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An Audience in the Dark

Halfway through its run, the second season of True Detective has cemented its identity as a crossbreed of pulpy cop drama and prestige show that combines the worst aspects of both genres. From the pulp corner we get characters weighed down by sordid histories being guided by opaque departmental maneuvering, and from the prestige end we have artsy cinematography paired with overwrought dialogue and swaddled in an unearned air of self-seriousness. Furthermore, like a sophomore in a creative writing class, Pizzolatto has begun copying the work of his idols more or less directly, which would be less of a problem if he understood (or could recreate) what it was about their work that makes it compelling. As it is, True Detective’s second season is turning out to be a mishmash of tropes, genres, and tones that adds up to less than the sum of its parts.

The best example of this phenomenon comes at the very beginning of episode three (teasingly titled “Maybe Tomorrow”) with Detective Velcoro’s dream sequence. The setting is the most inspired part of this scene, with the haunting bar that serves as the membrane between Velcoro and Semyon’s worlds here standing in for a different kind of liminal space. The Conway Twitty impersonator and the well-dressed older man dispensing vague prophecies, however, come across as second-rate David Lynch knockoffs, a poor man’s attempt at recreating the Black Lodge dream scenes that defined Twin Peaks. Whereas Lynch undermined the traditional serial killer cop story with his own brand of small-town weirdness, Pizzolatto drops one of his protagonists into a sequence whose tone is abrasively different from that which surrounds it. He goes for deep and meaningful but ends up calling attention to his influences in the worst way.

Then there’s the labyrinthine expanse of the plot. As we get deeper into the season, the murder of city manager Caspere serves less as plot impetus than as a window into the larger machinations of the major players in the corrupt City of Vinci; aside from the three detectives who are pulled into the cover-up by their various departments, the only person affected by Caspere’s murder is Frank Semyon, for whom the stakes are entirely personal. Which would be fine if the detectives weren't clearly being used as cogs in a vast clockwork conspiracy the purpose of which is as mysterious to the characters as it is to the audience. The complacent ignorance of the detectives encourages the audience to hold the same attitude.

Keeping both the characters and the audience out of the loop on this information has the unfortunate effect of making events seem predetermined by the screenwriter and not the characters within the world. Take, for instance, the shootout that closes episode four: in lieu of plot setup, we get thematic foreshadowing regarding the ways in which the higher-ups are manipulating the whole investigation via Velcoro’s line about how the detectives are being set up to take the blame and Woodrugh talking about how he’s been taking orders blindly for his whole life. Instead of the detectives investigating leads that organically result in a daring raid on a meth lab cum weapons depot, we have a suspect and mission dropped on the characters from on high in the episode’s closing act. Pizzolatto keeps the audience at arm’s length in order to create an air of mystery and the feeling of the main characters being manipulated, but because he lacks the ability to do this deftly, he ends up making the audience feel like it is the one being manipulated by the writer.

All of which would be much more forgivable if the main characters were stronger. Colin Ferrell as Ray Velcoro still leads the pack halfway through the season, although his scenes have become less fun since he stopped drinking, smoking, and snorting his way through each of them. Rachel McAdams as Ani Bezzerides comes in second, though her penchant for blades and electronic cigarettes are still better defining traits than the oblique hints at her previous life as an unwilling cult member. Taylor Kitsch as Officer Woodrugh is the least compelling of the titular inspectors if only because his plot is mind-numbing in its transparency; between his repressed (military) homosexuality displaying itself as overt homophobia and his newly-minted beard of a fiancé, Paul is living a clichéd gay lifestyle from another century.

Coming in last is Vince Vaughn as Frank Semyon. It is still unclear whether Frank’s failure as a character is due to Vaughn’s acting or Pizzolatto’s writing. Vaughn’s portrayal of the backsliding crime boss is, at turns, indecipherably wooden and vaguely panicky, while his dialogue is similarly bipolar. What’s worse is that the most compelling aspect of his character, that of the old man re-entering a young man’s world, is telegraphed and over-written to the extent that it lacks any flavor. After Semyon is repeatedly mocked by his richly-grilled successor in the basement of the Lux Infinitum (a name that ranks alongside Black Mountain in terms of lacking even the most preemptory subtlety), he is almost contractually obligated by the mobster code to knock the guy’s teeth out. The scene is less about his character than it is about cruel wish fulfillment for the audience, which renders that episode’s closing scene between Frank and his wife an emotionally vague mess. Does Frank enjoy taking back the club in spite of himself? Does he feel alienated from his wife now that he’s regressing to a life of violence? Is he just pissed that she is unable to conceive? We’ll never know, as all of those factors are mixed together and then cancelled out by Vaughn’s blank, impenetrable stare.

Ultimately, none of these individual plot or character problems is large enough to bring the whole show down with it. Halfway through the season, the main impediment to the show’s success remains Pizzolatto’s fundamental discomfort with his setting and story. He continues to send his characters around Los Angeles and surrounding environs with no logic beyond that which is necessary for his plot, whose shape he only reveals to the audience piecemeal and with little reasoning beyond extending the mystery for as many episodes as possible. But without giving the audience a reason to care about it all, we are left simply waiting for those revelations instead of hungering for them.

Mysteries are not compelling because the audience wants to know the end but rather in spite of that fact. The tension of not knowing compels the audience to keep watching, but that tension has to be developed and maintained organically through the story, not formally by the writer withholding critical details until they choose to reveal them. Similarly, prestige television dramas are not compelling because of their art-school cinematography and poetic dialogue but rather because they use these elegant tools to tell human stories. Modern prestige television is more Herman Melville than Nathaniel Hawthorne, more David Foster Wallace than Thomas Pynchon; it uses heightened cinematic language to depict the life of the American proletariat, that unique class which embodies the proletarian work ethic while aspiring to the bourgeois lifestyle. Pizzolatto has pulled the wrong elements from each of these genres and applied them in proportions that deprive his script of the subtlety and heft that such material requires. And while I hope he is able to turn this around during the second half of the season, I’m beginning to believe that the excellence of True Detective’s first season was due more to the confluence of a number of talented individuals than it was to the strength of its writer.

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