‘True Detective’ Season 2: A great writer trying too hard?

Nic Pizzolatto is a tremendously talented and accomplished writer at the age of just 39. His short stories (you can read two of them for free, here and here) have been lauded in the literary world for their ambition and the unique way in which they function as homage to his Southern gothic roots while also creating captivating mysteries that resemble the hardboiled noir style of a Raymond Chandler or even a filmmaker such as John Huston. Pizzolatto’s 2010 novel Galveston, with its dueling timelines and overarching sense of dread, managed to take a story that could’ve easily been a conventional crime mystery and turn it into a human drama whose film rights have already been acquired by Jean Doumanian Productions. Of course, Pizzolatto is most famous for serving as the creator and sole writer of True Detective, an HBO drama that set new-show records on its way to universal acclaim, even crashing the HBO GO website the night of its finale due to its popularity.

If there was one popular criticism of the shows first season, other than that it was overtly masculine, it’s that the show was too “writer-ly”. Pizzolatto has his influences, and like any great writer, he made those influences clear, perhaps too clear (he was accused of plagiarizing Thomas Ligotti, a noted influence and perhaps the modern eras greatest teller of Lovecraftian stories). The dialogue on the show, particularly that of Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), was so philosophical that it’s hard to believe even a character as well-read as Cohle would speak that way. But the reason it worked was because it was unique to Cohle’s character. You didn’t hear Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart or any of the other people on the show speak like that.

Many of the finest moments in the first season came from characters reacting negatively to Cohle’s nihilist, almost anti-humanity philosophies that he seemed so eager to share. If you watch the first season again, the first thing that jumps out is how funny it is. Even more so than the actual crime, the first season of True Detective was about how Cohle’s off-putting ideals got him into trouble in both his professional and personal life. He was never at peace until he had a -perhaps supernatural- moment of realization in the finale. As Woody Harrelson so eloquently said to him in one of the late episodes, “You’re like to Michael Jordan of being a son of a bitch”.

Vaughn and Farrell have a staring contest aided by some Johnnie Blue
Vaughn and Farrell have a staring contest aided by some Johnnie Blue

Judging from season two’s pilot, “The Western Book of the Dead”, Pizzolatto has taken the dark ideals of Cohle and applied them to all of his characters. We’ll get into these characters one by one in a minute, but they all share dark pasts that have caused them to have very cynical outlooks on life moving forward. There’s no Woody Harrelson to ground any of these characters, at least not yet. They’re all going through the motions in a pessimistic way. Staring coldly into the abyss, drinking heavily, you get the deal. True Detective stuff.

Let’s start with developer/businessman/gangster Frank Seymon (Vince Vaughn). Like a white Stringer Bell, Frank has legitimate business aspirations but can’t seem to escape from the fact that, to get there, he had to pull a few strings and drop a few bodies along the way. Some of his dialogue, such as when he tells his wife “Behold, what was once a man”, seems overly written for this character, and Vaughn as an actor. I don’t necessarily dislike Vince Vaughn, but casting him in this role seems like an attempt to do too much, to prove his capabilities as a dramatic actor much like season one did for McConaughey. A noble attempt, but Vaughn simply isn’t the acting talent that McConaughey is. Perhaps he’ll turn into an interesting character as the season moves forward, but Frank Seymon felt very manufactured, both in the way he spoke and in the way Vaughn played him. During a couple of scenes alongside Colin Farrell’s crooked detective Ray Velcoro, Vaughn’s inability to play the role convincingly took away from what would have otherwise been the premieres most interesting moments.

As for the story this time around, we don’t know much yet. Casper, the city manager of fictional L.A. suburb Vinci, goes missing and is found murdered in the final scene. Some journalist is digging into corruption at the city level, which Frank is at the center of. That’s really it for now. The episode was more focused on introducing us to its four main characters, which would be fine if their introductions didn’t feel so forced.

And the Emmy for best supporting actor in a drama series goes to Colin Farrell's mustache!
And the Emmy for best supporting actor in a drama series goes to Colin Farrell’s mustache!

