The Second Season of ‘True Detective’ Was a Victim of Unreasonable Expectations

Don't let the knee-jerk negative response to True Detective's second season fool you: the show got better when it moved west.

Before the second season of True Detective aired on HBO in the summer of 2015, two storm clouds loomed over the hotly anticipated crime drama. The first was the wave of exultation that True Detective rode following its debut season. Undoubtedly, the Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson-led inaugural season, set in the aesthetically and morally murky environs of the Louisiana bayou, will forever be the iconic iteration of the show. Although the show was designed to be serialized, with a new locale and set of actors each season, McConaughey and Harrelson came out of the gate with such distinctive performances that a firm horizon of expectations was established right from the outset.

The Hollywood Reporter‘s Tim Goodman writes, “True Detective, coming as it does after what was arguably the best year for dramas in at least five years… just puts an exclamation point on the topic of excessive quality. Who knew the bar would be set so high so early?” Andrew Romano of The Daily Beast calls the first season “revolutionary”, “riveting”, and “provocative”. Early reviews also lamented the eventual end of the McConaughey/Harrelson duo; in his review for Entertainment Weekly Jeff Jensen writes, “McConaughey and Harrelson are so good, you immediately begin grieving the prospect of getting only eight episodes with them.”

This parade of giddy acclaim was not without its dissenters. Most notably, Emily Nussbaum’s excellent critique of season one for The New Yorker highlights the show’s lacking presentation of well-rounded female characters. On the whole, however, True Detective couldn’t have asked for better critical or popular reception. Yet this success was undeniably double-edged. All of the praise that enshrined season one as a key player in the “Golden Age” of television storytelling set up its second season to fail at the same time.

In addition to exaggerated hope, True Detective‘s second installment also arrived at an inopportune time. As I wrote in my PopMatters review of the failed attempt to reboot the British miniseries Low Winter Sun, television has become saturated with the Very Dark and Very Serious Television Drama. Following the successful examples of Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and The Wire, many showrunners are laboring under the delusion that simply adding in heaping spoonfuls of brooding and moral ambiguity will result in a high quality show.

As the turgidly bleak US version of Low Winter Sun evinces, however, overemphasizing darkness is a formula that can backfire, in some cases pretty catastrophically. While darkness is a key appeal of Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, they also aren’t without redemption; Low Winter Sun, by contrasts, exists in a universe so unsalvageable that one wonders, as that show’s protagonist Frank Agnew does, if “maybe it needs to burn”.

True Detective‘s second season arrives right in the middle of the obsession with dark and morally troubled TV programming, and as a consequence it doesn’t feel like it’s breaking much ground on that front. However, season two’s primary antecedent is not a show like The Sopranos, but rather the deep legacy of noir, specifically Los Angeles noir. The gritty edge of True Detective is informed by its dramatic contemporaries on television, but the program’s storytelling roots are in the smoky noirs of the ’40s and ’50s, as well as classic LA tales for the cinema like The Long Goodbye (1973) and Chinatown (1974).

If the season two feels familiar, it’s in part because it’s supposed to be; the premise of True Detective is that it plays on classic detective serials. Los Angeles noir is a staple of 20th century detective fiction, and it should be no surprise that showrunner Nic Pizzolatto’s influences are on display. His noir sensibility is both retro and informed by postmodern takes on the genre, namely David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001).

Whether or not season two of True Detective overcomes its noir forebears and its morally bleak contemporaries is an open question. Unfortunately, that discussion is hard to have, because season two was rarely ever evaluated on its own terms. James Poniewozik, in his review for Time, opens with, “The Yellow King is gone. Matthew McConaughey and his Nietzschean monologues are gone.” By opening his review with what sounds like an obituary for season one, Poniewozik sets himself up to give season two a less than fair shake.

Many critics joined Poniewozik in looking back to the first season. Goodman, who was enthusiastic about season one for The Hollywood Reporter, wrote for the same publication a year later, “But gone is the beautiful, philosophical Rust-and-Marty banter about the meaning of life as they drove the Louisiana back roads. As our new partners drive around Los Angeles, it all sounds diminished.” Writing for The AV Club, Brandon Nowalk argues, “Season one spiced up its mood with a pungent mix of buddy-cop comedy, surreal horror, and mystery. Season two is serious people doing serious things all the time.”

