TV critic David Bianculli once stated, “It is easy, and not at all inaccurate, to divide dramatic series television into two eras: Before Hill Street Blues 1981-1987… and after.” He credits the NBC crime drama with two revolutionary innovations that would become the genre norm (although both had been staples of daytime soap operas for years). The first was to replace the single lead with an ensemble cast. The second is that it replaced the standard episodic plot line, where each episode told a single self-contained story, to a narrative arc that would go over an entire season. However, Bianculli leaves out perhaps Hill Street Blues’ greatest contribution to American television.
In season three, its viewers were introduced to the corrupt detective Sal Benedetto, played by Dennis Franz. Layered with several reprehensible qualities, Benedetto was clearly a villain. Franz’s portrayal was so riveting that he would later come back to play Lieutenant Buntz, a deeply flawed, but ultimately good character. This introduced the era of the anti-hero in television. Without Norman Buntz, there likely would be no Andy Sipowicz, the main character in the ABC drama NYPD Blue (1993-2005). Soon would come characters like the sensitive mob boss Tony Soprano (The Sopranos, 1999-2007); the sadistic and corrupt police officer Vic Mackey (The Shield, 2002-2008); the dapper and charismatic Don Draper from Mad Men (2007-2015); or chemistry teacher turned meth cooking bad-ass Walter White (Breaking Bad, 2008-2013). Black and white renditions of good and evil are now passé’. Lead characters are written in shades of gray.
All three devices are clearly evident in the first episode of director Justin Lin and writer Nic Pizzolatto’s second season of True Detective (2014-). The first episode, “The Western Book of the Dead”, introduces four separate leads, each with their own entourage, indicating that the show is clearly going to be an ensemble production. Second, the show’s story line will cover several different episodes. Lin does not even show the titular crime the series will be based on until five minutes before the first installment’s end. Most importantly, however, each of the leads is defined by their moral ambiguity.
The first lead we meet is Detective Ray Velcorro, played by Colin Farrell. Lin introduces the character with a tangibly awkward exchange with his son. Farrell nails the exchange as an estranged father trying to forge an emotional bond with his son. This exchange is followed up by a few reveals where we begin to understand the complexity of the relationship. These opening scenes help establish Vecarro as a sympathetic character. Farrell plays the character as either raging, desperately trying to hold back his rage, or in an alcohol-induced walking coma. Later, we learn that Velcorro is, on many levels, a miserable father. Still, he is written and played with so much pain we can explain that we excuse his actions.
The next character we are introduced to is a small time criminal boss, Frank Semyon, played brilliantly by Vince Vaughn. Vaughn turns his comic timing into great dramatic effect by playing the character as a man who is extremely self-controlled. There is hardly a second where he does not look as if he is not being perfectly studied. At one point, he states, “You don’t want to look hungry. Never do anything out of hunger — not even eating.” Vaughn plays the character as a man whose every look, head tilt, and even blink is considered. This quality would seem to render Semyon highly unlikable, but Vaughn gives the character a sense of vulnerability.
Next, out of the blue we are introduced to two people talking about an awkward sexual encounter, one of who is county sheriff officer Ani Bezzerides, played by Rachel McAdams. This character stands out for a few reasons. Most obviously, she is the only female of the group. Second, with all three of the other leads, Lin and Pizzolatto define their personal history through suggestions. Things are alluded to and not defined. Bezzerides’ personal history is laid out in explicit detail. Her story is also the most melodramatic and fantastic. In quick order, the following details are revealed. Her sister is an ex-junkie who is now doing life performance internet porn. Her father is a cult leader, and her mother was an actress who committed suicide. All of these details may come into play later on in the series, but in this episode, it seems a bit excessive. There are many people who are equally controlling who do not come from a kaleidoscope of dysfunctionality.
The final and most enigmatic character of the four is highway patrol motorcycle officer, Paul Woodrugh, played by Taylor Kitsch. When we are first introduced to him, he is writing a citation to a woman he just pulled over. This scene is shot with an eerie resemblance to an early scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Psycho (1960). By the end, we know very little about the character except he has problems with both physical and emotional intimacy, his body is scarred, and he is suicidal. We are also told that he worked for something called “Black Mountain”. What this is and how it relates to his scars may or may not be revealed as the series continues.
The episode ends with three law enforcement characters meeting for the first time. The first 55 minutes or so was spent defining the character’s back stories. At this point, the seeds of several different kinds of anti-heroes are being laid. Each of the good guys have qualities that range from violently deplorable to sympathetic flaws. Vaughn’s bad guy seems honorably intended — or, at least, as honorably intended as a corrupt casino owner can be. They are linked by a shared personal idiosyncrasy. Lin and Pizzolatto creates the impression that each has their own eight-hundred pound gorilla they drag with them on a leash, just so they do not have to talk about it. All four try as hard as possible to keep life at a distance, but the viewer seems to know that this is a futile endeavor. As one of the minor character states, “Everybody gets touched.”