End of Season Report: True Detective, Season 2

10 Aug

True Detective

It was several episodes ago that True Detective was deemed collectively by the internet, and not wrongly, a failure, and it seems oddly anticlimactic to have waited until the final episode for the inevitable post-mortem that everyone will be writing. After all, the internet collectively managed to figure out the original setting-the-plot-into-motion mystery as to who killed Caspere, though by that point, the mystery didn’t really seem to matter that much anyway; that aspect of the finale was wrapped up in the first third. Relative to expectation, the failure of True Detective’s second season is one of the most notable in recent TV history (Homeland’s quick descent is probably the best, most recent predecessor) which means it’s spending a few words on what went wrong, but what’s striking is how easily explained the cause of the failure is. True Detective season 2 just didn’t work on any level; the plot, the characters, the writing, the casting, and the cinemetaography didn’t work individually and certainly didn’t work together. There were stray moments, and some actors were better than others, and it wasn’t as awful as much of a relatively failure it was. But it was.

Some failures are extremely instructive. Lost set the path for the return of complicated supernatural shows on television, but also how not to end them; have some semblance of a plan before you jump in. The Killing’s first season finale was a lesson on disappointment and anticlimax; don’t build a show of a certain type, only to try to become a different kind of show at the last minute. Unfortunately, I’m not sure True Detective’s failings are particularly valuable outside of that show itself; their use may be limited to helping Nic Pizzolatto not screw this up en route to a potential True Detective season 3.

The goals, on paper, were noble. A neo-noir seemed ripe for the type of story and type of voice Nic Pizzolatto used in the first season successfully. And yet nothing, right from the beginning, quite clicked, but everyone, myself included, was willing to give it some rope, because we had the first season in our rear view mirror, and because it seemed ambitious enough that we wanted to give it every chance to succeed. But every problem right there from the beginning remained to the end.

For one, it was too confusing. Noirs can be complicated, and there’s nothing wrong with that; shows that don’t baby their viewers should be congratulated. But there’s a difference between being complex and being needlessly hard to follow; the alphabet soup of names were thrown around without an appropriate background to get a hold of them, and it started to become a joke. Burris. Stan. Holloway. Who were they, and why did we care?

The major characters were a big part of the problem as well. Vince Vaughn never was able to quite pull off gangster Frank, though Pizzolatto is at least as much responsible for delivering incredibly stilted dialogue that sounded foreign and awkward. Hyper-stylized dialogue can work in the right circumstances; see Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, each who make their living on their own brand of extremely stylized dialogue. But the dialogue not only sounded incredibly out of place, even in context, it just sounded bad.

The characters were generally shallow and uninteresting, and just wallowing in an incredible amount of self-loathing without much going on besides it. Taylor Kitsch’s Woodrugh, particularly, suffered from this; his entire plot hinged on his suppressed homosexuality, and there was no real investigation into that nor did it serve a role as anything more than another reason for him to hate himself. That’s all he was, and Kitsch was unable to through sheer acting bring anything more to the character. Vaughn and Kitsch had a daunting and perhaps impossible task to make their characters more than their shoddy writing and neither accomplished it.

Colin Farrell’s Velcpro and Rachel McAdams’ Bezzerides were only marginally better. Both were very much damaged self-hating sad sacks in the same way; unable to function in normal society with normal people. Both had a combination of ever so slightly deeper characters and somewhat better cast actors to raise them a notch above Frank and Woodrugh, but no further.

The plot was confusing and never enticing, and that’s important to note. But plot is often the great McGuffin of a noir. Many a noir have been told on a plot that was a hook, only to tell a story that was hardly about the plot itself. Neo-noirs Big Lebowski and Inherent Vice both have incredibly convoluted plots (the latter less coherent than the former) but plot is not paramount to either; the atmosphere, the dreamlike sequences, the characters, the personalities, the cinematography, the dialogue, and the interactions makes those movies go. True Detective doesn’t have any of those to stand on.

Nic Pizzolatto clearly understands what’s in a typical noir. This was just a failed exercise every which way. An uninteresting confusing plot, which was unsatisfying, weak and poor dialogue, poor casting and acting, and no directorial quality which lifted any of this up. A couple of these elements may have made a season worth watching, but unfortunately, it’s back to the drawing board for season 3.

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