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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Static Thoughts - True Detective Season 2

Edited by Robert Beach

Follow-ups are always difficult. It’s a rule of life that a 2nd installment of anything is severely hit or miss. The general logic behind this is sequels are faced with a number of difficult choices: whether to provide more of the same or take a different approach, for instance. 

Even if the creators decide to simply produce more of what’s already proven successful, there’s the question of what worked so well in the original piece. A story is made up of so many individual parts it can be hard to pinpoint the exact aspects of it that resonates with an audience. This is where True Detective season 2 goes horrible, terribly, catastrophically wrong.  

The Rise of True Detective 

In case you’ve managed to avoid it, True Detective was a surprise hit anthology crime show from early 2014. Pretty much no one had heard of the HBO series before it launched, and even when it started, there was very little fanfare; however, after around 3 episodes, internet buzz and word of mouth helped generate a major audience for the series and the ratings saw a continual climb. By the time the season finale came around, True Detective was a name show for a lot of folks, especially critics. It’s easy to see why season 1 was such a success: a unique blend of horror elements and cinematography with a solid script that balanced character drama with a more real-life mystery. 

The show’s success didn’t go unnoticed by HBO, who have been eager for new powerhouse franchises for a while now. For season 2, True Detective went much, much bigger. Casting Collin Ferrell, Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams, and Taylor Kitsch in 4 lead roles, the show beefed up the size of its story and was moved to a summer release date as part of the rise of blockbuster TV. The new setting was grounded in central California while the plot revolved around the fictional corrupt city of Vinci and relating heavily to the state-wide, high-speed rail. The show was all set to focus on every level of crime and punishment in California: from state police down to corrupt officials to criminals and gangsters with a keen focus on corruption, both systemic and personal. Everything was set for a thrilling new season that would take things bigger and bolder. 

True Detective Season 1 vs 2 

Obviously, that didn’t happen. Despite a lot of strong moments sprinkled over the course of the season, True Detective season 2 never managed to reach the heights of season 1. The show bogged down under poor pacing, clunky dialogue, a curious thematic emptiness, and a lot of major exposition problems. The show’s biggest issue this season is actually pretty simple: it’s not written as a TV show, it’s written as a novel. 

Season 1 of True Detective was very much grounded in the mechanics of television, relying heavily on the performance of the actors and the cinematography to tell the story. Elements like the show’s iconic long, unbroken, monologues from Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey serve as a perfect chance for the actors to give a powerhouse, unbroken performance. At the same time, Cary Fukunaga’s cinematography was able to speak volumes without a single word, crafting a narrative solely through creepy and unnerving visuals.

Novelizing a TV Series 

Season 2 of True Detective is constructed much more around dialogue and plot points as the show’s only narrative currency. Rather than providing the actors space to give a defined performance, the emphasis is much more on dialogue as a form of exposition. In a novel, dialogue predominately serves the purpose of providing narrative momentum because the job of character development can be taken care of elsewhere. A character’s voice in a novel is still unique, but they can convey their thoughts and identity through an inner monologue or an omniscient narrator; the dialogue ends up ancillary to this task. 

In a TV show or a film, where there is no narrator or internal monologue, the dialogue is the only way to learn about these characters. That’s why so often the actors in season 2 are straining against their part. We know the details of characters like Colin Farrell’s Ray Velcoro; we know the plot points of his life, but as a man, he’s ultimately a major cipher. The only reason he ends up more likable are the glimmers of personality that shine through in Colin Farrell’s performance. We don’t so much care about the character as the man behind it. 

That’s a dynamic that can work in cases where a character is deliberately left weak for an actor to embody like most Jason Statham roles.  Here, Velcoro is meant to be a fully realized character; although, there’s no depth to the detail, no emotion to all the information, no room for the actors to give a performance, just the writing relying on information. 

Conspiracies and Half-Baked Subplots 

This same problem extends to the show’s crushingly dense amount of vaguely connected conspiracy plots and the problems with detail that plague the rest of the season. For instance, this season relied heavily on a large number of players smashed together for their various conspiracies but never managed to set names to faces. In a novel, simply throwing around character names like Holloway or Geldoff would be fine because a name is all they are in a novel. In a show, unless a character is firmly introduced to the audience alongside their name viewers will be stranded playing “Guess who” over all the unconnected names being thrown about. 

It’s the same with the 5 central conspiracies of the season. In a book, having so much plot would be a lot more manageable, but in an 8-episode show, it all ends up crushed together. It doesn’t help that the show’s pacing with the conspiracies is decidedly off, over-explaining stuff like the high-speed rail conspiracy far too early while bringing up a diamond heist subplot infinitely too late in the game. The season ends up with so many narrative balls in the air that none of them feel well developed or interesting because they’re either too simplistic, underdeveloped, or clichéd to be engaging. 

