After my initial review, I wanted to resist making further comparisons between the first and second seasons of True Detective. The drop in quality was so stark that, after the wave of shock and disappointment had passed, I felt that the fairest way to assess the second season was on its own merits. What if season one was such a perfect anomaly that we (the audience) must resign ourselves to the fact that we will never see its like again? What if, by holding it up as the standard, we are doing the creator a disservice? So I gave episodes three and four the benefit of the doubt, refraining as much as possible from comparing them to their season one counterparts, and, while the end of episode four made this very difficult, I persevered.
After episode six, I am admitting defeat. It is not the audience who lives in the shadow of that first season of True Detective so much as Nic Pizzolatto. True Detective’s writer/creator seems to be trapped by the expectations that were set by his previous televised effort, as he has dedicated no small amount of the show’s second season to recreating remixed aspects of that first season with diminishing returns. Take, for example, the twin episode-ending action set pieces we’ve seen this season: the shootout in the streets of Vinci came at the exact same place in the season as the tour-de-force tracking shot ghetto shootout from last time around, while the raid on the Black Lodge-esque mansion copied many of the formal aspects of that first shootout. This time around, it was Rachel McAdams’ turn to take drugs and carry a reluctant victim out of a dangerous location and pile them into the back of a getaway car.
The parallels are not only clear, they’re obnoxious, and make one wonder if Pizzolatto has assembled this season by simply copying the aspects of the first season that garnered the most praise. People liked McConaughey’s wacky philosophizing, so this time we get four times the nonsense dialogue. The big shootout was a hit, so let’s have two episode-ending action scenes this time around! That scene were McConaughey and Harrelson fight it out was great, so let’s up the ante by making Colin Ferrel and Vince Vaughn point guns at one another like Han Solo and Greedo. Pizzolatto is trapped by his own success, either incapable of or lacking the confidence to try new things.
Which is a real shame, because apart from a few clunky lines of dialogue and pieces of exposition the sixth episode of this season (titled, in yet another reference to season one, “Church in Ruins”) was the strongest of the season to date. This is mostly due to the fact that it told a story: the detectives have a lead on some sex parties, do the work to get into one such event, plan a raid of the location, and then execute said raid. Meanwhile there’s a couple of detours, one with Velcoro’s son in one of the most poignant scenes in the show to date and the other with Semyon as he gets himself deeper in trouble with his organized crime brethren. Frank’s plot still feels very separate from the story of the detectives, although his conflict with Ray at the episode’s opening seems like motions towards the two storylines coming together. And the episode had a couple of the better lines of dialogue in the whole season, particularly Bezzerides’ breathy admission that she thinks she killed someone (which, after the brutal cutting she gave her assailant, counts as comedy).
But then there are the lines that land like lead bricks. In the same scene as Bezzerides’ stoned confession we get Woodrugh’s damning, “These contracts…signatures all over them,” as if the stolen evidence is spun from golden thread. Earlier in that same set piece we watch two Bernie Madoff lookalikes shake hands while one of them tells the other, “A full moon is the right time to ratify alliances.” And the entire scene in which Frank talks to the missing girl over the phone is tone deaf to the point of being confusing; are we supposed to think that Frank is stupid enough to believe that meeting with this girl (who is calling him on behalf of the Mexican mafia) in a concrete factory in the middle of the night is a good idea? I don’t believe that Pizzolatto is writing Frank as stupid, but he sure comes across like a nitwit in the second half of episode six.
Another point of comparison between seasons one and two that Pizzolatto is forcing down our throats is the time jump format. The first season had three separate timelines that the narrative moved between through use of a clever framing device and a nice fading transition. The second season has a much more linear narrative with at least one two-month time jump that comes at the beginning of episode five (titled, pointedly, “Other Lives”) which is communicated to the audience through the use of, I kid you not, a voiceover by a newscaster telling the audience that, “It has been sixty-six days” since the shootout in Vinci. Herein lies the main problem of True Detective season two: it is basically season one but less subtle. Gone are the artful transitions between timelines and the gentle hints that may pay off episodes down the line. In season two, not only do we get an early scene in which Bezzerides lays out, in no uncertain terms, her commitment to carrying and killing with knives, but we must have a scene showing her slicing up a mannequin in the same episode that we see her actually cut a person. This time around, Pizzolatto doesn’t even trust the audience to remember his good dialogue.
All of which leads me to believe that Nic Pizzolatto did not let anyone read his script before shooting began. Six episodes into an eight episode season the writing is still first draft quality: it’s full of redundant lines, undisguised exposition, and references to the previous season that are far too on-the-nose. A couple rounds of editing and revising with a trusted director and maybe a talented actor or two might have turned this season’s script into a worthy follow up to season one. As it is, this season of True Detective dooms itself to failure by encouraging a set of critical comparisons to which it has no hope of living up.