Matt Brennan: Why has “True Detective” seemed so flat this season, compared to Season 1? Four episodes in, I think it lacks the rich sense of place the cast and crew cultivated along the lower reaches of the Mississippi. Writer/creator Nic Pizzolatto, born in New Orleans—where I’ve lived since 2009—and raised in southwest Louisiana, knows this part of the country inside out. And director Cary Fukunaga, of the impressive, finely wrought “Jane Eyre,” had the chops and experience to bring the series’ bayou Gothic to life, even if the payoff didn’t live up to the setup. Watching Season 2, by contrast, it’s almost as if Pizzolatto’s only knowledge of California is what he’s seen in the movies. Which would be fine if the approach were as self-aware as, say, Rian Johnson’s high-school neo-noir, “Brick.” Unfortunately, Season 2 is so self-serious that it’s become an unwitting parody.
Anne Thompson: As an Angeleno I disagree. They’re trying to do the same thing. My daughter and I are getting a kick out of their use of the industrial side of Los Angeles. Vernon—the real location for Vinci—had similar corruption issues. L.A. is more familiar, less exotic and atmospheric than New Orleans. Storytelling is the problem. Fukunaga and his movie-star actors had the authority and power to make Pizzolatto’s overwrought dialogue work somehow, while this one seems like a mundane “Chinatown”-infused procedural. It doesn’t seem to know what it is. These are talented actors and the Episode 4 shootout directed by Canadian “Game of Thrones” regular Jeremy Podeswa was exciting, finally, and we do feel for the characters, who are in a ton of trouble. There’s the sense that all these forces are going up against them, and how they interact with each other is getting more compelling. Relatively.
MB: I’ll admit that I’m enamored of all the overhead shots of snarled freeway exchanges and industrial wastelands blazing in the night sky. Separated by dissolves and accompanied by the score’s skin-crawling thrum, these images don’t just ape “Chinatown” but update it, replacing aqueducts with automobiles. I’m arguing that these glimpses of a more distinctive vision have been squeezed out, to use your term, by the “mundane” interludes.
With its fractured chronology, allusions to Lovecraft and Faulkner, and Rust Cohle’s wandering monologues, Season 1 mimicked the heightened emotion of ghost stories, and the finale disappointed me because it revealed that the otherworldly elements were but window dressing on a run-of-the-mill murder mystery.
In the same vein, Season 2 strikes me as an uncomfortable compromise between the wild, fantastical elements—a corpse with its eyes burned out, an assailant in a bird’s head mask—and the social realism of online porn, PTSD, substance abuse, et cetera. (Inhabiting the middle ground in this way has the unfortunate side effect of exposing just how risible the writing is.)
Remember when Pizzolatto once promised that this season’s narrative would feature “hard women, bad men, and the secret occult history of the United States transportation system”? I want more of that: more stylization, more corruption, more seedy, ugly people trying to eke a few extra bucks out of the sprawling, unforgiving California landscape. I want the Expressionist vigor of Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in chiaroscuro black-and-white. I want a full-blown L.A. noir for the 21st century.
Instead, I’ve got Vince Vaughn talking nonsense for 10 minutes at a stretch.
AT: I can’t resist: You can’t always get what you want. I too love the swoony overhead shots. What’s mundane, alas, is the procedural, which until Episode 4—when we get a proper OK Corral shootout—is pokey at best. The exposition lacks clarity and deploys too many disjunctive cuts; in a series of this length there’s time to make sure that the audience knows exactly what’s going on.
As usual, I’m more invested in the characters. As Colin Farrell’s gone-to-seed detective Ray Velcoro, having faced death, sobers up, he’s more fun to watch (it’s a venerable tradition: remember Lee Marvin in “Cat Ballou”?), as Vaughn points out in one of their meetings at a local dive. (What’s a nice David Lynch singer like her doing in a place like this?) Now that Velcoro doesn’t care about himself anymore, he’s trying to help out his two colleagues, who are clearly being set up. He offers his dashboard liquor stash to overwrought war hero-turned highway Officer Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), who is far too ripped and gorgeous to be straight. Sure enough, he is struggling (movingly) to find his post-war sexual identity.
I’m also enjoying the fraught relationship between Rachel McAdams’ tough cop Ani Bezzerides (named after Al Bezzerides, the hardboiled author of “They Drive By Night”) and her spiritual guru father (David Morse), written as a mix of “Chinatown”’s Noah Cross and “Inherent Vice”’s Mickey Wolfmann. Inevitably, Bezzerides faces the sexist workplace dynamic introduced by Helen Mirren in 1991’s “Prime Suspect.” When athletic McAdams takes off on the run, gun extended, it’s a pleasure to behold.
MB: Where you see an admirable range of inspirations, I see a writer and several directors (in addition to Podeswa, Janus Metz and Justin Lin have helmed episodes so far this season) struggling to keep pace with their own narrative, though I too find myself increasingly attached to Ani and Paul. McAdams plays to her strengths, turning Ani into a more thoroughly damaged version of the unruffled, whip-smart heroines she portrayed in “State of Play” and “A Most Wanted Man”; Kitsch, unspeakably sexy when stripped down to his skivvies (or less), uses the strong, silent type to his advantage, and carries off a somewhat respectable rendition of a man tortured by his desires.
