We all knew that True Detective season two was going to be totally different than season one: new cast, new case, new setting. But it seemed hopeful that the new episodes would keep the weird magic—that thing distinguishing True Detective from a zillion other cop shows—alive. So far, not so much.
That’s not to say I’m turning my back on the show; hell, with only two episodes remaining, there’s no way I’m going to miss tuning in to find out who really killed Ben Caspare, and what nasty and probably fully justified reason he/she/they had to remove his eyeballs.
And I’d sure like to find out what ties Ani Bezzerides’s father (a New Age cult leader who’s old pals with certain corrupt bigwigs, including dirty dirtbag Mayor Chessani) and Ray Velcoro’s father (an ex-cop who did something during the Los Angeles riots that’s still haunting him ... maybe involving blue diamonds and masked murders?) to the big, stinking mess that is Vinci, California.
Three things. That’s all I’m actually dying to find out at this point, in a show that’s overstuffed with subplots that tend to roadblock the good stuff and bring the narrative to a screeching halt. In fact, that’s the first point in my rant of ways True Detective should have worked this season, but didn’t: too many superfluous plot threads. For example, the “Paul Woodrugh is secretly gay but is stubbornly denying it and marrying the girlfriend he was only able to impregnate by choking down Viagra” and the “Paul did some thieving secret stuff in Afghanistan” threads better be leading somewhere, otherwise that’s a lot of time wasted in the name of character-building that adds nothing to the story. At least the drawn-out drama involving Ray’s son, which was really starting to wear thin, was resolved in episode six.
Some of the plot threads, however, are far from superfluous, and actually link up in interesting ways. (As the show’s fondness for aerial shots of the jumbled arteries of the SoCal freeway system remind us, crime and corruption ’tis a tangled world indeed.) The relationship between Frank and Ray is a believable one, two men who live by similar codes of honor despite (usually) occupying opposite sides of the law. Sure, their paths will cross over the years; Vinci is a small town, and it makes sense that, given their interests, they’d both be involved in the Caspare investigation. This season has also spent a lot of time crafting parallel themes that echo among its characters: addiction, trying to overcome a troubled past (or at least not allowing said past to totally fuck up the present and future), absent or cruel fathers, and the struggles of being a parent in general. Mostly, that’s been an effective tactic.
But True Detective has also gotten some well-deserved criticism for including too many coincidences this season. Just an example: in episode one, Ani is serving a foreclosure notice to a woman who pleads with her to help find her missing sister. Who happens to have been last seen in Guerneville, near where Ani’s family is from. And who happens to be nearly passing out on herself at the sex party Ani infiltrates in episode six. What luck! What convenient, convenient, screenwritten luck.
While it’s impossible to say how True Detective season two would have been received without the specter of season one looming over it, some of its elements seem to have been included by creator and writer Nik Pizzolatto as a direct rebuttal to the criticisms he weathered last year. A big complaint was season one’s lack diversity among its main characters. Women on the show were either murder victims, prostitutes, or married to/secretly sleeping with Woody Harrelson. Season two still has female murder victims and even more prostitutes, but Frank Semyon’s wife, Jordan, has an active role in the plot (even if she doesn’t have much control over Frank’s increasingly questionable decision-making).
And, of course, we got a female cop this time: the tough, damaged Ani, whose brittle anger at the world is a direct reaction to all the men in it. So yeah, more women. Interesting, complicated women. This is progress. But while there’s a range of races included among the ensemble (including, uh, lots of Mexican gangsters), all of the lead characters are white, just as they were in season one.
The change in scenery from Louisiana to Los Angeles, and the accompanying tone shift from horror to noir, seemed intriguing at the outset. And while there’s been some concession to spookiness, as others have pointed out (Caspere’s missing eyes; the gun-toting crow; Rick Springfield’s kooky doc reading Carlos Castaneda), as well as just offbeat weirdness (the Black Rose dive bar as a meeting point, complete with Conway Twitty impersonator), it’s definitely not as prominent here. And it’s missed. Kudos for trying a more hard-boiled approach, but half the fun of season one was parsing all that crazy Carcosa business and looking for Easter eggs along the way. (Sorry, but switching up the song lyrics of the theme song midseason isn’t the same.)
And while Ray fills the “haunted lawman” role somewhat, he’s nowhere near as magnetic as Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, a character so compelling people are still quoting the “Time is a flat circle” speech. I saw a guy dressed as Rust Cohle for Halloween last year! Will I see any Ray Velcoros this year? Ahhhh ... probably not.
It’s worth noting that season two also made a major shift behind the camera, handing off directing duties to a variety of helmers rather than sticking with one throughout. If Pizzolatto had kept Cary Fukunaga around (not likely; they famously butted heads, and Fukunaga supposedly supplied the inspiration for the “asshole director” character that appears this season), perhaps the show would have sustained its tension better.
But writer Pizzolatto isn’t without fault, either. Though McConaughey’s existential blather could be pretentious, at least it was interesting (and, as previously noted, highly quotable). For all of the enjoyable turns of phrase this season (my favorite so far has been Ani’s father to Ray: “Excuse me...you have one of the biggest auras I’ve ever seen”), there have been twice as many clunkers. And now we have just episodes left to see if this season can still turn out to be, as Frank would say, “pure gold.” Cringe.