Nowalk’s criticism does tie into the overall problem of the Very Serious Television Drama, which has increasingly become a brand rather than a substantive genre. But his comparative makes that point in the wrong way: if season two is bad for its overseriousness, it’s bad simply on those terms, not because it fails to be a tonal or stylistic match to the first season. Todd VanDerWerff’s review for Vox makes the same mistake: VanDerWerff claims that season one was “intriguing” because it “played with narrative”, whereas season two “is just a cop drama”. Nowhere in his review does he specify why True Detective must interrogate genre in a consistent fashion.

The very function of the anthology format is that Pizzolatto and his fellow writers are able to change the storytelling each season, both in genre and in style. Season one may be a self-reflexive take on the buddy-cop detective show, but that does not mean the second season must replicate its predecessor’s strengths. Based on the way critics used season one as a mark against season two, had the latter merely imitated the former, critics would have spent their reviews checking off the ways in which Pizzolatto was merely hitting the repeat button.

The praise for True Detective‘s debut season created a critical landscape that allowed its second season to become the victim of unreasonable expectations. There are plenty of fair criticisms that can be made against season two: its dialogue sometimes lapses into self-parody, some plot twists feel thrown in simply to be there, and, yes, it can be compellingly argued that it is too damn serious. All of these claims, however, can be made without any reference to season one as a critical rubric. True Detective‘s second season can stand or fall on its own terms; unfortunately, it was rarely ever given those terms.

Season two may be more of a “cop drama” in comparison to season one, to use VanDerWerff’s term, but it’s far from straightforward. Slate even published a plot runthrough that spans several thousand words. The question/answer format of the piece carries with it the tone, “No one has any idea what the hell is going on,” and to an extent this is one of the slip-ups of the second season.

Though noir is famous for its twists and turns, with each action being met by a stab in the back later on, this is not to say it’s a genre interested in plot for plot’s sake. Noir is dominated by atmosphere and mood, and the unrelenting chiaroscuro of the noir universe is far more interesting than the specific actions of characters that take place in it. The reason why mystery stories play out so well as noirs is because of the mystery itself: noir (anti)heroes ultimately come to the realization that skepticism reigns supreme, and the truth is perpetually elusive.

Still, there must be some modicum of a plot, and True Detective‘s second season starts out with a knotty series of connections. Three troubled officers of the law — police officer Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), detective Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), and highway patrolman Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) — are brought together to solve the eerie murder of a city manager, Ben Caspere, whose eyeless body was left on a picnic table near California’s coastal Highway 1. Caspere was of significance both for the (fictional) city of Vinci within Los Angeles and for some business dealings with crime boss Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughan). Semyon and Caspere had some under-the-table dealings with a Russian mobster called Osip Agranov (Timothy V. Murphy) that involve the buying up of valuable land along a soon-to-be-developed railway through central and coastal California.

This spider’s web of associations is a complex one in of itself, but when one factors in the systemic corruption in the city of Vinci and broader Los Angeles, True Detective season two is a layer cake of bitter flavors. The glimmers of moral redemption sprinkled lightly throughout these eight episodes shine only momentarily.

The second season’s tagline, which can be found on all DVD and Blu-ray copies of the series, is a simple declaration: “We get the world we deserve.” This line is spoken by Velcoro in the thrilling second episode of the series, “Night Finds You”, which has one of the best endings in True Detective yet. When Velcoro speaks this line, it sets up a philosophical dilemma that pervades the entire season: how can one enact justice in a world devoid of it? This problem is one that has cropped up in numerous Very Serious Dramas — The Wire and The Shield, and the first season of True Detective itself — but that’s not to say True Detective doesn’t give a unique spin on it. While beholden to its predecessors and other points of reference, Lynch especially, season two explores the plight of those trying to bring a semblance of good to a hellish world with palpable tension and intrigue.