But even here I find every last detail overworked, run through the wringer of Pizzolatto’s flashy intelligence until the whole thing begins to seem like a dissertation: Ani’s full name is Antigone, Paul’s skin is as disfigured as his psyche, and Velcoro and Seymon speak in great, gasping tone poems of despair. The series practically screams “Tragedy!” The result, for me, is the unshakable impression that events aren’t growing organically from the evolution of the characters’ various relationships, but from some road map in Pizzolatto’s mind, one this season’s directors so far lack the aesthetic acumen to make work.
I suppose this is why, now more than ever, “True Detective” generates such divisive reactions. Depending on what you’re looking for in a TV series, it can register as either treasure or trash, sometimes from moment to moment. The more I write about TV, the more I tend to embrace extremes. So far this year, I’ve loved the extraordinary subtlety of “Looking” and “Rectify” as well as the more enthusiastic formalism of “Hannibal” and the pure pop of “Empire.” Strangely enough, in spite of the controversies that swirl ceaselessly around Pizzolatto and his most well-known creation, recent installments of “True Detective”—the final two episodes of last season, and the first four of this one—have seemed to me noncommittal, hanging in the dead air between the occult and the ordinary.
AT: Every TV series has to pull us back week after week—despite critical raves, that did not happen for “Hannibal”—and I can’t tell you how many I have bailed on, from “The Brink” and “Ballers” to late-season innings of former fave raves “Boardwalk Empire,” “Justified” (Season 5 was a rough slog) and “The Walking Dead.” On the other hand, I sped through “Empire,” “House of Cards” and “Bloodline.”
“True Detective” is holding my interest, herky-jerky though it is. As it lurches through each episode, I am not looking away. (I agree with you about the lack of cohesiveness.) But “TD” doesn’t come close to the wonders of another tragic series, Netflix’s “Bloodline.” The first three episodes build slowly: stick around for the rest. With the Emmy nominations coming up on Thursday (Matt’s predictions here), I am praying that the voters recognize the extraordinary Kyle Chandler and Ben Mendelsohn as two brothers in love and hate, as only sibling rivals can be. I’m afraid I identify all too well with the difference between John (Chandler), the responsible adult child who feels compelled to fix everything and becomes a local cop, and his older brother, prodigal son-black sheep Danny (Mendelsohn), who returns to the fold to wreak havoc.
The extremely dysfunctional Florida family the Rayburns, who are dealing with the damage exacted by a powerful patriarch (Sam Shepard), also includes younger siblings, an ambitious lawyer who isn’t ready to marry (Linda Cardellini), and a flailing marina owner (Tony-winner Norbert Leo Butz) as well as an embracing mother who isn’t what she seems (the incomparable Sissy Spacek). Mysteries and secrets abound, including just who did “a bad, bad thing” to big brother.
I will be pissed if Australian Mendelsohn doesn’t land an Emmy nomination (they’re going with supporting). His ne’er-do-well Danny takes us through emotions that are not covered in “Inside Out”: he’s acting out, needy, wounded, lusty, vulnerable, loving, tender, self-medicating, raging, rebellious, envious, and dangerously vengeful. With each step he takes toward reconciliation, something sends him reeling back. And his once-complacent and comfortable family responds in kind: they’re inconsistent, loving, guilty, wary, betraying, protective, dismissive, derisive, loyal, and dangerously threatened. Which makes for a volatile cocktail indeed.
MB: I have you to thank you, Anne, for finally getting me to catch up with “Bloodline,” a series that I left on the back burner after it debuted to positive but less-than-effusive reviews back in March—largely, I suspect, because of the slow burn you describe. (No spoilers, though! I’m still only halfway through.) For all the reasons you cite, Mendelsohn foremost among them, it emerges in the seven episodes I’ve seen as a family drama in the tradition of Tennessee Williams and Tracy Letts, always half-soused and on the verge of an argument.
In a sense, though, the construction of “Bloodline” only confirms my impression that “True Detective” this season mostly lacks the depth of local character that Pizzolatto’s mannered language requires. I may sound like a Southerner too easily swayed by series with a home-field advantage, but to me “Bloodline” does for Florida noir what “True Detective” Season 1 did for bayou Gothic, developing a visual vernacular that twists the genre to compelling ends. The Caribbean colors and crystal-clear waters of the Keys are to the Rayburns’ seemingly idyllic existence what the fetid swamps and abandoned buildings were to the endless muck and mire of Rust and Marty’s investigation, an emblem of the collision between people and place that no number of overpasses or belching smokestacks has done thus far for Vinci.
All that said, I’m not ready to give up on “True Detective” quite yet, and I’ll surely be back for Season 3, if there is one. As heavy-handed as it’s become, and as maddening, I appreciate the series’ unabashed ambition, and I learned the hard way last season that it’s never over until the Yellow King sings. Or doesn’t, as the case may be.
“True Detective” Season 2 airs Sundays at 9pm on HBO through August 9. “Bloodline” is available on Netflix.