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Josh Reviews True Detective Season 2

I watched both the first and the second seasons of True Detective several months after they aired.  For season one, after months of reading rapturous praise for the new show, I just had to see what all the fuss was about.  (Click here for my review.)  For season two, after reading critic after critic trash the show, I was deeply curious to see if the sophomore season was truly the train-wreck that everyone was claiming.

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It is not.  True Detective season two is a far cry from the masterpiece that was season one, but it’s not the catastrophe you might have heard it was.  Season two has some deep flaws, but I nevertheless found it to be a wonderfully complex, delightfully grim and nihilistic piece if work. It’s a great noir for television.

This season has two main weaknesses.  First, it’s nearly impossible to follow.  I had praised season one for being unapologetically adult and complicated in its storytelling.  This was a show with a tremendously complex plot, and it didn’t slow down to hold the audience’s hands and explain things.  I loved that about season one, even as I was certain there were details I was missing on a first viewing.  I like a show that will reward multiple viewing.  But I feel that here in season two that has been taken too far to an extreme.  There are so many different characters and agendas in season two, and such a complicated web of plot and circumstance, that I had an enormous amount of difficulty in following it all.

The season’s second, and connected, weakness is its failure to properly identify all of the supporting characters.  There are a lot of background characters who I feel the show, to have worked this season, needed to more clearly define and identify for viewers.  Here’s an example: Frank is upset by Stan’s death in the third episode, “Maybe Tomorrow,” but we never really knew who Stan was or what he meant to Frank.  This is exacerbated in the sixth episode, “Church in Ruins,” when Frank and Jordan visit Stan’s widow and son.  It took me a long while to figure out just who the heck they were visiting.  Vince Vaughn was wonderful in the scene with Stan’s son, but that whole scene would have meant so much more had we had time to care at all about Stan and his death.  This failure to clarify the identities of all of the supporting players really cripples the show when the reveals start to come in the later episodes of the season.  Characters refer to names of characters as if they were supposed to mean something, but I had little to no idea who any if then were!  I am a very attentive TV viewer, but I had enormous difficulty keeping track of who was who and putting faces to the names that kept getting mentioned.

Creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto chose to focus on four leads this season instead of the two he had in season one.  Because of the problems with the over-complexity of the narrative this season, that might have been a mistake.  But I will say that I enjoyed the change in structure, and I enjoyed the performances of all four leads.  (Well, truthfully, three out of the four leads.)

Some slight spoilers ahead as I dive into my analysis.  Very slight spoilers, but if you haven’t yet watched season two, please beware.

Vince Vaughn has been getting trashed for his work on the show, playing the criminal Frank Semyon, but it feels to me like everyone has been watching a different show than I was.  I loved Mr. Vaughn’s work as Frank!  I was fascinated by the character of Frank, and I really like Mr. Pizzolatto’s choice to have one of the four leads in his detective show be a criminal, rather than someone working in law enforcement.  I thought Frank got most of the season’s best lines, and I quite enjoyed his story-line.  The idea of a criminal trying to “get out” is a familiar one, but I felt Mr. Pizzolatto did a great job in allowing Frank’s story to play out in unexpected ways.  I found myself constantly uncertain how Frank would handle the situations he found himself faced with, and deeply engaged with watching his story unfold.  It’s fun seeing Mr. Vaughn play a bad-ass rather than a comedic character, and I thought he did solid work.

Also impressive was Colin Farrell as detective Ray Velcoro.  Ray begins the show as one of the most despicable scum-bags I have seen on television in quite a while, something particularly stark considering he was theoretically one of the show’s heroic leads.  Ray was the hardest character to watch in the season’s first two episodes, but then he gets shot at the end of episode 2 (an awesome cliff-hanger ending, by the way), and that near-death experience shakes him out of the self-destructive cycle his life had been up to that point.  I enjoyed the way the arc that Mr. Pizzolatto wrote for Ray played out.  He doesn’t turn instantly into a saint — he is still deeply messed up, and he continues to make some terrible choices as the season progresses — but from that point we can see him trying, struggling to re-shape his life.  He’s convinced that he is a bad man, as he admits to Bezzerides in a beautiful scene late in the season, but he’s trying to do better.  It’s impressive that by the end of the season I was rooting for that dirtbag who we saw in the premiere episode brutally terrorizing a boy who had been mean to his son and beating up his father.  Ray’s horror in episode 5, “Other Lives,” at discovering that he might have murdered the wrong man was a standout moment from the season for me, and a hugely impressive piece of acting from Colin Farrell.  I have for years felt that Colin Farrell was a better actor than he was generally given credit for being, and it’s nice to see him have dramatic material in this show that he could really sink his teeth into.

