There can be little doubt that the first season of HBO’s True Detective was a massive success. The show wasn’t entirely unprecedented, as the topic and subject matter had been tackled before in different formats and on other networks, but the factors that made it a runaway success start with HBO providing a commercial-free channel with no restrictions on content. From there, you have the strength of the writing, followed immediately by the attraction of two A-list stars, and then a supremely talented crew to work exclusively on an eight episode arc. Unprecedented? That’s arguable. But it was undoubtedly a pleasant surprise.
Now, on June 21st, six days from today, showrunner Nick Pizzolatto’s efforts to match or best his immaculate first swing of the bat will commence with the initial airing of the True Detective second season. And it’s going to be a dispiriting affair from start to finish. Here’s why.
Season one introduced us to one of the most instantly unforgettable characters in television history: Rustin Cohle. A nihilistic, stoic, Ligotti-spewing lost soul, Cohle’s obsessive nature made him perfect for detective work, particularly after the last remnants of his empathy were scored away by the untimely death of his young daughter. The story of True Detective was always Cohle’s odyssey from masking his pain behind pessimism to having his faith restored when confronted with death. His significantly more normal partner, Marty Hart, was the foil: an average Joe with equally deep emotional problems concealed by his conformist affability, he coaxes Cohle’s protestations, occasionally to his own chagrin. Locked in orbit due to their assignment, both men bring the best and worst out of their counterpart, never truly admitting that their toxic lives have left them needing each other.
This dynamic will be sorely missed in the following season of True Detective. Precious little has been made public about the characters: Ray Velcoro is a compromised, hard-drinking dick. Frank Semyon is a career criminal trying to go straight, and his wife Jordan struggles with their transition from an illicit lifestyle. Ani Bezzerides is a Sheriff’s detective at odds with the system she serves, and Paul Woodrugh is a motorcycle cop running from a dark past. These are your five protagonists, more than doubling the previous season’s complement. Given their disparate backgrounds, it’ll be hard to avoid stretching the narrative thin as we focus on how these people meet, interact, split up, and come back together over eight episodes.
It really doesn’t help that these descriptions sound like they tumbled out of a glossary of hard-boiled detective stock characters. Their attributes cross-pollinate, and lacking the singularity of the first season’s protagonist, they can only hold a mirror up to the dynamics between cops and criminals, the parable of corruption and decency that forms the basis for almost every police procedural you’ve ever seen. You can already feel these prototypes joining forces before an internecine struggle erupts, turning one against another more from a lack of understanding than genuine grievance. The type of thing Breaking Bad did so well over five seasons.
But this is not Breaking Bad, and it should not be held to that standard. Its success can primarily be determined based on whether it maintains or improves upon the quality of the first season. Unfortunately, the signs that season 2 of True Detective can’t match up doesn’t stop at the characters.
Nick Pizzolatto is the mastermind behind True Detective. There can be no doubting his writing chops, as he both created and wrote every single episode of the first season. Cary Fukunaga, the talented and multifarious director of Mexican thriller Sin Nombre and 2011’s adaptation of Jane Eyre, directed all eight episodes. The self-contained shooting schedule guaranteed the same production crew from one day to the next, and that level of cohesiveness elevated the continuity of the show’s look, style, and tone. There were abundant rumors that Pizzolatto and Fukunaga were at odds throughout production (preceded by admissions from Pizzolatto himself about his difficulties working with other writers), but this is not uncommon. Roman Polanski and Robert Towne parted ways over the conclusion of Towne’s screenplay for Chinatown, and there can be little doubt that the film was a classic as a result.
Fast forward to season 2. Pizzolatto is still running the show and writing the episodes, but Fukunaga is out as director, remaining as an executive producer. His position will be assumed by Justin Lin, whose artistic and financial success is limited to the Fast & Furious franchise, which is not a criticism. However, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that his directing style seems incongruous with True Detective’s established style. Worse yet, he’s only signed on for the first two episodes. Janus Metz Pedersen, whose experience is limited to television, has the third episode, and according to IMDB, no one is signed for the subsequent five.
Pizzolatto already has the thankless task of having a runaway success under his belt, making the expectation level too high to be tempered. The change in locale and increase in characters might help or hinder his efforts to rethink the series, but having a production crew in flux can only hurt. Remember, Robert Towne went on to have more control over his followup to Chinatown once Polanski was out of the picture, and he even fired his first director on the awful The Two Jakes. The duties were then overtaken by star Jack Nicholson, who returned to reprise his career-making role. Since True Detective is an anthology series, no actor is coming back from the first season, which brings us to the next problem…
Putting bonafide movie stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson on television was a game-changer. Both are in the midst of career upswings, but it’s hard to deny that McConaughey is the true rockstar right now. It helps that the two are friends and were able to contribute creatively to True Detective, with Harrelson bringing out more humor to humanize Marty while McConaughey wrote a 450 page dissertation on Rust. Both ended up being executive producers on the show.
