Nic Pizzolatto writes about the outskirts. He writes about people who are isolated, off the radar of most social institutions besides fast food and the highway patrol. You know, people who drive ’97 GMC Yukons and smoke cigarettes in the parking lots of courthouses. And usually, within a pulp context, he does this pretty well. He does it a lot better than his genre demands, anyway. But on the second season of True Detective, he blew it.
In 2015’s instant-consensus-followed-by-instant-stand-up-routine era of television criticism, this basically means his creative capital is gone and his reputation is ruined. He went from southern wunderkind to Peter Bogdanovich after At Long Last Love about 30 minutes into the first episode. By the end of the finale, he was George Lucas after Phantom Menace – there was suddenly an entrenched, viable market dedicated to making fun of his entire being. And if you were clever and dismissive enough about him in public, hey, maybe you could get some punch-up gigs out of it?
There were a thousand reasons why Nic Pizzolatto blew it, but let’s start here. The first season of True Detective was about the outskirts of Louisiana, a mysterious place, ethereal, a good place for people to be alone too long and go crazy. The second season was supposed to be about the outskirts of California. That was the explicit mission statement when production began. Forgotten California. Not Los Angeles. A lateral move if you know where to look. A good start. But it didn’t happen. It still mostly took place in Los Angeles, just the parts you blow through as fast as you can to get to Disneyland.
I gave the premiere the benefit of the doubt because much of the criticism at that time was premature and driven in no small measure by awareness fatigue – we had heard too much about True Detective and thought about it more than it deserved to be thought about. The episode was rough going, all setup, bogged down by clunky dialogue, but it wasn’t cause to jump ship. It took two more episodes to be sure the thing was capsizing. And I stayed with the show anyway. For five and a half more hours.
No one should have done that, but I did out of obligation. I had to know how Hollywood represented the Californian hinterlands of burned overgrowth and post-industrial desolation. It’s where I’m from and it’s my beat. It’s been my beat long enough that there was a modest Twitter campaign to get me a consulting gig on the show, the operating goal of which was for me to get rich and then, later, leave the country and buy a nice houseboat. A noble campaign that fell on deaf ears.
That was HBO’s loss. The season was an artless death march and it didn’t have to be. Hold on. I know what you’re about to say. You’re holding up an index finger, you’ve widened your eyes, your mouth is hanging open, the index finger is creeping upward toward your face, and you’re about to say “actually, the Fourth Geneva Convention made death marches illegal.”
Now, you can imply Nic Pizzolatto is a war criminal all you want, but that’s for the courts to decide. I’m just a simple man. I’m not in the business of deciding what is or isn’t a war crime, even though Article 33 seems perfectly clear in its prohibition of collective punishment. I’m not much for book learning. I just watch some TV now and then. Luckily it doesn’t take much dissection to see the show’s problems. They jump out and scream at you for the better part of 9 hours.
First the show blew it on locations, setting too many scenes in porn mansions and not enough in dirt roads or declining strip malls. Then the show blew it on dialogue.The first season had a plausibly over-articulate protagonist, the sort of guy on a conspiratorial newsgroup in 1997 who you thought was doing a bit until you met him in real life and realized oh no, he’s not. And the first season supporting characters reacted to him with the appropriate alienated distance.
But this season, everybody talked in those smoky, stylized sentences that only happen in pulp novels. A character would ask “how you doing?” and another would reply “drinking more” and this would qualify as a routine exchange.
Which would be fine if the script didn’t play like an unedited rough draft that hadn’t been read aloud for rhythm. Stylized dialogue needs to be tonally consistent and it needs to have melody. Neither were present here. A character actually said “blue balls in your heart” without comedic intent, which is like setting a random script page on fire and hoping nobody notices.
Which would be fine if the actors showed some levity or self-awareness once in awhile, but none of them ever did. Every actor here treated the material with enormous gravity, like it clearly constituted great drama and they were going to ride it right to starring roles in Scorsese movies. This despite the fact that they had no characters to play, just checklists of unresolved tragedies.
Which would be fine if the story was in any way comprehensible or interesting. But there was no story. There was just exposition and plot points. Plot points so labyrinthian, delivered so fast, that they registered exclusively as white noise. Trying to figure out what information actually mattered was like trying to find typos in a phone book from a foreign country.
The actors did their best though. They treated it like the show of 2015 because that was the conventional wisdom. Rachel McAdams was extremely expressive when she didn’t have to speak. Vince Vaughn occasionally turned things that weren’t sentences into the crude beginnings of sentences. And Colin Farrell perfectly looked the part of a North Hollywood cowboy. He looked like he played drums in a cowpunk band at the Palomino, and he looked like he knew exactly where to get coke the same way you or I know where to get gasoline. He looked like he beat up Dwight Yoakam in 1987. It’s too bad they didn’t make a show about who he looked like.
And poor Taylor Kitsch. He tried so hard. But his character was padding. Think back to high school. Remember that ten-page research paper you had to do on the Industrial Revolution, and it was 400 words short, so you threw in a page about how steam engines work and hoped your teacher didn’t notice? That was Taylor Kitsch’s entire character.
Throw in some basically arbitrary action setpieces, which don’t play like action scenes but like video game trailers, and it all adds up to the XBOX version of Mulholland Drive.
And yet. And yet. And yet. None of this should be enough to ruin Pizzolatto’s reputation. As bad as all this was, as desperately broken as it was from top to bottom, it was not broken in the way a talentless writer can break things. A talentless writer will occasionally stumble into a good idea through sheer persistence, or retreat into a proven crowd-pleasing formula.
True Detective‘s second season had a desperation to its badness. It was bad like the work of a talented student who was having trouble at home and had to write an essay during lunch hour. It’s sweaty and nervous and out of breath in its badness. There are whole episodes and subplots that do nothing but kill time. It suggests a writer on an extremely unrealistic deadline. Maybe that’s the fault of ego, maybe that’s the fault of HBO, maybe that’s just panic caused by public scrutiny. Whatever it is, it doesn’t make for joyfully or even memorably bad television, so it won’t survive as a kitsch artifact. It’ll just be remembered as the summer that prestige television fans were vaguely depressed for eight weeks.
But hopefully flawed execution won’t put people off to the fact that Nic Pizzolatto had a good idea here at some point. California’s inland wastelands are a great setting for a sprawling, moody detective story. They suggest infinite stories of ruin and regret. So he was on the right track somewhere, he just got derailed and went off a mountain. And the first season’s quality remains undiminished. If anything, its quality is magnified by comparison. So if the franchise survives the wreckage of these eight episodes, and ratings suggest it will, he still has a shot at regaining some critical footing. But first he has to lay low for a good long while and go back to the outskirts.