The failure of ‘True Detective’’s second season

The show we deserve?

To say I loved the first season of True Detective would be a vast understatement. Since it ended, I’ve read that show creator Nic Pizzolatto’s published fiction, the novel Galveston, and a short story collection. I’m definitely a fan of his work, and I hoped season two would be as thrilling as the first season, if not better.

Two troubled antiheroes: Vaughn and Farrell. (Photo by Lacey Terrell - © 2015 HBO)

This disclaimer is necessary because both the show and the writer experienced substantial criticism. Emily Nussbaum’s criticism of the show in The New Yorker encapsulates most of the complaints about the first season. Though I think what Nussbaum mistook to be a bug was actually a feature of the show, it’s true that the only characters given narrative depth were Rust and Marty, who embody two versions of Southern machismo at its most destructive; the female characters were all victims of one kind or another. In addition, a major problem for me was the giant supernatural red herring that was much more interesting than the actual plot resolution, which was disconcertingly optimistic for a work whose protagonist monologued about nihilism and anti-natalism.

Signs appeared early that the second season might not live up to the first. Most disappointing was the absence of Cary Fukunaga, who directed every episode of season one and won an Emmy for best director. He allegedly had personality conflicts with Pizzolatto, who got defensive, lashing out at rumors of plagiarism and sexism. Heaped lavishly with both praise and scorn, he felt the need to prepare audiences for season two by saying, “This show will not change your life.”

The world we deserve

The tagline for this season was “We get the world we deserve.” I’m not sure what I did to deserve this mess of a season, but whatever it was, I’m sorry. At the end of season one, Pizzolatto said that season two would be about “bad men, hard women, and the secret occult history of the U.S. transportation system.” If season two had really been about that, it could have been the Lovecraftian story many of us longed for. It wasn’t.

Colin Farrell and Rachel McAdams did what they could with what they were given. Farrell plays Ray Velcoro, a self-destructive dumpster fire of a human being. Ray’s life was ruined when his wife was raped right around the time she conceived a child. For vengeance, he went to Frank Semyon, a local gangster, got a name he thought was the rapist’s, and killed the guy. Now he’s Frank’s inside man on the Vinci, California police force, a divorced, raging alcoholic who loves his red-headed son. McAdams plays Ani Bezzerides, a hard-drinking, knife-wielding Ventura County sheriff whose father ran a cultlike commune when she was a kid.

Taylor Kitsch plays Paul Woodrugh, who had worked for a Blackwateresque security company in Afghanistan and now is a California Highway Patrol officer. It quickly becomes evident that Paul is gay, but even though it’s California in 2015, he’s deeply closeted. I liked Kitsch in Friday Night Lights, but he fell flat in this role.

No ReVaughnaissance

Last and certainly least is Vince Vaughn, who plays Frank Semyon. All Frank wants is to go straight. He sold his waste management company for $5 million and gave the money to his business partner, Vinci city manager Ben Caspere. Along with another $5 million contributed by a Russian mobster, they were going to buy some cheap land that Semyon’s company had ruined by dumping toxic waste on it, in collusion with Vinci’s mayor and police chief. When the federal government bought the land from them for a high-speed rail line, they’d all get rich.

Unfortunately, Vaughn was badly miscast. Instead of a ReVaughnaissance à la McConaughey’s star turn in season one, we got Vaughn trying to cold-read Elmore Leonard while zonked on Xanax. His mouth simply couldn’t credibly wrap around the baroque, stylized dialogue, which led to some unintentionally comedic moments. I wish they’d cast Timothy Olyphant, who has proven that he can deliver artificially stilted speech au naturel in both Deadwood and Justified, but I’m not sure anyone can deliver a line like “blue balls in your heart” credibly.

The story kicks off when Woodrugh discovers Caspere dead by the side of the highway, eyes burned out by acid and genitals blown off with a shotgun. Frank’s money is gone, and neither his friends nor his enemies seem to know who murdered Caspere. A task force is formed by our trio of detectives, ostensibly to represent the three jurisdictions, but actually for more nefarious reasons. From there, things get so complicated that even after reading a detailed explanation of who everyone was and how they were connected, I still can’t quite grasp it. Long story short, nothing works out for anyone.

Oversensitive overcorrection

Pizzolatto took criticisms of season one too much to heart. To allay accusations of sexism, he expanded the cast to two troubled antiheroes, a woman, and a gay man, but in eight episodes, he only managed to mildly interest me in two of these characters. That’s the problem with antiheroes: If you aren’t invested in them, you don’t care when they get the bad end that’s coming to them. Certainly there was no incongruous hopefulness like that which so perturbed people about last season’s finale.

Not only was the plot a tangled mess of characters, but the dialogue, written exclusively by Pizzolatto, was also painfully bad. Eagle-eyed viewers noted plot similarities with James Ellroy’s noir novel The Big Nowhere, but even if he had lifted the story wholesale, that wouldn’t explain why the dialogue, especially Frank’s lines, were so cringeworthy. Maybe a better actor could have elevated them, as McConaughey did with Rust Cohle’s often heavy-handed psychobabble.

HBO has expressed support for Pizzolatto and suggested a season three. I hope Pizzolatto will be true to himself this time. He’s great creating two problematic characters who cleave together in spite of themselves and the horror surrounding and within them. There are infinite iterations of this story that could be told against the backdrop of a mystery.

Stop trying to please everyone, Nic. As Rust Cohle said, life is barely long enough to get good at one thing. You’re very good at that one thing. Please, do it again. I’ll be waiting.

 

For Tara Lynn Johnson's review, click here.

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