Everyone knew True Detective (2014) was going to have a real challenge topping its first season. Rarely does a show come out of the gate with the captivating power seen in True Detective’s first eight episodes. They were rich, complicated, dark, and gripping. The show's two central detective characters (played by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson) were believably flawed with polar opposite views on life. They fused their strong relationship over a shared need to solve a brutal string of ritualized homicides. While some critics bemoaned the season’s ending, the journey to get there proved so engaging that the show still left a (mostly) positive legacy.
Season Two’s pilot episode seemed to struggle as it tried too hard to imitate the successes of its past, unfortunately rendering the new season premiere half-baked. Similarly, there has already been evidence of the show failing to fix any of its first-season criticisms (naming a few: awkward narrative structure, poor representations of women, pretentious exposition); instead the new season includes almost all of them in a single episode. Scott Meslow of The Week remarks, “it feels like creator Nic Pizzolatto has taken every criticism leveled against True Detective's first season and built a new show out of it.”
I’ll admit, I was underwhelmed with the first episode, but I still plan to see how things pan out. What follows is analysis based only on the single episode of available criteria as it compares to last Season's.
The most integral elements of Season One were its characters and their dialogue - it introduced us to Rust (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty (Woody Harrelson), two damaged antiheroes who offered plenty of reasons to dislike them, yet inspired the audience to root in their favor. Rust’s nihilism bordered on preachy and brooding, yet somehow charming and often downright hilarious. Half of his dialogue seemed like he was reading from suicide notes or manifestos of serial killers, yet he was neither of those things. Rust was honest with his views and honest with himself, unlike Marty, who was an advocate for hypocrisy under the outward image of a good guy. The two not only served as foils of one another, but as the season evolved, used their differences to teach each other about themselves and about life. They had a rapport with audiences from their first moments on-screen, and their performances made up for the show’s other minor deficiencies.
Season Two brings us four characters all of whom possess even more abundant miserable qualities than Rust or Marty, but so far, none of the charm. The new characters don't meet each other until the last minute of the episode, after we view 58 minutes of unimpressive buildup.
Brooding characters, their inner misery, sour cynicism, and artfully expository dialogue helped define the first season of True Detective. Those same things might just be the downfall of Season Two.
The “lead” cop Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) is an alcoholic who puts on brass knuckles, punches the face of the dad of a kid who bullied his son, and tells the kid if he bullies anyone again “I’ll come back and buttf*** your father with your mom’s headless corpse on this lawn.”
Next is a move of characterizing women through sex frequently lambasted in Season 1 and back for more this time around when we meet Ani Bezzerides (Rachael McAdams), a cop introduced through a scene indicating her bedroom preferences are too hardcore for her sexual partner. Ani tries to convince her sister to stop doing porn through the veil of a misguided police raid, and then we find out her father (David Morse) is the head of some religious camp. He gives her advice like “You’re angry at the entire world, and men in particular, out of a false sense of entitlement for something you’ve never received.” It’s pound-you-over-the-head exposition with no context.
We also have Paul (Taylor Kitsch), a cop put on leave after refusing a roadside BJ from a woman he pulled over, who can’t manage an erection when his girlfriend is throwing herself at him (the second female character introduced through sex), was in the army, and has weird burns/scars all over his body. His character takes to driving 100mph down the highway on a motorcycle as a form of release. That’s pretty much it. He’s the least attended-to and dullest cop character of the premiere. He doesn’t even get a lot of dialogue, just a lot of face-acting and close-ups of his eyes that open to different widths.
Finally, there’s Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn), the enterprising mobster. He’s given many of Pizzolato’s more ridiculous pieces of dialogue (“Never do anything out of hunger. Not even eating.”) and throws glasses at walls. I’m all for comedians taking a turn into dramatic acting - it’s occasionally brilliant to watch - but this might not be the best material for Vaughn’s segue. His character is painfully dull, and the lines he has to deliver are so unnatural coming out of his mouth.
The acting from everyone involved was appropriate for True Detective, but what they’re given to work with inspires zero relatability or compassion from the audience. Is Colin Farrel’s kid actually his, or a rapebaby from his victimized wife? What happened to Taylor Kitsch’s character that makes him such a shell? Why is Rachel McAdams so angsty? Sadly, it's hard to really care. They’re all stereotypes -- from the abusive alcoholic to the overly-tough woman with something to prove, to the assumably PTSD guy. The character relationships in Season One left me desperate for more within minutes of the premiere’s end. With this premiere, I actually looked forward to the episode being over. Everyone seems miserable just to be miserable, which does not make for enjoyable television watching. Hopefully that trend doesn’t continue.
Erin Whitney of the Huffington Post says, “I love that each of these characters are lost souls struggling to find purpose, but it's difficult to actually feel anything while watching them. They felt less palpable and dimensional than Rust's Lone Star can cutouts from last year… We were all wowed by Rust and Marty's story because it was so richly embedded in literature, philosophy and the psychology behind the season's crimes, and it felt certain of its direction from the start. Now, though, these three lost detectives, and the truth behind the dead city manager, fall as flat as Rust's metaphorical circle.”
Turning towards aesthetics, Cary Fukunaga directed every episode of Season One, and did so brilliantly. He painted a beautiful picture of the Louisiana landscape that made the environment a character in itself. He’s still an executive producer for Season Two, but isn’t doing anything behind the camera.
Justin Lin directed this first episode of Season Two, the same director of the 3rd-6th Fast & Furious films, and the upcoming Star Trek 3 (2016). Lin loved using overhead shots and painted a very True Destective-esque portrait of gritty Vinci, CA, but the cinematography somehow fell flat; it lacked the deeper undercurrents of hypocrisy and mysticism that tied the narrative to the landscape that Fukunaga portrayed in the first series. But that may not be entirely Lin's fault. What worked so well in True Detective Season One was the way Fukunaga’s direction and Pizzolatto’s writing meshed so well, and that rhythm hasn't yet caught on for Season Two. Lin did make some interesting directorial choices in this premiere - the camera trickery in the episode’s bar scene was clever, ultimately revealing that Vince Vaughn and Colin Farrell’s characters were sitting in the same booth. It seems Lin did an acceptable job with what was given to him.
As Scott Meslow of The Week points out, “Individual shots are often strikingly beautiful, repurposing the basic visual language established by Cary Fukunaga (who directed the entirety of the first season) for the sprawling Los Angeles metropolitan area. But the pacing is completely listless; there are scenes so languorous that they become unintentionally goofy, as Farrell and Vaughn silently glower at each other for so long that it looks like they've begun an impromptu staring contest.”
Season One used a back-and-forth time jump to take viewers between modern-day Rust and Marty recounting their experiences solving a crime from their past. The time jumping was seamless and easy to follow, pieced together in a way that made it fuel the drama. The pacing of Season Two's first episode was very complex and confusing, alluding to a lot of different contextual histories without explaining any of them. Hopefully the pacing will find its groove within the next few installments or it will definitely turn people away. It's one thing to have to focus attention completely to follow a program's narrative - it's another to do so and still not be able to follow what's happening.
Ultimately, True Detective purports to be a murder mystery, and we have yet to find out anything regarding how interesting its mystery may be. Season One gave us a corpse within minutes, and while that's not a necessity, Season Two spent 1/8 of its total runtime setting up the crime and introducing its cast before a body is found, so now we'll get to follow the next seven episodes to see how the mystery plays out.
If the characters don't improve, hopefully the crime will be compelling enough to stick with, or by the end of this season viewers will find themselves looking for a pair of Colin Farrell's kid's shoes to steal so they can get knocked out.