In the modern world of binge-watching and cable cutting, the aspect of water cooler conversation generated from what was once America’s most universal bonding ritual is quickly disappearing. Yet there are still TV shows that draw crowds on first airing — “Breaking Bad” was one recent example. As the AMC drama knocked out its last few seasons with addictive style and balls-to-the-wall storylines, viewers made sure to tune in for the first broadcast. Now, “True Detective” has taken its place as must-see-TV (not must-see-online-whenever-you-have-time), but its title is already in jeopardy just three episodes into Season 2. It’s not that it’s bad — though some would argue it’s worse — or that it’s good — though others would say it’s better. It’s that no one can agree on what it is at all.
The most fascinating element of Nic Pizzolatto’s follow up to his universally-acclaimed freshman sensation isn’t really the show itself. It’s not even that critics are split. They are, but more so than is typical when critics disagree. Usually there’s a consensus around which actors are highlights; which characters are most interesting; what lines don’t work; what scenes don’t work; where the story went wrong or, at least, whether or not it’s worth discussing at all. None of these factors, as they apply to “True Detective” Season 2, are cut and dry, from critic to critic or viewer to viewer. [Spoilers ahead for Episodes 1-3]
I Say Magnificent, You Say Peevish
Take, for instance, a discussion I had with a group of friends after watching Episode 2, “Night Finds You.” In circling around our reactions to the second entry of the new season, we eventually got into a genial but divisive debate over Vince Vaughn’s opening monologue. The much-discussed “rat story” split the room into more than just lovers and haters. One person liked the monologue, but hated Vaughn’s delivery of it — remarking how it was too stoic and thus felt largely emotionless. Another went the opposite way, admiring that Vaughn did a lot with such long-winded and silly material and even crediting him for remaining so minimalist in his performance. Then there was someone who liked the monologue and Vaughn’s interpretation of it, as well as one person who hated it all.
Critics are comparably split on the scene. In her Vanity Fair review, Joanna Robinson wrote the monologue landed with a “morally uncomplex thud.” Sean T. Collins countered in his Rolling Stone recap, calling the opening speech “a solid piece of writing,” while Jeff Jenson of Entertainment Weekly went on to emulate Rust Cohle in his lengthy analysis of an opener that many others dismissed with a word (or less).
Differing opinions aren’t just specific to the monologue, either. Jenson also called the dissolve from the watermarks above Frank’s bed to the burned out eyes of one deceased Ben Caspere “inspired,” while I and others argued it was as hollow a transition as the sockets themselves. While most critics seemed to agree “True Detective” took a step back with Justin Lin replacing Cary Fukunaga in the director’s chair, the specifics of what went wrong are up for debate, as is the opinion his choices are “wrong” and not merely “different.”
That’s not to say anyone is more in line with the season’s broader strokes. Vaughn, in particular, is splitting opinions with a performance both “magnificent” and “peevish.” He was the only actor to be singled out by Variety critic Brian Lowry, who contended Vaughn had the “juiciest role” of the bunch — though he then wrote that the part paled in comparison to Matthew McConaughey’s from a year ago, along with everyone else. Still, naming Vaughn and ignoring the others lends credence to his performance, while Andy Greenwald argues the opposite for Grantland: “[…] only Vaughn chafes against the part Pizzolatto wrote for him.”
Cause for Contention
Similar contradictions in opinion can be found for all four leads, and perhaps Mary McNamara explains the difficulty in deciding good or bad best in her review for the Los Angeles Times. “In the first three episodes, the men bring nothing more surprising than intensity to their roles, which are familiar to the point of banal,” McNamara writes. “Vaughn infuses Frank with humanity that makes it tough to buy the menace, and Farrell’s wounded eyes contradict his character’s brutality.”
Whether you agree with her assessment of the performances or not, this interpretation offers an explanation for the multitude of reactions on either side of the coin. If what you’re looking for is an “intensity” to match the moody atmosphere of the series, then you might think these performances are anywhere from suitable to stupendous. If you’re looking for someone to stand out or elevate themselves from the material, you’ll most likely be disappointed to some degree. (You may have noticed McNamara’s criticism only applied to the men, as she, like most critics, had nothing but praise for McAdams. The dividing line? Whether she overcomes her character or is aided by her.)
Another reason for the many split opinions is found in the cult-like fervor surrounding the series since Episode 1. Unlike what some historical revisionists contest regarding early negative reviews for Season 2, Season 1 was immediately worshipped by many critics and viewers. Some were willing to defend the show against any accusation, making for a more heated debate than normal. When anyone noted a problem with Season 1, a large group was ready to “correct” them. This led to each side digging in even more strongly, as well as a notably ugly comment from Pizzolatto targeted at Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker that only escalated the intensity surrounding “True Detective.”
These kind of personal attacks do nothing to dissipate ardor for the show between seasons, and just as everyone was eager to compare Season 2 to its predecessor, critics and viewers alike were eager to prove their previous opinions correct, based on the new season. Pizzolatto did his part by making the comparisons fairly easy to find, delivering a follow-up with similar themes, traits and tone to the original season. So if you wanted to find something to like or dislike about Season 2, you could, often with the same example. Or, as Melissa Maerz put it in her review for Entertainment Weekly, “No matter which side you’re on, Season 2 will only make you double down.”
While the discussion surround “True Detective” can certainly turn ugly from time to time — just read the comments under any of these reviews for evidence — disagreement can also lead to productive discourse. Constructive feedback can aid more than just the creative parties (which is good, since Pizzolatto clearly isn’t engaging in a healthy way). It can help audiences, critics, and everyone seeking self-awareness to understand what works for them, what doesn’t and, most importantly, why. Filmmakers could learn a thing or two from listening to differing opinions, and along the way engaged viewers can open themselves up to a new way of thinking.
In my aforementioned friendly discussion about Vince Vaughn’s Episode 2 monologue, no one was hurt or offended by another’s contrary opinion (I hope). Instead, we all walked away with a better understanding of how a scene, performance and dialogue can be interpreted, as well as a better understanding of one another’s engagement with popular art. Even if Pizzolatto remains deaf to the dissenting opinions, the conversation could still end up helping the water cooler aspect of the show. And, in the end, isn’t that — the desire for informed discussion — something on which we can all agree?