Pretend we never got together in concert and scrutinized it to death and picked its bones clean with reductive memes and cheap parodies. Shut down all the cultural white noise and forget about critical theory. The first season of True Detective was a great detective show.
It was not literature, it was not an arthouse film, and it was not high culture. It was a detective show. And it worked primarily because it was perfectly centered on Matthew McConaughey and gave him all the room he needed to showboat. He wanted to prove we underestimated him, and the script gave him the exact framework to do that: soul torment, a vast period of time to probe the character’s life, and monologues relying more on melody more than meaning. Without McConaughey, the whole thing would sink.
But there were aesthetic components that propped him up. The deliberate cinematography and sleepy pacing made the whole show feel like a fever dream. T-Bone Burnett’s fractured, gothic Americana soundtrack hit all the requisite notes of alien dread. And the setting gave viewers a clean geographical slate. Rural Louisiana was not a location to which most of us brought any preexisting baggage. We just knew of its otherness.
And never mind Nic Pizzolatto’s Hollywood Reporter interview that made him sound like a guy who talks about the iconography of motorcycles to rationalize buying one.Reading interviews with TV writers will generally end in pain. More so if the interview is for an expensive trade publication and features posed photographs. The script did what it needed to do, and that is what mattered.
Now, after we’ve conclusively attached more weight to True Detective than it or any other show could ever withstand, the season two premiere has finally aired. And, at least on paper, it jettisoned most of what made the first season so special and surprising.
The main thing we’ve lost, at least so far, is an anchor. There are four leads in this show – Vince Vaughn is a crook trying to get out of the rackets, Colin Farrell is an alcoholic detective, Rachel McAdams is a troubled cop, and Taylor Kitsch is a CHP officer with PTSD – and none of them have established primacy.
The casting is fine but lacks obvious shock and awe potential. None of these actors seem equipped to go rock star, which is a troubling sign because so far Pizzolatto’s writing has needed rock stars to function. Consider an early scene where Taylor Kitsch has to contend with Pizzolatto’s “only Gene Hackman or Lee Marvin could even take a swing at this” dialogue. He has to say “the highway, it suits me.” This can actually be said, but it’s a landmine, and poor Taylor Kitsch explodes on contact. It doesn’t wash at all. Makes you want to turn the damn thing off, act like you saw all of it, and immediately issue a sweeping proclamation of the show’s failure.
The other three generally perform better. Rachel McAdams adeptly navigates her “cop who doesn’t talk about the past” role by looking earthy and wounded in a way the part doesn’t necessarily suggest yet. Colin Farrell handles “hard boozer up against the wall” by behaving like he’s actively killing himself with alcohol. And Vince Vaughn was born to play a crook trying to straighten out. He doesn’t have enough charisma for leading man roles but he has enough for the old dog who was once a puppy.
Surprisingly, he also has the best dramatic line reading of the first episode. It’s about nine minutes in. He’s getting dressed up and steadying his nerves for a big day at work. His significant other comes in. “Did you go to sleep?” she asks. And he says “nope.” His voice quivers and hangs on that word just right. You couldn’t ask for a better read. It’s more vulnerable and poignant than it needs to be.
The lack of an obvious center is a problem at this early stage because we don’t really know how these characters will work together. Chemistry has to be established to justify the ensemble over the individual, and the story hasn’t gotten there yet.
The story, which I won’t burden you by with picking at it too much, is that Vince Vaughn is trying to get in on a deal for a high-speed rail to central California, and there are the usual L.A. noir trappings of a dead body in a car and corruption that goes all the way to the top. More important, we are presented with four lives in various stages of disenfranchisement and destruction. This is fine. The first season got by mostly on character, and the story only mattered insofar as it made its characters evolve.
If anything, the story is getting in the way right now. There are far too many faces and names and angles to memorize. Most of the episode is the set up, and you wonder if you won’t be left with an overambitious “noir epic” that demands you do flash cards to make sure you’re on the same footing as the show from week to week.
The other thing we’ve lost is the location. The first season got a lot of mileage out of the Louisiana setting, because it had no obvious precedent. The landscape suggested anything could happen, that our rules of society didn’t apply in this wasteland. It was a place Hollywood film crews seldom went.
The move to Los Angeles is therefore a problem. We’ve seen Los Angeles rendered in a billion movies and TV shows. It’s brutally difficult to film there and accomplish anything unique. You know this terrain even if you haven’t been there. There aren’t any back roads a character can drive down that will truly surprise you. Los Angeles just doesn’t have the languid cosmic dread of Louisiana. It doesn’t have that otherness, and trying to force that aesthetic on it is only intermittently successful.
Though it would have been nice for the show to get out of L.A. county entirely, at the very least it films mostly on the outskirts. It looks for the wastelands, the roads tourists and film crews don’t take too often, and it usually finds them. It will never be as visually compelling as Louisiana, but it’s more compelling than other L.A. shows.
At the very least, the True Detective identity remains. Even with new characters and a distressingly obvious setting, it feels like a continuation of the same show. If you want a moody show about moody detectives making hard choices on the edge of oblivion in smoky dive bars, you’ll still get it, and everything that entails, right down to the stilted depictions of sexuality and heavy-handed grimness. You’ll wonder if Pizzolatto has lost his damn mind as the story gets more elaborate and the dialogue less rewarding. But you won’t wonder what show he’s making.