The Fascinating Trainwreck that is True Detective Season 2: An Analysis/Recap

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Going into this summer, my anticipation for the second season of HBO’s True Detective was about as high as it could get. Just by reading this site, you should know that I was a huge fan of the first season of the show. While I knew going into this new season that it would be quite different and probably not as great as the first season, but still held my head up high. The actors being cast in the respected roles were a little different but sounded great. Actors like Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Taylor Kitsch, and Vince Vaughn. That last one was one of the stranger casting choices, but I was on board. Vaughn’s trying to do a McConaughey, where he can re-establish himself as an acting force to be reckoned with. So as the premiere date grew closer and closer, I got really excited, even if the reviews coming in weren’t great. I watched the first episode on first airing (well, on HBO GO), and as it went on, something occurred to me. Yes, this show is not only completely different from the first season, but barely has anything in common with the first season, and judging by this first episode, I wasn’t impressed. I tried to stick with the show, even if I did fall behind by a few weeks out of disinterest, but I was able to catch up, and I just finished watching the finale. While the show was able to improve on the watching-paint-dry feeling I got in the first couple of episodes, the show never was able to capture the spirit and pure watchability of the first season. And be warned that yes, the following piece contains MAJOR SPOILERS. You’ve been warned beyond this point if you haven’t watched the new season.

I’d usually say that I won’t go into too much detail on a certain show/movie that I’m reviewing, but I literally can’t go into too much detail on what happened in season two of True Detective, because I have no idea what the hell happened throughout the eight episode run this season. It was overly convoluted, and since I had little to no investment in any of the characters on the show, I didn’t really care what happened to anybody or anyone. From what I could gather as the show went on, it was a half-assed attempt from writer/creator Nic Pizzolatto to create a neo-noir tale of crime in local city government that benefits from wealthier interests in the Southern California backdrop. When plans go awry for a new piece of development on the end of Vaughn’s Frank, its discovered that a man named Caspere, who happens to be the City Manager of the fictitious city Vinci, happens to have gone missing, and its up to Farrell (a crooked cop), McAdams (a tough-as-nails cop) and Kitsch (a screw-up, former veteran cop) to solve this mystery together. It sounds like an interesting premise, which sounds like it could have a bit of a Chinatown vibe to the show, with its themes and the backdrop of Southern California.

The problem is that Nic Pizzolatto is one of the more incompetent writers I’ve seen on television in quite sometime, a rarity in this so-called “Renaissance” of great television that’s been going on since The Sopranos began airing in 1999. Yes, I was singing the praises toward the writer once the first season was airing, but instead of his dialogue walking that fine line of pretentious and over-indulgent monologuing toward brilliant and almost existential lines has completely turned to the former in this new season. Maybe I turned a blind eye toward the dialogue in the last season after being so mystified by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson’s performances on the show, because not only does it not work here, it brings the show down so much to a point that the dialogue that’s coming out of these actors mouths is downright embarrassing.

And while some of the actors are actually pretty great in the show (the standouts, for me at least, being the performances by Farrell and McAdams), some are just flat-out questionable as to how they were cast. I was on board when I heard that Vince Vaughn was going to play this dark gangster whose trying to go straight, but once I started watching the show, and hearing the dialogue that was coming out of Vaughn’s mouth, I wanted to jump ship immediately. Vaughn is a pretty good comedic actor (I say pretty good because there’s Swingers and that’s it), but he was very mis-cast in the role of Frank. I’ll admit that I did enjoy the scenes that Frank shares with his wife, played by Kelly Reilly, it’s not enough to make up for some of the unintentionally funny moments that Vaughn has in the show. Taylor Kitsch, who I was about to write off completely after his string of box office bombs in 2012, is actually very good and very well cast as Paul Woodrugh, a veteran whose trying to make a living by being a California Highway Patrol officer, but can’t seem to get by after being accused of sexual misconduct by a Hollywood actress. He’s a guy who ends up being one of the most interesting of the tragic figures in the show, especially when he’s gunned down by a corrupt policeman in the penultimate episode (whose name escapes me).

