[Minor spoiler alert - if you're really pernickety about it]
With the the latest True Detective coming under fire, Joe Ellison argues why the much maligned second season is far better than it’s been given credit for
A dud. A misfire. Not fit to wear the badge.
If you’ve not yet had time to investigate season two of True Detective, why bother at all? Like clockwork, each episode has been met by a response so disparagingly flat it borders on comical as people take to social media to vent their collective spleen. Things even got so bad that HBO's President of Programming recently felt compelled to join the debate, asking critics to give it time.
Not for nothing was the original series one of the best televisual works of the last decade - redefining the boundaries of what audiences thought possible on the small screen, it fused meticulously executed set-pieces with a deftly layered script, which, like its world-weary lead man Rust Cohle, refused to conform to type. It intertwined different storylines across different eras. It took us belly-deep into the most unflinching of character studies. It served up a sprawling crime saga of the like we’ll never see again.
And that's the problem. Unlike most successful TV shows in the US – elongated for 12 seasons by network execs hell-bent on wringing the formula dry until audiences lose the appetite to catch the bad guy (damn you, Abu Nasir) - the original True Detective was finite, an eight-episode explosion which offered viewers actual closure. The only downside to this being that writer and creator Nic Pizzolatto (now without Cary Fukunaga as director) would be forced to gamble with a new deck ahead of a second season.
Well don’t listen to the haters, I’m here to tell you that it paid off. Upping sticks to the smoggy, overpopulated industrial city of Vinci, California, a world away from the desolate swamps of Louisiana, along with a new A-list cast - Colin Farrell, Vaughn, Rachel McAdams and Taylor Kitsch – this is a standalone drama in its own right, not to mention a near masterpiece.
Not that I’m totally blindsided - to love this second season is to embrace its flaws, and I’ll admit there are a few. From the off, each character was handed more issues than Rolling Stone - as a closeted gay man, post-traumatic stress sufferer and son to the sort of drunk mother Freud himself would have nightmares about, won’t someone give Kitsch’s traffic cop a break? The minor bad guys are all equally as terrible at aiming weapons, as if it was James Bond running around, and then of course there’s the much lampooned muffled dialogue. Not quite inaudible, just enough to make you hit pause and rewind on Sky+ three times. OK, four. Even then you’ll still be hanging on every word.
The other big complaint of the show has been its crime plot, or lack of it. Now, if I said I understood every twist and turn in the case, remembering all the names of the perps, I’d be lying. Then again, if I was tuning in for Californian-set murder mystery and not much else I'd watch re-runs of Diagnosis Murder, wouldn't I?
It’s slow at times, sure, but outrageous shootouts and coincidence aside, there’s a lot to be said for the gritty realism (much of the filming took place in the industrial Californian sink city of Vernon, which also suffered a major mayoral corruption scandal recently), more so than the last series. The closest we got to the occult this time around were the free-range hippy communes sprouting around the Californian countryside with deranged plastic surgeons and Charles Manson types not too far away.
The acting has been far better than reviews would have you believe too. Who’d have thought Vince Vaughn, as casino owner and career criminal Frank Seymon, would be the ace in the hole? A lot has been made of the actor’s attempt at his very own McConaissance, most of it unfavourable, but this isn’t an actor who should be burdened by his fast-talking characters in that endless line of frat comedies; he’s a man who originally made his name playing cold-eyed villains in Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot Psycho remake and Domestic Disturbance. He can do menace. For True Detective, he’s put that hangdog expression to darker use once again.
Best of all though, Vaughn is terrific foil for Colin Farrell's dirty-cop-with-a-conscience, Ray Velcoro. A walking minibar with a moustache, Velcoro's own habit for existential thinking make him the perfect receiver for Seymon's soulless, 50-yard stare. Cast adrift in a sea of vice and violence, this unlikely bromance makes for some of the most watchable TV this year.
Much like with the small talk from the men above, I’ve found the most impactful scenes to be the little ones, those that might go unnoticed if you don't pay much attention. The producers may have gone overboard in their approach to developing a strong female character for this overtly macho world – skittish, stabby, suspect of every man she’s ever known, Rachel McAdams’s cop may be the scariest enforcer of the law TV has ever seen – but the father-son storylines are written with aplomb, worthy of any drama.
As a man already on the ropes, some of Farrell’s most heart-wrenching acting comes when trying to salvage relationships with both his estranged son and uncaring ex-cop dad. The same goes for Vaughn’s crook. In one scene, he lies in bed staring at a stain on a ceiling and retells what it was like when his old man once kept him locked in the basement for two days; in another, he comforts the child of one of his slain employees, telling him “Painful events like that show you what was on the inside, and inside of you? It's pure gold. I know that - pure, solid gold is what you got." It could just as easily be a speech from his Wedding Crashers days, only in this character’s hands, it’s tangible, more profound.
Believe it or not, I even enjoy the depressing folk singer who bleakly strums her guitar and sings utterly depressing tunes to a near empty bar every time Seymon and Velcoro meet (seriously, how does that bar make any money?). There’s a certain Lynchian vibe to it, and that’s before we even get into the odd dream sequence, which is frankly bonkers.
Pizzolatto appears to be influenced by quite a lot of great directors, and I'd argue mostly those who've shot LA crime dramas. The big downtown street shootout midway through the season bears all the hallmarks of Michael Mann's Heat. Mysterious land deals in the baking Californian sun echo Roman Polanski's Chinatown, while anyone who witnessed the final third of the penultimate episode, featuring a heavy opera score, bad-ass jet black getaway car driving off into the night and a giant moon, may well have been reminded of Nicolas Winding Refn's recent thriller Drive.
And you can bet Pizzolatto knows this. He’s not pretentious - as many viewers have suggested - he's self-referential, prodding at our brains with an assortment of genre-hopping homages. You don’t call an episode Black Maps and Motel Rooms if you want subtle and arty. He plays on the kitsch, literally.
Whatever you take from True Detective Season Two, just take something – it’s too good a show and too deep a character study not to experience at least once in your life. So catch up while you can.
To paraphrase another immortal Vaughn line from Wedding Crashers: “This [show] is f*cked seven ways from Sunday. And you wanna know what? I dig it.”
Catch up on True Detective Season Two with Sky+ Catchup on Sky Atlantic