Ray (Colin Farrell), who receives the most screentime in the premiere, takes dark to a whole new level. We’re told that his soon-to-be ex-wife was raped while the couple was trying to conceive, resulting in Ray’s “son” looking absolutely nothing like him. It’s a dramatic way to introduce us to a character, and we quickly learn through a flashback (ugh) that Ray went to Frank years ago to get revenge on the man who committed the rape. In essence, this gave Frank a cop in his pocket, and the dirty deeds that Ray has had to do over the years on Frank’s behalf have contributed to the depressed, violent, and alcohol-fused state in which Ray now lives. We see him do some seriously fucked up shit in this episode. He pummels the journalist who was looking into the corruption, and in one of the most ridiculous moments I’ve ever seen on television, visits a kid who bullied his son, grabs him by the neck and says “If you ever bully or hurt someone again I will comeback here and butt-fuck your father with your mom’s headless corpse on this goddamn lawn”. Yeesh.

Ray (sort of) works as a character right off the bat because Farrell is the perfect actor for this role. The only thing that makes him feel human is the look in Farrell’s eye as he commits these heinous acts. Farrell has long been one of the businesses most under-appreciated performers. He’s not the A-list leading male that Hollywood tried to make him into, but he is a very gifted character actor whose work in films such as The New World and In Bruges suggest he could be one of those actors who doesn’t enter his prime until late in his career (remarkably, Farrell is just 39). While we were able to sympathize with Rust Cohle after learning about his daughter’s tragic death, it’s hard to do so with Ray because he doesn’t just talk about the inherent darkness of man, he exemplifies it. It’s too early to tell if Ray truly regrets some of his actions, as he opens the episode saying, “I welcome judgment”.

Is the creation of female detective Ani (Rachel McAdams) a direct response to the complaints about the male-driven first season? Probably. Last season, the female characters could be split into two archetypes: the troubled whore and the frustrated cop’s wife. It was maddening, because the talented Michelle Monaghan should’ve had more to do, but if it were made ten years earlier before the P.C. Police looked for any opportunity to call something “sexist”, nobody would bat an eye. Ani also has a dark family history we still don’t know much about. She straps herself with multiple knives and has a copy of Tsunetomo’s Hagakure, the book of the Samurai, sitting in her apartment. Hell, her full name is Antigone and her sexually liberated sisters name is Athena. One doesn’t have to be a scholar of Greek tragedy or mythology to recognize that this characters very makeup is referential. Ani is smart and tough, and McAdams plays the role with a flare many thought she wasn’t capable of. But still, we need to see more than a woman angry at the world, specifically the men in the world. There’s potential for her to grow into an intriguing character, but right now, it feels as if Pizzolatto simply turned her into a woman right before he turned the script in.

I thought I told you, stop trying to make "fetch" happen.
I thought I told you, stop trying to make “fetch” happen.

Of all the actors on this show, it’s Taylor Kitsch, playing veteran-turned-highway patrolman Paul Woodrugh, who’s most in need of a McConaughey-esque comeback. The Friday Night Lights veteran was once tapped as one of Hollywood’s young stars to watch, but misfires such as X-Men Origins: Wolverine and John Carter have cooled his stock some. Kitsch’s character is a quiet one, and he does a nice job using his scarred physical presence to communicate his darkness in this episode. He’s the one who ultimately discovers the dead body of our missing person, doing so as he cruises the highway on his bike doing 100 mph in a moment that felt like a quasi-suicide attempt. Based off one episode, Paul is the character I’m most excited to watch over the next couple months.

I can’t believe I’ve gotten this far into a post without mentioning Cary Fukunaga, the man who directed every episode of the first season. Fukunaga has moved on from True Detective, and the shows biggest challenge may very well be handling his absence. Fukunaga’s colorless shots of the Louisiana landscape complimented the shows tone and setting perfectly. This season premiere was handled by Justin Lin, more a Hollywood hit-maker than an auteur, a man famous for directing three Fast & Furious films. Not that Lin did a bad job with this episode, I certainly enjoyed some of the bird’s-eye shots of L.A.’s freeway and industry, but it felt safe. Every scene was shot and scored to feel overly dramatic. The camera spent a bit too much time on faces of characters that weren’t really doing anything. It felt like a lesser filmmaker trying to mimic Fukunaga’s style, or at least that’s how I saw it.

The premiere was very talky. While Pizzolatto is a great writer, perhaps he needs a writing staff to ground him. Many of TV’s best dramas over the years have consisted of one person’s vision being aided by a talented room of writers (David Chase’s The Sopranos, David Simon’s The Wire, Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, etc.). The first season of the show did a phenomenal job telling a complete story in just eight episodes; but can the same magic be found in a second season consisting of more characters? We’ll see. I have my gripes with the premiere but I’ll be watching all season, as the talent of the cast and production values of the show surpass anything else on TV at this moment.

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