This article has full spoilers for the second season of True Detective.
True Detective season two was announced with much anticipation. The success of season one left fans wanting more. Unfortunately things didn’t go well for season two of HBO’s hit detective drama.
True Detective is a show that prides itself on a mature narrative and gritty performances. Characters are walking, talking sacks of depression. A heightened representation of real life for some people as well as a nod to hard boiled crime fiction. It’s one step away from having a grisly narration through the whole thing. Crime isn’t pretty and True Detective doesn’t pull any punches in showing the corruption and depravity living in our society. Inner turmoil and troubled pasts are a reoccurring theme in both seasons of True Detective.
In my mid-season thoughts I expressed a positive outlook on the potential season two had. The first four episodes weren’t the strongest but they had some strong moments in them. The performances were a little hit and miss but over all there were more hits than misses. It had the potential to finish out strong. Which it did, or at least as strong as this season could possibly finish out.
So what went wrong?
Creator Nic Pizzolatto isn’t one for a simple narrative. Season one’s narrative was convoluted and lacked clarity and cohesion. Unlike season two, season one had a more focused set of protagonists. We had two characters to follow and two sets of problems and flaws. Two lots of baggage. By contrast, season two had four leads, all vying for the viewer’s interest and emotional investment. Some worked better than others but ultimately it demanded the show spend a lot of time on character building and backstory, which had a negative effect on the overall pacing of the show. Scenes with Woodrugh’s mother or Bezzerides’ sister really only served character development. I’m not knocking character development. Not at all. Character development is important, but True Detective only had eight and a half hours to wrap up a high complicated story with a lot of moving parts. The time spent talking about child hood abuse or wooden sculptures could have been better spent clueing the audience into just what was happening at times. There needed to be focus. Ray Velcoro (Farrell) and Frank Semyon (Vaughn) were two leads we were able to get behind, Ani Bezzerides and Paul Woodrugh just muddied the waters. Which is unfortunate because both McAdams and Kitsch could have done great in central roles as a part of a duo or strictly supporting roles.
There’s also an interesting similarity between the two seasons which left me a little bothered. Both seasons spend a lot of time solving a crime that involves the murder or prostitution (or both) of women. I understand that crime is crime and that this type of crime happens but for both seasons to be that involved with crime against women felt a little odd to me. I actually enjoyed the political and economic nature of season twos mystery until we started venturing into sex parties with a throng of drugged up prostitutes. I just felt like it wasn’t needed and probably says a lot about the creator.
Who the hell is Stan?
Stan’s funeral was probably a moment where viewers collectively asked “who?” Which was a problem season two consistently had. Characters would name drop someone and the viewers would be left clueless. Characters were introduced with very little introduction to speak of only to become important in the narrative several hours later. This could be argued as “smart story telling” where you “have to pay attention” but I would argue the opposite. There’s a way to make characters memorable in a brief moment because you’re intentionally not drawing attention to them. Frank Semyon goes to Stan’s funeral and we’re left asking who the hell was Stan rather than paying attention to the important implications the funeral had on the narrative. Which only lead to more confusion. This frustration was most felt when the culprits of the murder that set everything in motion were a pair of twins that we’d tangentially met in the first two hours. A narrative sleight of hand that was used in season one to much better effect.
It wasn’t all bad though.
Season two had an allure and an atmosphere that most shows would kill for. Some of the performances were great and it had some great moments of dialogue and human emotion. Some of the action set pieces were really well done. The mansion raid in particular was a wonderful piece of sharp action to round off a frustrating season of television.
Colin Farrell proved to be the most engaging of the four leads in the show. His self-destructive habits coupled with his warm, weep-for-me eyes made us care about him. We wanted to see him defeat his demons and come up as the father in his son’s paternity test. We were with him for the highs and lows. We emotionally invested with him, despite and early brush with death, and ultimately we lamented his decisions that lead to his grisly death. We were frustrated with the character’s flaws rather than the story teller’s flaws.
The same can’t be said for Vince Vaughn. There was something about his stubborn attitude that made me want him to succeed but in the end he over promised to far too many people and it caught up to him. Again, in a blink and you’ll miss them kind of way, his demise was brought on by the last spinning plate he just couldn’t keep from crashing to the floor. Maybe that was a fitting demise for a gangster but I just felt frustrated because I wanted more. I wanted a more cohesive narrative, I wanted a more menacing performance at times. Credit where it’s due though. Vince Vaughn had some of the most difficult lines to lift off the page. Some he managed and others just came across as corny.
You get the world you deserve.
Ultimately I think we deserved more from the second season of True Detective. The bar was set high with the first season but season two had all the parts and potential to work. It just didn’t. A combination of a convoluted narrative, four protagonists and short run time lead to a frustrating experience. If the narrative had just followed two characters rather than the four it may have been a less frustrating experience. We were spread too thin and left wanting more from all the characters we’d been introduced too. We had tangential characters who we thought would be important, like David Morse (who did nothing in the show), but were ultimately just there for the sake of convenient plot information or clunky character development.
It’ll be interesting to see where HBO take True Detective. It’s still a format and a franchise that could work. I just think Nic Pizzolatto needs someone to collaborate with and reign him in. There’s definite gold to be found in True Detective, it’s just covered up by overwhelming depression, names we don’t know, character’s we’re barely introduced too, clichéd plot contrivances and frustration. Lots and lots of frustration.
Taj Sandhu is an editor and co-founder of NovaCritic.com.