Same goes for Rachel McAdams’ work as Ani Bezzerides.  I was pleased that Mr. Pizzolatto chose to include a female as one of his leads, following the very male-centric season one.  Watching the first few episodes, that pleasure was dimmed somewhat by the extremely non-feminine way in which Bezzerides was portrayed.  It was as if Mr. Pizzolatto had decided to include a female character but screw his critics by basically making her a male.  But by the end of the season I found myself quite liking the character of Bezzerides.  As with Ray and Frank, this character had an interesting arc.  Ms. McAdams did particularly wonderful work in episode seven, “Black Maps and Hotel Rooms,” in which Bezzerides finally began to come to terms with what happened to her as a child.  Those moments were, for me, a wonderful highlight of the strengths and weaknesses of the episodic television format.  On the one hand, I found myself wishing I’d known more of Bezzerides’ backstory far earlier in the season.  That would have allowed me to better understand her, and to care more about her, as the season got underway.  On the other hand, it’s also right that we wouldn’t just get given everything about our characters’ backstories right at the beginning.  That’s why we go on this journey, and that’s how this sort of “novel for television” has to work, that we gradually discover more and more about our characters.  Anyways, I enjoyed watching Ms. McAdams play Bezzerides’ transformation over the course of the eight episodes.  While Ray was changed by his getting shot at the end of episode two, it was Bezzerides’ experiences in the orgy house in episode six that shook her to her core.  I really enjoyed seeing the somewhat calmer, more thoughtful Ani who emerged from that experience — I wish we’d had more of a chance to explore that version of the character before the show ended!

Taylor Kitsch played Paul Woodrugh, and he was, for me, the least interesting of the four leads.  I’ve never really understood what Hollywood sees in Taylor Kitsch.  Now, I’ve never seen Friday Night Lights, which I know is much beloved, so maybe if I ever saw that I’d get it.  But I thought he was terribly miscast as Gambit in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (though, to be fair, how anyone could not look terrible in that abominably horrendous film is hard to fathom) and that he was an equally wrong choice to play John Carter in the failed John Carter film.  At least I can say that Mr. Kitsch seems like a better casting choice here as Woodrugh, the screwed-up, former military, adrenaline-chasing highway patrolman.  But boy did I get tired of his silent squinting by the end of these eight episodes.  It didn’t help that I felt that Woodrugh’s story was the least fleshed out of the four leads, and the one that seemed to reach the least resolution.  I love Mr. Pizzolotto’s choice in giving us the shocking moment at the end of episode seven, “Black Maps and Motel Rooms,” but while that was a terrific moment on its own it left me wondering just what the point was of all of Woodrugh’s dangling story-lines.  So, did he or did he not do what he was accused of with that Hollywood actress?  And what was up with his army buddy who he met up with early in the season?  Was it really just all a coincidence that his buddy looked him up at the same time that all those former military guys were starting to work as security for Catalyst (the corrupt construction organization), all the while Paul was being trailed and photographed by Dixon??  (That seems to be the suggestion given in “Black Maps and Hotel Rooms.”)  None of that felt like it came together in anything approaching a satisfying way.  One nice thing I can say about Woodrugh’s arc: I enjoyed that he turned out to be the sharpest investigator of the bunch, putting together many of the details of the land-scheme after he swipes the contracts from the orgy.  When Ray and Ani are waiting for him to return to the motel where they’re holed up, it’s funny and tragic that we see them talking about how Woodrugh will be able to figure out more of the details of their case.

Some more thoughts about season two:

I loved the new opening credits and the new theme song.  Mesmerizing.

I loved the shift of setting to California.  Yes, of course the connections found this season between crime and California land purchases makes one think of Chinatown, but I enjoyed Mr. Pizzolatto’s explorations of those themes.

