Season two of True Detective was a sprawling epic, a beautiful, enthralling, if at times messy, masterpiece. It was less tightly scripted than season one, and therefor its flaws were more noticeable, but it also exceeded the first season in scope, ambition, and I would argue, great moments. (Both seasons had flaws, but I will get to why they not only pale next to their accomplishments, but were also probably inevitable given the ambition of the series.) It was absolutely stacked with ideas and social commentary, it was batshit crazy with many moments of absurdly dark humor, and it managed to play homage to a genre, while at the same time upending the conventions of that same genre.
Creator Nic Pizzolatto took big risks with season two. It’s almost as if he was trying to pack this season with everything he ever wanted to say, as if, in the fickle world of television, he didn’t know if he wasn’t going to get a another chance. It reminded me of the idea of early punk rock where you play every song like it is going to be your last. Anytime one is swinging for the fences one risks the chance of whiffing hard, and certain scenes didn’t work, but overall I felt he connected way more than he missed.
– Before I go any further I want to explain that I am going to write as if all of you have seen the show, so there will be spoilers. However, I hope that those of you that didn’t can still get something out of this, that this review will still help you decide if you should watch this show or not. –
Every aspect of this show was packed with information. This, of course, includes the visuals. I loved the ariel shots of freeways that seemed to show civilization as some kind of blight on the natural world. How often does a TV show have images in it that make you look at the world differently? There were also little subversive jokes included in the images. There is a shot of an industrial zone, pumping out pollution, in which there is an American flag at the center of it. Also, a comically corrupt mayor has pictures behind him where he is hugging George W. Bush. But this isn’t heavy handed social commentary, these are blink and you’ll miss them moments. This is background information contributing to the overall feel and outlook of the show.
The show was noir in genre, paying homage to everything from the surrealist noir of David Lynch to gritty realism of China Town. However, almost all noir is sexy, even when the sex is dangerous. However, the sex in this show was actually presented as visually unsettling and damaging. One of the main set-pieces in the show was an orgy held for the 1%. It was filmed like a fantastic nightmare sequence. There was nothing appealing about the sex in this or almost any other scene. Even Lynch, one of my favorite directors, who has scenes of extremely disturbing imagery, often also has elements in his movie that have an old Hollywood sexiness to them. Even when Ray Velcoro, played by Colin Farrell, and Ani Bezzerides, played by Rachel McAdams, finally connect and have sex, the warmth in those scenes seems to be despite of the sex. Despite of their fallen humanity, despite the damage that these two characters have, they are able to form a connection based on love, a noble and all too rare tribute of the human species.
But if I am making the show seem serious, it is also laugh-out-loud, batshit insane funny. The humor is jet black, but it is there in spades. No one gets to capitalize on this more than Colin Farrell, who makes the most out of every scene he is in. In one scene he does coke and goes through every human emotion in the space of a minute, going from shadow boxing to weeping. He threatens a 12 year old bully in a way that is not only menacing, but so funny I had to rewatch it several times over just to believe what I was seeing. He flat out kills the great one liners that the script gives him, as does McAdams.
So many of the actors deliver, not only the leads I mentioned, but also many of the character actors as well. Special note must be made of Ritchie Coster, as the sleazy mayor, and W. Earl Brown, as an alcoholic detective straight out of a Raymond Chandler novel. With much less screen time than the leads they deliver characters that can’t be forgotten.
This season did have flaws, but when it did it felt like someone overreaching, not like someone settling for middle of the road. Vince Vaughn’s character was a mixed bag, and I can’t tell if it was the acting or the writing. But even he had his moments. There were certain scenes that felt like they could have been better, like the final shootout that both Velcoro and Vaughn’s character, Frank Semyon, participated in.
But I can’t even really hold these against the show, because it delivered so many moments of the interesting, the intelligent, and the weird. Many of the criticisms leveled at the show focused on the fact that creator Pizzolatto wrote everything himself. They seemed to say that he needed a room of writers to temper his creative sensibilities. But if you were to do that, you might just end up with a television show that, even if it was tighter from a narrative perspective, also would have excluded the show’s more eccentric moments.
There is a Lynchian dream sequence early in the show, after Velcoro is shot, in which a Conway Twitty impersonator is seen singing Twitty’s version of The Rose. (seen above) This isn’t the kind of thing you are going to have delivered to you in your average cops and robbers show. I’m always happy when I watch something and I feel like the form is being expanded.
Critics were also harsh in comparing season two to season one. However, I feel like this is misguided. This is like criticizing Moby Dick for not being Billy Budd. Season one was fantastic, but it was a tightly scripted genre story thats strength came from the unique dialog, the excellent visual aesthetics, and the great performances of the leads. Season two was an overstuffed epic that was messy at times, but was also great because of its messy all consuming nature. When you read Moby Dick it can be hard to make it through the sections on whales, but those sections of the book expand the world of the novel. I’m not saying that season two is a classic on scale with Moby Dick, but if you view it as something different than your typical genre story, if you can appreciate its expansive nature, I think you can begin to see its many and very real merits.
Often great shows are not appreciated in their time. Twin Peaks and Deadwood, two of the greatest shows ever, were terminated before their time. Both shows, years after they have gone off the air, are in talks to be revived, because people now appreciate them for the masterpieces they were. (Twin Peaks is definitely being revived, Deadwood is only in talks at the time of this writing.) It’s too early to tell if True Detective will hold up over the long haul, though every day since I watched it I find myself liking even it’s faults more. Over time certain things lose their luster, while other things only get better through repeated viewings. But the point that I want to make is that things that break new ground are often not appreciated in their time because they do not conform to preconceived notions of what they should be. Things that reach for greatness, that expand their form, that are complex, are often not understood by a great deal of people when they first appear. Many people want things in safe little packages. Things that take risks often confound audiences at first. It’s only after something’s influence is felt, as safer and lesser versions of something invade the marketplace, that the original thing more understood. People learn to interpret things over time.
But I think there is no doubt that Pizzolatto is reaching for greatness through True Detective’s season two. He has something to say. He knows the noir genre and is trying to expand the form. It’s not perfect, but that is one fallouts generated by the risk of of actually trying to do something new. It may be messy at times, but it is also beautiful, frightening, funny, intelligent, and loaded with interesting moments. I think years from now, although of course there is no way of knowing, when lesser safer versions of this same story are told, we will be glad that we had this original of the species to view. In my opinion, Pizzolatto got to the mountaintop. If he stumbled slightly along the way, that is of little concern.
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