of as a one-man writing team, I was willing to hold back judgment for a while.
Which leads to my second reason for delaying criticism. I believed Pizzolatto could pull off something in the season’s latter half to impress me. Nothing would excuse the atrocity of the first half, of course, but it was possible that he could pull a total reverse partway through.
Yet here we are, five episodes into an eight episode season, and there’s still no indication that I’m going to enjoy this at some point. We’ve witnessed what should have felt like a season-defining shootout, followed shortly after by a time jump that easily could have given the show a reinvigorating shove. Instead, both of those opportunities landed with a dull thud.
That torture cabin on the latest #TrueDetective is a great metaphor for how I’ve felt watching this season so far.
— Josh Fisher (@gofishfisher) July 20, 2015
That’s not to say there’s no hope. Some are theorizing that the Yellow King could make a return, tying threads between seasons and introducing a little series continuity. If true, this could be an exciting prospect to explore in the future.
So far though, the anthology format has been working against Pizzolatto more than it has for him. Obviously, there are countless challenges inherent in creating unique stories and characters from season to season without hitting a bump somewhere. But watching this season, I can’t help but keep asking myself—how did everything go so wrong?
Here are a few thoughts:
1. Nic Pizzolatto’s writing
It’s not that Pizzolatto has somehow become a poor writer between this season and the last. It’s that the writing just doesn’t work anymore. In the absence of season one’s dual narratives—pitting the present day investigation against what actually went down—Pizzolatto’s massive dumps of exposition aren’t quite as veiled as they used to be. Without those convenient story devices that carried the story last time around, his writing is very clearly struggling.
Granted, some aspects of his storytelling this season are pretty lackluster. One major example is how few stakes there are. Any one of these characters could keel over at any moment, and I probably wouldn’t even bat an eye. Watching the fourth episode’s massive gunfight, I was shocked by how little of it actually mattered. Without anything significant on the line, I’m not even sure why I’m still watching.
And as much as I loved Rust Cohle’s philosophical swagger in season one, it’s a little worn out here. Then again, a major reason why it worked then was due to McConaughey’s career-altering delivery. Would all the Nietzschean stuff work if it weren’t coming from Vince Vaughn of all people? Regardless, it leads to another problem.
2. Vince Vaughn’s acting
Look, I know this guy gets enough hate as it is. I was a little hesitant when he was initially casted, but I was open to it. I think there’s something to the idea that comedians come with an untapped darker edge which could work well in drama.
Judging from this season so far, however, I highly doubt we’ll be seeing a Vaughnaissance in the near future. Vaughn turns what should be a game-changing role into nothing short of a laughing stock. Nothing he says feels real, like he’s reading from a book and not speaking on a human level. His sentences are lifeless and forced, and he sounds like he’s practicing for the vocabulary portion of the SATs. I hate to say it, but Vaughn’s involvement has brought this season way, way down.
It’s a real shame too, considering how much effort the other actors appear to be putting into their roles. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more compelling role for Colin Farrell, and Rachel McAdams is unrecognizable as the uptight Ani Bezzerides. That’s not to say I especially care about any of their characters, but you know.
3. An overcomplicated, unclear plot
To make matters worse, I’m still not exactly sure what’s going on here. I understand that there’s some major corruption going on in the city of Vinci, and that Frank’s partner, Caspere, was murdered by a guy in a crow mask. Otherwise I’m pretty much in the dark.
I’ve seen all the infographics and in-depth explanations out there, meant to clarify what’s happening this season. But here’s the thing: I shouldn’t need those. Why on earth should I need all this peripheral analysis just to follow along? And telling me I should just pay closer attention doesn’t work either. The mark of solid writing is clarity, and so far this plot has next to none.
4. The absence of a sprawling mythos
Remember watching the first season and feeling like something massive was afoot? Everyone was theorizing and speculating and downright excited. The end result might have been a little underwhelming, but it was still a massively fun ride while it lasted.
The closest we’ve gotten to anything like that in season two is the guy in the crow mask. But even then, there’s no sense of anything supernatural or mysterious going on. Sure, there’s a tangled web of political corruption, but what’s new? Watch House of Cards if that’s your thing. At least with that show you’ll find a little intrigue here and there.
Without that sense of something greater, True Detective‘s second season feels very limited in scope, despite the bewildering complexity of its plot.
5. The number of characters
I enjoy Game of Thrones as much as the next person, but at least the majority of characters in that show serve some purpose. Could you honestly tell me what this show would lose by cutting Paul or that Russian dude or Frank’s wife? I mean, what do I care whether or not they have children? What do I care if Paul wants to get married? Am I watching a soap opera or a gritty detective drama?
It’s hard to say, but I’m willing to bet this season would’ve been much tighter if it had focused in on a few characters and left out some of the less important ones. Then again, I still don’t know Pizzolatto’s end game or the overall purpose of these characters in the grand scheme.
6. The tone-deaf seriousness
Prestige dramas of this sort are almost always plagued by an inability to be anything but serious, and True Detective is no exception. It’s as if writers think a chuckle here and there will completely obliterate their prestige credibility and send them back to network television.
At least we had Marty last season to provide a little levity every now and then. Season two is nothing if not unabashedly depressing. Aside from the occasional jab at e-cigs and that joke about Ray being a mood ring, every scene seems intended to sadden, distress, and unnerve its audience. That might be a big reason why it’s so hard to care about these characters–in the absence of any human touch, everything just feels a little pointless.
7. The angsty barroom singer