Farrell is also great as a corrupt cop whose life has been in disarray, after falling into bad people like Frank after his wife was raped, and lashed out against what he thought was the rapist violently. His wife leaves him, and during their custody battle of their son, she questions if Farrell’s Ray is really the father of the child. McAdams is a tough cop who comes from a rather strange background out in California. Raised by hippies, she was raped as a child by one of them, which helps explain as to why she’s the way that she is. All these characters have potential to be as interesting as Rust and Marty were in that first season, but I blame it all on bad writing and a lack of the visual niche that the first season had with why this new season sucks so badly. While we had Pizzolatto writing each episode last season, they also had Cary Fukunaga directing every episode of the show, which brought a certain and familiar style to each episode, and made it stand out from other shows in a visual storytelling sense. This time around, we have a pretty generic roster of directors with television work (Fast and Furious helmer Justin Lin directs the first two episodes), and neither bring anything that jumps out at you visually. The cinematography is pretty, and the music by T. Bone Burnett is still there, but it all comes down to nailing the characters, which it doesn’t really do. No characters, well how about the story? Nope. 

Then there was that finale that just aired as of writing this. We (sort of) figure out who killed Caspere, although everything was so convoluted that you’d be forgiven if you forgot. Basically all the dudes on the show die, and the only principal actors left are McAdams and Reilly, who flee to Venezuela after there’s been too much bloodshed in Vinci. Ray foolishly goes back to say goodbye to his son before he and McAdams can flee together (after just hooking up, if I may add), but Ray is tailed by a task force who takes him out in a forest. Once Frank thinks he’s in the clear from the Russians, he forgets that he screwed over the Mexican mafia with his clubs, and so he’s brought out to the desert and stabbed because he’s too macho to give up his suit to a gang member, leading to his bleeding out in the desert, never to see his wife again. While the final episode of the first season ended with Rust and Marty catching the Yellow King after years of hunting him down, and then recovering in the hospital, this finale feels so disappointing and unsatisfying that ranting about it on the internet can’t do it justice. So that’s where I call it quits. 

What a fascinating fall from grace that Nic Pizzolatto has had in a matter of months. After a good deal of bad press regarding plagiarism last year, as well as his attitude toward everyone and everything around him (just read any article/interview with the man to get a taste of how pretentious and arrogant he is), I don’t feel much sympathy for him. He created lighting in a bottle with the first season of True Detective, a southern gothic classic that is some of the finest storytelling in recent memory, but follows it up with a show that is all over the place creatively that watching each episode felt like a task, and storytelling shouldn’t be that. I don’t know if there’ll be a third season of True Detective (HBO seems open to the idea), but if there is, count me out. Let me know when that new Martin Scorsese/Mick Jagger HBO series comes on, then I’ll be back. Just no unnecessary orgies, please.

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One thought on “The Fascinating Trainwreck that is True Detective Season 2: An Analysis/Recap

  1. Well done even if I am not quite in the same place with my overall rating of the Season as you. I did an alphabet soup of observation and questions following the finale on my blog.

    But I would mention one thing.

    Frank didn’t die because he was too macho to give up the suit to the Mexican gang member. What he didn’t want to give up was the 3.5 million in diamonds in his suit jacket pocket. Remember the few minutes he spent with the Hasidic diamond merchant?

    But that scene was wrong from another two angles. Supposedly he bought his way out of being killed by the 1 million cash in the briefcase. The Mexicans had already dug the hole in the desert when Frank was brought there. Why would they let Frank off after he told them what was in the briefcase. With Frank in the ground – they’d have the brief case anyway. It seemed unlikely that Frank would end in the hole in the desert and the briefcase just tossed in on top of him.

    The second point was Frank’s car. Why didn’t he change it. Get a new ride. There was no need to torch the car they used to drive up to the mountain resort. No one saw it, at least no one in the mountain resort. Tire treads? Buy a different brand of new tires. What should have been torched were Frank’s original car, and Ray’s as well.

    But I guess if they were supposed to be killed off – there was no way for Pizzolatto to have them done that.

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