Though one could be fooled by reading the lukewarm critical consensus around season two, many of the first season’s strengths do carry over. The acting, although not as distinctive and meme-able as McConaughey and Harrelson were in season one, is uniformly solid. Given Vaughan’s comedic background, many doubted his ability to take on the malevolent environs of True Detective, but what makes his role as Semyon so compelling is that he’s torn between being a businessman and being a crime boss. Semyon doesn’t use dirty tactics because he revels in them; he uses them because he, like many people, was sold on a false vision of “the American dream”. The vision of business and crime as inseparable enterprises brings to mind the chorus of assassins in Stephen Sondheim’s musical Assassins: “If you can’t do what you want to, then you do the things you can.”

Farrell, McAdams, and Kitsch, in various shades of morose, all deliver good performances, even when they are given dialogue that spans absurd to flat-out-awful. (Farrell suffers the most from Pizzolatto’s weak line writing, including a quip about e-cigarettes being like “a robot’s dick” and an outrageous threat growled at a teenage boy.) Of the three detectives, McAdams stands apart, in the process signifying a small but noticeable step toward better characterization of women in the True Detective universe. Never sexualized in the way the women were in season one, McAdams broods in a way similar to her male costars, though her backstory, involving an escape from a strange spiritual community led by her father (David Morse, looking rather odd in hippie garb), is the most interesting of the lot.

Like many aspects of this season, Ani’s past is never fully explained, but it also doesn’t need to be. The depth of her character remains by the season’s end, even after the mysteries have unraveled and the bodies have hit the floor. Kelly Reilly’s performance as Jordan, Semyon’s wife, also signals an improvement in writing female characters, even as the Lady Macbeth hues of Jordan’s characterization prove a bit obvious at times.

Visually, season two is also no slouch; if anything, those behind the camera stepped up their game considerably. The cinemaphotography, while different from season one, is just as arresting in its gorgeous — and, yes, dark — rendering of the City of Angels. The standout visual elements of season two are its transition sequences, which consist of striking aerial shots of freeways, valleys, and cityscapes. With each change in scene, these interstitial sequences form a lush visual bridge for the tentacular storyline, providing a much-needed visual and also storytelling continuity.

One of the best bonus features of the DVD/Blu-ray release of season two is a four-minute compilation of these transition sequences, with music by T-Bone Burnett. As it is with many great noirs — the immaculate filmography of Jean-Pierre Melville, for example — even if one doesn’t track the opaque plot, she can just as easily lose herself in the rich shades of black and white. The bloviating about how “cinematic” television has become often stumbles into a battle of overstatements, but as it was in season one’s grimy vision of Louisiana, season two’s cinemaphotography is a memorable instance of cinematic technique being brought to the small screen.

Still, for all of its strengths, this version of True Detective will not be for everyone. If McConaughey’s half-baked “I read one page of Nietzsche in college” understanding of nihilism seemed like a bit much in the first season, the amoral maelstrom of the second season will prove a lofty obstacle to overcome. Like many of the greats of the so-called “TV Renaissance”, True Detective seeks to push television storytelling into moral realms that most programs dare not tread. As Semyon tells Velcoro, “Sometimes your worst self is your best self.”

The success of season two in living up to that noirish dictum is a debatable point. It’s just a shame that True Detective‘s second outing was lambasted with unreasonable expectations, which in turn made any potentially interesting debate about the show devolve into sentimentalizing about the good old days with McConaughey and Harrelson. (Which in itself is a flawed exercise: between misogyny and the faux-depth of McConaughey’s soliloquizing, there are plenty of flaws in season one.)

Taken on its own terms, season two of True Detective is a flawed but captivating product, one whose visuals and acting are on par with many of HBO’s top quality programs. If you push past the easy (and lazy) critical narratives that have surrounded season two since before it even aired, you’ll find a successful ode to the LA noir that’s layered with complex storytelling. TV junkies and Philosophy 101 students will be uttering “time is a flat circle” for years to come, but that’s no reason to let this fine entry in the True Detective anthology go by the wayside.

RATING 8 / 10