Unfortunately, casting is where things get really dicey for the new True Detective. Following the issues with the characters, then the uneven production choices, the announcement that Christian Bale and Jessica Chastain were in talks to star was marred by Bale’s unceremonious exit, followed by Chastain’s. Joaquin Phoenix, Michael Fassbender, and Josh Brolin were rumored to be involved as well. Allegedly this has something to do with the show’s admittedly long shooting schedule, but that could just as easily be politesse. Maybe they disliked the script. Maybe the production atmosphere seemed toxic. This is meaningless speculation, because what followed was an announcement that Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn would headline the new series.
I have nothing personally against these actors or their careers to this point, but neither of them have the range to pull off something anywhere near the nuance and complexity of the first season. Farrell has been serviceable, even good in In Bruges, but can’t help but feel like a leftover given the names considered. That goes double for Vaughn, who has made a career out of a smug Bill Murray impression. His dramatic turn in Psycho was a disaster, and he frequently looks lost without a punchline. Try taking him seriously in The Break-Up.
The lone bright spot is that this season figures to have a more prominent role for women, something that brought the first season widespread criticism. Rachel McAdams seems to be well-cast, as she’s proven a knack for ensemble and supporting roles, particularly in Mean Girls and Sherlock Holmes. She’s joined by her co-star from the latter, namely Kelly Reilly, who has been uniformly incredible in everything from Eden Lake to Calvary.
The albatross, however, is Taylor Kitsch. This appropriately named former underwear model, who likely tired of striking poses in magazines and sought to instead strike poses in film, has tanked in every role he’s taken. After his cringe-worthy attempt at Gambit in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, he was handed the summer of 2012 on a silver platter, but his complete absence of charisma and acting talent rendered his headlining efforts in Battleship and John Carter inert. Now he’s playing someone with excessive body scarring, like a chiseled Kevin Spacey from the saccharine Pay it Forward, except Spacey had the talent to pull it off in spite of the movie itself being terrible. Kitsch, on the other hand, couldn’t act his way out of a porno.
When raising these issues with those following this True Detective production, the most common rejoinder is that similar criticism could be lobbed at McConaughey and Harrelson, given some of the stinkers on their track records. This is mythopoesis. Dazed and Confused, A Time to Kill, Amistad, and Frailty aren’t mistakes on McConaughey’s resume. His ascendancy didn’t begin with True Detective, he was already on the way up with The Lincoln Lawyer, Mud, Magic Mike, and Dallas Buyer’s Club, for which he won an Oscar. Harrelson hasn’t been a slouch in that department either, netting two nominations for The People vs. Larry Flynt and The Messenger. Don’t forget about Wag the Dog, The Thin Red Line, and No Country for Old Men. In fact, there are six Golden Globe nominations between the two of them. The five members of the new class have combined for one.
Of course, what matters the most is whether or not these actors are suited to these roles. It has yet to be seen, and most of them are cast against type, but that isn’t always a good thing. It certainly shouldn’t matter whether or not these actors are awards-caliber, since the issue at hand is more abstract than a trophy.
In spite of all other factors, the ethereal nature of True Detective may be the unknowable saving grace of the series. The first go was littered with seemingly esoteric references, tightened in the ripcord that was the final episode. The larger metaphors about humanity were likewise reflected in the little things that made repeat viewings immensely more enriching. A dozen subtleties would lead up to a scene of a half-naked man wearing a gasmask and wielding a machete, or a six-minute tracking shot of a drug score gone wrong. Well-executed but formulaic scenes displaying Cohle’s expertise in everything from suspect interrogation to breaking and entering were offset by his hallucinations, some of which leave enough questions behind to cast doubt as to whether the events surrounding the central crime were supernatural or not. More than anything else, these are the intangibles that make True Detective worth watching and ensure its legacy as one of the most talked-about shows of this generation.
While the elements of the new season are not in doubt, the execution remains in question. If Pizzolatto arguably revitalized the procedural police drama, he’s guaranteed to have more up his sleeve. He’s said the success of the first season doesn’t intimidate him, but rather makes him feel free to explore even darker subject matter. His interview with Hitfix hinted at the content of the second season:
Okay. This is really early, but I’ll tell you. Hard women, bad men and the secret occult history of the United States transportation system.
An unsourced comment on the True Detective IMDB page suggests the initial comment was a joke. Whether that is true or not, he took it back in a later interview with Medium, but not before it had the chance to proliferate:
There’s definitely bad men and hard women, but no secret occult history of the U.S. transportation system. That was a comment from very early in the process, and something I ended up discarding in favor of closer character work and a more grounded crime story.
Not that my opinion matters, but in the din of casting and development, this was the only news from the horse’s mouth that I found intriguing, and it sounds as though Pizzolatto has given up on the conceit. This revelation, paired with the archetypal nature of the announced characters, sent up the red flag that inspired this article.
I approached the first season of True Detective with no particular prejudice, hearing very little about it, since I apparently live in a bubble, and operating in a state of blissful ignorance as it unfolded. Now, my level of investment far outweighs my ability to realistically gauge the success or failure of how this grist will be milled. If the new season is anything less than spectacular, it will be labeled a failure whether it is or not. All signs point to a ubiquitous critical and commercial drubbing.
However, if I’m wrong, I look forward to the crow I’m going to eat. It will be both delicious and worth it.