In my early reviews of True Detective, particularly the first season, I felt, like many critics did initially, that it was one of the more astonishing series that HBO had created in quite some time. But now, after two seasons of the series, I am beginning to wonder whether not only whether it’s worth watching, but whether we were right to ever admire it.
While there were many stylistic differences between them, the skeleton for both seasons of True Detective were essentially the same: a group of very flawed detectives were called into investigate a ritualistic homicide. The investigation of the murder opened a window into the corruption and sexual deviance of a corrupt world—- in season One, it was Texas, in Season 2, it was California. The investigation went down a path that seemed to have a resolution, but it was very clear that it was being covered up. Further investigation revealed that the crime had never been solved and something much darker was in play. And though the killing was eventually solved, by the time it ended, one could be forgiven if one ever understood who had done it or if it even mattered.
Now admittedly, there were major stylistic differences between the two season. Season One was done almost entirely in flashback, and dealt entirely with two conflicting and unreliable narratives. The first season had almost no realistic female characters, or indeed any truly dimensional characters aside from the ones portrayed by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. Of course, their performances were so incredible that they seemed to cover up a multitude of sins. But let’s be absolutely clear—- I walked away from Season One not at all sure who had committed the murders that were the impetus for the series, and dealing with a character shift in the eleventh hour that was, frankly, completely unbelievable.
I don’t know if Nic Pizzolatto walked away from that season trying to figure out a way to correct the flaws in Season 1, but he made at least a minor effort to make some differences between the two seasons, trying to expand the number of characters and differentiate the plots. Unfortunately, in doing so, he only worsened the problems that were unfolding. Of the five major leads of the entire series, the only one who came across as a real character was Ray Volcero (Colin Farrell), and even that was badly mauled by the fact that Polazzo couldn’t seem to reach an agreement as to what he was trying to say whether he was a good cop who went bad or a bad cop who tried to redeem himself. The only area where he seemed realistic was his relationship with his son, and it is telling that one of the few dramatic moments that worked was what we learned in the finale’s denouement.
Of the remaining characters in the series, none of them had a storyline that made sense all the way through. It was impossible to understand what McAdams problems were, and when we finally found them out, her eleventh hour romance with Volcero was not believable. Taylor Kitsch’s finest hour on the series was his last, and the plotline that dogged him seemed even more cliched. I never figured out just how Vince Vaughn’s mob boss was supposed to fit into any of this, and while his relationship with Farrell’s character was by far the most interesting, I couldn’t understand any of his motivations. Even his love for his wife seemed irregular and impossible to characterize, even at the end.
The only other thing True Detective seems to have going for it is the unrelenting darkness that pervades it. If Season 1 dealt with the basic depravity of man, Season 2 seemed to double down on it, and not for the better. I’m not sure what purpose it served to have Farrell and Vaughn’s characters die so messily at the end was, and the cynical corruption is impossible to stop is a message we’ve seen a hundred times before on much better series. The only colors that seem to be in Pizzolatto’s pallet are black and black.
There are some technical things working for it— any series that has you looking through the opening credits and theme song hoping to find clues to the mystery is doing a good job. And its got a lot of good actor with some fairly good dialogue. But at the bottom, True Detective still doesn’t seem to have anything new or original to say about anything—- all it has is cynicism to burn, and that’s de rigeur for anything on cable. It is not yet clear whether there will be a third season for the series, but my guess is even if there is, there won’t be anywhere near the curiosity as to what comes next.