After two episodes of True Detective’s second anthology, the show’s first season is beginning to look like every auteur theorist’s new favorite example. Over the course of eight episodes, director Cary Fukunaga told a memorable story using the bones of show creator Nic Pizzolato’s script and the substantial flesh afforded by HBO’s casting leverage. From metaphysical conversations about the nature of life to timeline-bending depictions of the past and present to an ominous atmosphere conjured from the murk of the bayou itself, the first season was much more than the sum of its narrative parts; remember, at its most basic the season told a classic “detectives hunting a serial killer” story with a Southern Gothic setting. Fukunaga combined all of these elements to create one of the most singularly compelling seasons of television in recent memory, which, in an unfortunate turn of events, has set up True Detective’s second season for failure.
Consider all of the goodwill going into the show's first season. With The Sopranos and The Wire long gone, and Breaking Bad having just closed out its final victory lap, the prestige television world was poised for a new wunderkind, a show to which the snobs and hoi polloi alike could hitch their wagons for the foreseeable future. Combine that desire with the buzz surrounding the McConaissance (remember that this was prior to Interstellar), Woody Harrelson’s simmering popularity (is he an A-list star posing as a B-lister or vice versa?), Cary Fukunaga’s potential following his strong directorial debut (the excellent Sin Nombre), and the always-intriguing fact of a novelist turning their skills to the filmic medium (following the example of such literary giants as James Agee, William Faulkner, and John Steinbeck), and you have what is, on paper, one of the greatest confluences of talent in the last decade. Additionally, the script played directly to Fukunaga’s strengths as a director: the most compelling aspects of Sin Nombre foreshadow the grandeur of True Detective’s first season, most notably its exploration of the contrast between civilization and wilderness and Fukanaga’s immaculately-paced and choreographed action scenes.
Now compare that initial goodwill with the circumstances surrounding season two’s release into the world. Not only did the show replace arthouse darling Fukunaga with blockbuster mercenary Justin Lin, who directed the season between shooting, of all things, Fast & Furious 6 and the initial Abrams-less entry into the zombified Star Trek franchise, but the casting choices were immediately less exciting. As if in direct response to the accusations of male chauvinism leveled at the first season, Rachel McAdams joined a list of decidedly B-or-lower-list men, none of whom, with the possible exception of Colin Ferrell, possesses anything approaching the artistic credibility or genuine star power of Saint Matthew. And while expectations for Nic Pizzolatto’s second season script were still riding high, the threat of the Sophomore Slump loomed as large as a scar-faced giant riding a lawnmower in concentric circles around the young author.
So it’s no surprise, really, that the first couple episodes of season two have under-delivered on the promise made by season one. Two hours into the season and we can already tell that we’re watching an inferior show. The first season’s graceful framing device (which introduced, at once, the central investigation, McConaughey and Harrelson’s characters, and the eventual arc of the partners’ relationship) has been replaced with a standard timeline wherein we watch our three titular detectives plus a devious gangland developer muddle their way through the opening stages of the investigation into the murder of a city manager. Instead of the first season’s menacingly overgrown Louisiana locales, we find ourselves in the unmistakably set-like interiors of offices, apartments, and one particular bar supposedly existing in Southern California; the transitionary images of brackish marshland are gone in favor of carefully-composed aerials showing cars snaking along freeways and lingering shots of smoke-belching refineries. The California setting is established in these shots as well as through an endless string of offhand references to towns ranging surprisingly far to the north of the story’s Los Angeles base.
The author’s lack of familiarity and comfort with the setting manifests in numerous ways, but a good place to start is the names of places and organizations that Pizzolatto has created for the season. Last time around, Pizzolatto pulled many names from a book of vaguely-Lovecraftian short stories from the Victorian era called The King in Yellow, a choice that performed the dual function of giving his fictional creations a thematic unity (Carcosa and The Yellow King being particular highlights) and distracting some of the more erudite audience members from the story he was telling. Pizzolatto took it upon himself to come up with the names for the second season, which are uniformly cheesy: from an ominous consortium of businessmen operating under the title “Catalyst” to the obvious Blackwater Security Company stand-in “Black Mountain Security” to the Mario Puzo-lite “Town of Vinci” to the offbeat Greek/hippie commune “The Panticapaeum Institute,” the monikers in season two lack the mystery of those in the first season. Carcosa is scary not because its name is inherently menacing but because we see the word scribbled on the walls of abandoned churches and muttered amidst streams of gibberish issuing from the mouths of the mad. By the time an aged ex-servant of the Childress family says with wonder, “You know Carcosa?”, the word has been instilled with sufficient weight that the mere concept of this woman having seen the place fills the audience with dread. After such a buildup, the final reveal of the location, festooned with complex stick sculptures and altars made of human bones, is something of a letdown: before the detectives enter the physical place, Carcosa is larger than life.
