True Detective‘s second season never stood a chance. After the bizarre cultural frenzy that grew around the show’s inaugural season, it was foolhardy to believe that such rare magic could be conjured up twice. There were too many variables that couldn’t be replicated, and more importantly the advantage of the unknown was now erased. Now people expected certain things out of True Detective, and if it didn’t deliver those things, it was doomed to disappoint.
But, what do we want out of this anthologized crime drama? Is it an accessible level of weirdness draped on an overarching mystery? Strong performances from actors whose heydays are either behind them or never really landed? Pulpy dialogue, moody soundtracks and two-fisted action? While these are all elements that one could use to describe True Detective, are they necessary in order to tell a good story with engrossing characters?
Pontificating aside, this season of True Detective at least delivered what I want out of the show: an adult tale told with cinematic flavor. That’s always been the real draw for me. Television has become what the Hollywood New Wave was in the late sixties and throughout most of the seventies, delivering uncompromising stories that don’t pander to those with lighter sensibilities. Ture Detective feels like it could have come from that same school of thought, and no matter what my eventual criticisms may convey, I’m very happy that it exists and hope that it continues to do so.
With all that out of the way, it’s going to be hard to defend this season, even if you leave out the easy target of comparing it to season one. The overall conspiracy became too muddled thanks to creator/writer Nic Pizzolatto believing he could sprawl his tale across a much larger cast of characters. It’s clear that Pizzolatto’s stories need a concentrated focus behind them in order to make them work, and with this season employing multiple directors and allowing Pizzolatto even more creative control, it looks like that focus was never in play. The spine of this season’s mystery never felt compelling or intriguing, and though some of that has to do with its more mechanical nature (delving into the inner machinations of corrupt city officials), it’s obvious that Pizzolatto’s reach exceeded his grasp.
Thankfully, True Detective continues to be a showcase of excellent acting talent, and if anything got me through a lot of the bumpiness of season two, it was the main cast. Colin Farrell had the unfair task of being this season’s Matthew McConaughey, but Farrell brought a sense of tragedy and regret to Ray Velcoro that felt unique. It’s his performance and character that I’ll remember most about this season. Vince Vaughn traded in his bargain bin rom-com status for palpable menace, and although his dialogue at times felt a little too flowery, he still managed to make Frank Semyon a wonderful addition to the stable of imposing mob bosses. Rachel McAdams balanced viciousness and vulnerability exceedingly well as Ani Bezzerides, and I’d love to see her tackle more hard-edged roles like this. Rounding things out was Taylor Kitsch, who until this season I had written off as a non-actor, but his turn as Paul Woodrugh showed me how wrong I was. Though Farrell will be who I remember the most from this season, it’s Kitsch who I was most surprised by.
Even though I found the cast and their characters enticing to follow week after week, they weren’t strong or cohesive enough to keep me fully invested in the plot. And although there were two exciting shootouts this season, the action didn’t make up for a feeling of languish that permeated most of the show’s running time. If there could have been a more streamlined mystery or a more directly interconnected plot (so much of this season felt like disjointed stories that somehow ended up being part of the whole), I think this season’s shortcomings wouldn’t have stood out so sharply. At the very least, the show concluded with a satisfying finale, but hopefully next season will be able to pepper those kinds of payoffs throughout its episode order.
True Detective‘s second season oddly feels like it should have been its first. There’s a sense of growing pains and figuring itself out that seems almost remedial after the wide-reaching metaphysical landscape of the first season. If the show is to continue, there needs to be some degree of simplification on Pizzolatto’s part. Whether that ends up being in the scope of the story, the size of the cast, or a combination of both, I don’t think True Detective will survive if it continues to broaden its sphere of storytelling. And even though this season wasn’t nearly as propulsive or thought-provoking as its predecessor, I very much want True Detective to continue.