A very good example of this is the strangely interwoven plot trinity of the high-speed railway conspiracy, the secret sex party conspiracy, and the secret war being waged against Vince Vaughn’s gangster character Frank Semyon. The high-speed railway plot is essentially every land grab plot of driving down land value to buy it cheap before it becomes worth millions, basically the same scheme as Lex Luthor in Superman. It’s a clichéd plot so tired it’s downright exhausted; worse, it’s so obvious there was almost no real mystery to it. 

The conspiracy of running Eastern block prostitutes through a surgical clinic so that they can serve at sex parties for wealthy men of influence is beyond convoluted. What’s worse, the conspiracy is almost completely disconnected to the overall story. Finally, there’s Frank’s secret war over his business. This plot lasts throughout the entire season, but the ultimate reveal is unsatisfying because of how simplistic and obvious it is. These issues cut straight to the heart of another one of True Detective season 2’s big problems: the mystery was meaningless.   

Bipolar Use of Casper 

In season 1, the whole show was grounded in a single murder mystery that expanded into multiple murders and a conspiracy to conceal said murders. Even though the crimes being investigate grew wider in breadth, the emphasis remained on the central murder as the lynch pin of all the conspiracies.  In season 2, however, the murder of corrupt city planner Casper ended up almost completely disconnected to the other central conspiracies. Casper had been involved in some of the various conspiracies, but his death remained separate from almost all of them. This is a huge problem; it completely deflates the importance and meaning behind the inciting crime. 

That wouldn’t be so bad if Casper’s death wasn’t kept in focus, yet the show keeps pulling back to it, unwilling to let it just fade into the background. As a result, the show has to contrive conspiracy upon conspiracy to explain why Casper’s death is related to the high-speed rail or the sex parties or Frank’s secret war. It leaves the show a mess of disparate narrative pieces rather than a cohesive whole. 

Self-Definition as Theme 

This wouldn’t be such a problem if thematically the season worked; instead, the whole season’s themes of corruption and self-definition come off curiously inert. Where season 1 of True Detective was focused on using the breakdown of its investigation as a window into the psychologically broken nature of both men, season 2 tried to yoke all of its characters together through theme. All the leads of season 2 are connected through a clash between a past corruption and current self-definition. 

Frank is corrupted by his criminal past and attempts to redefine himself as a legitimate businessman; meanwhile, Ray is corrupted by his murder of his wife’s rapist and attempts to redefine himself as a good cop.  Rachel McAdams’ Ani Bezzerides is corrupted by childhood trauma and attempts to redefine herself now through strength and deadliness. Taylor Kitsch’s Paul Woodrugh feels corrupted by his love affair with a fellow male soldier in Iraq and attempts to redefine himself as a straight family man.    

This theme even extends to the physical world as a tricky reworking of season 1’s emphasis on violent crime being carved across the landscape. The land of the high-speed rail has been literally poisoned with heavy metals and waste disposal. It’s been corrupted and rendered infertile, unable to continue in its previous manner and left with redefinition as the only useful option. 

The problem is despite all these thematic parallels, none of it actually means anything. There’s no greater realization made about corruption or self-definition or redemption, it’s all just so much noise. The closest thing there is to a central conclusion to be made is that sometimes you can change and sometimes you can’t and there’s really no way to tell the two apart. 

Plot Over People 

Season 1 didn’t really have much of a conclusion to make either about its swirling subtext gumbo of nihilism and toxic masculinity, but that season could fall back on the pulpy, horror-infused artifice of the show as the central focus. In season 2, the unique blend of horror iconography and darkness with a ‘50s hardboiled pulp aesthetic has been traded for a slick, urban crime aesthetic. This was really the final nail in season 2’s coffin. 

Shifting the emphasis from artifice to depth without actually imbuing the story with meaning just crippled the entire season. Worst of all, it changed True Detective into a completely different show.  Season 1 worked because it was a show about clashing personalities in a creepy little pocket of failed Americana brimming with Southern fried horror. Season 2 is about several seemingly disconnected characters trying to survive and do well in a corrupt urban world; someone already made that show, and it was called The Shield. No one was tuning into True Detective to see a technically inept reinvention of The Shield

A Failure We Want 

Even with 3 pages of an exhaustive breakdown of why True Detective Season 2 doesn’t work, I’m still hopeful for a 3rd season. It’s worth noting that all the big problems with this season are either technical, which can be polished to perfection, or issues of ambition. True Detective season 2 easily could’ve just been season 1 again with new actors, though they really did try for something bigger and bolder and different with this season. Obviously, they didn’t make those changes well and there were a lot of mistakes, yet none of those mistakes came from cowardice or lack of imagination. 

A show that fails from taking risks is infinitely preferable to a show that plays it safe and stagnates.  Finally, season 2 is simply the place where mistakes are made. Second installments are essentially a test kitchen to experiment with new ideas in order to see what made people gravitate to the show in the first place. That’s what this season was more than anything else, a failed experiment and the only way to handle it is to not let this failure corrupt the show overall and just move forward. 

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