This lack of subtlety is the fundamental change from the first season to the second, and is evident in the character introductions that take place during episode one. Collin Ferrell’s Ray Velcoro spends the entirety of his time on screen making a case for being, simultaneously, the World’s Worst Detective and Father through a series of scenes in which he berates, beats, and intimidates everyone he meets (he’s rough, like Velcro, get it?). Not only is Taylor Kitsch’s character named Officer Woodrugh, a designation which, given his inability to achieve an erection without the help of medication, might be the crowning achievement of Pizzolatto’s dedication to on-the-nose monikers, but we also see him get suspended for doing the right thing and are shown his physical scars as well as the behavioral manifestations of his PTSD. Rachel McAdams’s Detective Bezzerides goes by Ani, but we are told numerous times that her birth name is Antigone, a fact that functions as an easily-graspable metaphor for her estrangement from her family; but, leaving nothing to chance, her background is emphasized when she has run-ins with both her wayward sister and her distant father. Vince Vaughn’s Nucky Thompson-wannabe Frank Semyon (which I’m going to say for the purposes of my name game is supposed to be close to simian, as in “ape-like” and primitive in his dealings with the rest of the world) spends his screen time stressing out about a big business meeting before acting stressed out during his big business meeting and then possibly bungling his big payoff by pressuring his business counterpart. The Ray Velcoro character is the highlight of the first episode, the best scene of which comes when alcoholic detectives played by Ferrell and the always-enjoyable W. Earl Brown tour the missing city manager’s mansion, which is filled to the brim with lurid sexualized art. After an endless series of flat interiors, the mansion stands out as a place that says something about the character who lives there; it has a personality, albeit one entirely devoid of subtlety.
Episode two begins with each of the three detectives being told by their superiors exactly what their respective missions are for the season. Their collective priority is, of course, to watch their fellow detectives, an assignment that is cinematically reinforced by a series of close-ups of the characters as they all stand around the city manager’s mangled corpse giving one another the stink eye. The second episode is superior to the first because it moves away from burdensome exposition to actual storytelling, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, the best scenes are those that are unconcerned with this plot. Take, for example, the type of scene that season one established as quintessentially True Detective: the conversation between newly-partnered detectives as they drive from one location to another. McConaughey espousing his diametric world view in obscure philosophical terms while Woody Harrelson stared at him like he was insane was the basic unit of the relationship on which the season was built. In season two, the big first ride between Ferrell and McAdams features a pithy back and forth about E-cigarettes that ends with a comment about how the devices resemble robotic penises. Their next exchange, about Bezzerides' habit of carrying multiple knives, hints at the strengths of those first season's driving scenes. “Fundamental difference between the sexes is that one of them can kill the other with their bare hands. Man of any size lays his hands on me, he’s gonna bleed out in under a minute," she says, to which Velcoro replies, "Well, just so you know, I support feminism...mostly by having body image issues.” This exchange sets a tone for their relationship, which is based on quips as much as half-truths and off-handed mutterings to their window or E-cigarette, respectively.
After only a pair of episodes, it is clear that season two of True Detective is as much a victim of expectation as it is of poor craft. While the cinematography, writing, and acting have all taken a step down in quality (Vince Vaughn is the guiltiest here, as he routinely fails to rise to the material), the show is still more than the sum of its parts, and episode two’s final cliffhanger scene is excellent. The tone is lighter and quicker, with a greater emphasis on the central case. But while the little lapses present in the first two episodes might be dismissed in any other show as the season getting off to a slow start, True Detective’s first outing set the bar impossibly high, and this year’s entry is weighed down by those lofty expectations. As such, in order to give this season a fair chance, we must reevaluate what exactly it was that made season one so strong.
The answer is threefold. The first contributor was Cary Fukunaga, whose skill as a director is inarguable, and who, as the second season goes on, will likely come to be more fully recognized as the primary reason that the first season was so unusally good. The second factor was the meteoric McConaughey, who turned in the best performance of his career during a period in which he was incapable of giving a bad one. The third (and most unfortunate) factor was Nic Pizzolatto’s script. There’s a piece of conventional wisdom that goes something like “you have your whole life to write your first season of television and six months to write your second,” but the problem goes deeper than that. Pizzolatto set the first season of True Detective in his own backyard, drawing on what is clearly a deep knowledge of Louisiana’s culture and heritage to craft a rich world that seemed to stretch far beyond the narrow confines of the show’s story. When viewed next to Pizzolatto’s touristic portrait of Southern California, the Louisiana of the first season is revealed as a third character, one that was as well-developed and fully-realized as the entangled relationship between the two leads.
Without that caliber of setting to ground the narrative, the cliches and structural tropes that Pizzolatto deploys in the second season have no camouflage beneath which to hide their somewhat crooked forms. The result, after two episodes, is a solid if not incredible police drama that has unrealistic expectations weighing it down. I will reevaluate after I've seen the first half of the season, which is the joy and curse of weekly television shows.