The Strange Gamble of True Detective (Vince Vaughn, Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams)

The first season of True Detective was a massive cultural phenomenon, spawning countless memes and spoofs that have swirled around the internet ever since. The phrase “Time is a flat circle” has gone from a vaguely profound adage, to an example of Nic Pizzolato’s supposed plagiarism, to a punchline. But despite most of the shows key images and scenes being reduced to parody, it remains undeniable that Season One of True Detective is a phenomenal piece of television. The moody atmosphere of backwater Louisiana along with Harrelson and Mcconaughey’s superb acting and Cary Fukunaga’s direction made the show unique. An excellent conglomeration that equaled more than the sum of its rather impressive parts.

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Which makes Season Two of True Detective such a head-scratcher. Nic Pizzolato seems to have abandoned everything that made the first season so great and basically started from scratch. The only connecting threads seem to be a gruesome crime and bad people trying to do good in an evil world. Which, granted, is basically just the criteria for a good noir story. And I have to hand it to Pizzolato, he took a massive gamble on the new season. It just seems odd what he chose to gamble on. Gone is the spooky, gothic landscape that turned the first season into a ghost story. Instead, we get the stunted bureaucracy of Southern California municipalities and shady real estate deals. Gone is the tightly focused character studies of two philosophically antithetical but similarly flawed men. Instead we get four good-hearted, but compromised people who all, more or less, have the same personality. The laser focus of season one is gone. Season two is sprawling, complicated. And that may be its biggest flaw.

The plot of season one was simple: A girl was murdered. Two young detectives catch her killer. Twenty years later, they find that they caught the wrong guy. So they reunite for one last go to fix their mistake. Easy. Brilliant in its simplicity. Pizzolato understood that a simple plot is the best environment for strong characters. It gives them more breathing room and less time the audience has to spend trying to parse what is happening. But season two is mired in byzantine details about business deals with people who’s first names we don’t know or forget immediately. The viewer has to work to hold onto every plot thread, and the pay off for doing so is usually just more people talking in a room. Instead of building tension, this causes the viewer to slip into boredom. At on point during episode three, the characters are investigating on an active film set. I found myself having the thought that I’d rather be watching that imaginary film than watch the show I was watching. That is not a good sign.

I might be willing to tolerate some of that, though, if it weren’t for the bloated cast of secondary characters. The number of named and significant characters in this new season is so massive that it makes it next to impossible to track the importance or relationships of anyone but the main five or six. But what’s even more disappointing is that not even the main cast is handled very well. It feels as if we’re supposed to glean a deep amount of importance from the long silences between Farrell and Adams or between Kitsch and the dark open roads of the LA highway system. This new season could be called Significant Glances: The Television Show. Perhaps it’s the writing. Perhaps it’s the departure of director Cary Fukunaga. But ultimately I can’t help but feel that this entire season was just simply miscast.

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With the occasional exception of Colin Farrell, all the actors seem to be working from the same template of “troubled-but-good-at-heart-fuck-up,” often with very little variation. Rachel McAdams’ character is a woman and Taylor Kitsch’s character is gay (or at least bisexual). At this point, those are really their only defining character traits. There’s a great deal of mugging for the camera and tough talking threats, but it doesn’t lead us to anywhere we haven’t been so many times before. What makes it even more frustrating are the moments of sheer brilliance that pop up from time to time, usually because of the acting. Vince Vaughn has a moment at the top of episode two where he tells his wife about a horrible experience in his youth that involved being locked in a basement and hungry rats. This offered a little glimmer of season one True Detective that made me want to scream when the next scene was all about the minutae of Vaughn’s character’s financial situation. At the beginning of episode four, Kitsch gives us a shocking and heartbreaking look at a man coming apart at the seams, cursing and screaming on the streets of LA. But two scenes later, he’s disappeared into the stoic, frowning visage that could be the face of a man with too many secrets or a guy who really needs to take a dump. These are all excellent actors who have excelled in other projects. I can’t help but wonder how someone like Michael Shannon or Amy Adams would do in a show like this, actors who have faces and styles made for noir. But McAdams, Vaughn, Farrell, Kitsch. They just seem out of place.

However, I am reserving ultimate judgment. The fact of the matter is that the season is only half over and has plenty of time to tie the loss threads and bizarre acting and writing choices into something on par with season one. I believe because I have faith in Nic Pizzolato.

And because of the last ten minutes of episode four.

I swear, if we return to the dreary bureaucracy and vague threats after the shocking and bloody shoot-out of this latest episode, I will stop watching. This is the shot in the arm True Detective has needed since the season premiere and the crux the season should be based on: our three detectives set-up an ambush that goes so wrong, at least twenty cops and civilians end up dead. Our heroes need a unifying struggle that isn’t just a rip-off of Chinatown. The staging was so expertly crafted, the acting so focused and kinetic, the shooting so intuitive and clear that I was literally pacing in front of the TV waiting to see what would happen. That is the reaction we’ve come to expect from True Detective. And here’s hoping Pizzolato has finally learned that.

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