I loved the weirdness of Ray’s near-death dream at the start of episode 3, “Maybe Tomorrow.”  Getting to see that moment was an unusually playful moment for the show.  It was also a heartbreaking look inside Ray’s head, and his relationship with his father.

In that same episode, we see Ray and Bezzerides visit a movie set, where we see a director who bears quite a close resemblance to the season one director, Cary Fukunaga.  Seeing as how that director is not depicted all that favorably, it seems like a surprisingly public insult to Mr. Fukunaga, who was not back for season two.  I guess he and writer Nic Pizzolatto didn’t get along?  Whatever the relationship between the two men, the dig feels very petty to me.  The inclusion of that Fukunaga-like caricature left a sour taste in my mouth.

One of the highlights of season one was the incredible single-take action sequence, “eight minutes of hell,” in episode four, “Who Goes there.”  Season two’s attempt to create an equally memorable action sequence was the crazy public shoot-out, also at the end of episode four, “Down Will Come.”  That was certainly an edge-of-my-seat sequence but it doesn’t hold a candle to the technical achievement of that one-take season one sequence.  It was also weakened by feeling so over-the-top and out-of-the-blue.  To see the show suddenly erupt into a humongous shoot-out felt as out-of-place tonally, to me, as the events were a huge shock and surprise to our characters.  The show didn’t, for me, establish nearly well enough just what our characters were doing at that sweat shop, why they were there and what or who they were hoping to find, for that sequence to have the weight it needed.

I did love the time jump that we got between episode four and five, “Other Lives.”  That was a fun surprise.  The shift forward in time was lengthy enough to be a nice reshuffling of the board and our characters’ situations, while not so dramatic a leap that it felt like an overused cliche.  (The type of dramatic time-shift that was so shocking when Battlestar Galactica did it almost a decade ago has become rather overplayed in the years since.)

The orgy sequence in episode six,”Church in Ruins,” was a low point of the season for me.  It seemed absolutely ludicrous that Bezzerides would go into that party, alone, with just Paul and Ray for backup.  Throughout the sequence, I kept asking my wife: “What is she hoping to accomplish?  Who or what is she hoping to find?”  It seemed ridiculous.  And the Eyes Wide Shut staging of the orgy in the fancy mansion made the whole thing seem sillier than I’m sure was intended.

Great moment: Bezzerides’ former partner Elvis spurning her handshake in favor of a hug in episode seven, “Black Maps and Motel Rooms.”  At the time of that moment, I wasn’t 100% certain he could be trusted, but I’m glad it worked out that he could.  It was a rare warm moment in this incredibly bleak, nihilistic season.

The season’s finale, “Omega Station,” was a mixed bag.  I didn’t love that Bezzerides got sidelined in the final moments.  Why wasn’t she out in action with Ray and Frank in the climax??  In the end it was because of the revelation that she was pregnant, but that felt like the wrong narrative move for her character.  She was a fighter, not a damsel who needed to be saved by the men.  And Ray’s ridiculous digression to go see his son was such a predictable bad idea that I was groaning.

Frank’s final moments were very sad.  The slight quiver on Vince Vaughn’s lips right before Frank looks back to see himself, having fallen a few steps previously, was wonderful.  I really liked that character and was rooting for him!

In the end, Bezzerides tells the story to a reporter, which fits into the “everything’s a story” idea from season one (in which much of the events were versions told by Rusty or Marty), but which didn’t seem to fit as well thematically into this second season.

I loved Nails, and I loved getting at last in the finale an explanation for his scar, his name, and his loyalty to Frank.  How about a spin-off focusing on Nails, huh??

To draw this to a close, season two of True Detective was surprisingly quite a mixed bag, coming off of the confident genius of season one.  That season was built on the strength of Nic Pizzolatto’s writing, Cary Fukunaga’s directing (Mr. Fukunaga directed all eight episodes in season one), and the incredible performances of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey.  With only Mr. Pizzolatto’s returning, from that team of four men, for season two, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that season two was unable to recapture the magic of season one.  Still, I continue to enjoy the uniqueness of Mr. Pizzolatto’s writing, and I enjoyed the immersion in this new world of crime and corruption that was presented to us in season two.  I still found quite a lot to enjoy this season, and I’m eager to see where Mr. Pizzolatto and his team take us for what will hopefully be a season three next year.

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