True Detective’s freshman season was hailed as a runaway success, setting viewership records for home channel HBO. Can season 2 capture lightning in a bottle a second time? With only the pilot episode out in the wild, guest writer Brandon Koontz attempts to devine the success of the sophomore offering. – Ed.
Television has seen a bit of a renaissance over the last few years: art-house cinema has begun making its way into the mainstream, mixing with elements of more standard television fair in an intriguing way. Shows like Hannibal, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and Orphan Black have all played with story, format, filming technique and set design in ways that the small screen has not seen before. I recently read an article where avant-garde filmmaker David Lynch said the modern film industry is not where the future is, but rather that “television is way more interesting than cinema now. It seems like the art house has gone to cable.”
When True Detective aired its first season early last year, it landed on multiple “best of…” critic lists, won awards in multiple categories, including Emmys for Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series, several Critic’s Choice and Golden Globes, and a handful of individual achievement awards for actors Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. Even the show’s opening credits were nominated for multiple awards and deserved their own study. In the process, it became the new watercooler show, as fans rewound their DVRs, reviewed books and other material referenced in the show for clues as to the central mystery of The Yellow King. Your mileage may have varied by the time the finale aired (ultimately the show wasn’t so much about the answer to the mystery as it was about the journey to get there, and what it said about human nature along the way), but there was no denying that True Detective, with its long tracking shots, stylized design and lengthy metaphysical musings on life, was redefining television. To say expectations were high for the second season would be vastly understating it. The question is, can season two deliver?
Created and written by Nic Pizzolatto, True Detective is at its core, an anthology series featuring self-contained narratives that mix various philosophical and religious motifs into the crime drama genre. The anthology series format gained popularity in the Golden Age of television in the 1950s, but faded into near-obscurity in the 60s. Over the last few years, it has seen a bit of a resurgence (American Horror Story, Secrets and Lies, BBC’s Black Mirror), and True Detective faces the same challenges those shows are all facing…rebooting a series every season means a new pilot episode every year, with the inherent challenges and opportunities a TV pilot faces.
Season Two’s first episode (“ The Western Book of the Dead”) feels like another pilot episode, for better or worse. Pilots bear the unenviable weight of establishing the location, plot points, central characters and basic themes all in the space of roughly 60 minutes, resulting in often exposition-heavy scenes where people recount events that have previously occurred off-screen in a manner no one actually does in real life (“Hey, remember that time when you were on the police force during that corruption scandal, and you teamed up with the hooker with a heart of gold to put your former partner in jail and now he’s getting out of prison in six months and may have a desire to set things straight with you and how his ex-wife might be carrying your baby? Yeah, me neither, let’s review…”). To its credit, Detective navigates it all fairly well, but in the process doesn’t maintain the level reached by the best episodes of the first season (the middle three-four episodes of season one are some of the best television I’ve seen in years).
The show wastes no time in establishing that central character Ray Velcro Velcoro (Colin Ferrell) is one messed up police detective (are there any other kinds in modern television?). He drinks so much whiskey I was getting a contact buzz through the screen, threatens little kids with horrific acts of violence against their parents, and finds himself in dingy bar booths brooding so thoroughly over his drink that even his mustache managed to look down about the whole situation. Velcoro is under the thumb of affable-acting mob boss Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn), at his beck and call for various acts of violence and illegal housecleaning that Velcoro doesn’t seem to demonstrate a whole lot of remorse over committing. In parallel to Velcoro’s story, Detective introduces California Highway Patrol officer Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) and Ventura County Sherrif Antigone Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams). As you might have guessed, they carry enough baggage to bankrupt several travel insurance companies. Therein lies the problem that may alienate a large section of its viewership…not one of the central characters is likeable or particularly relatable, at this point in the show.
Detective’s first season featured characters with plenty of warts and unlikeable traits as well, but McConaughey and Harrelson brought a nuance to their characters, a hidden depth, that Ferrell and Kitsch can’t quite pull off. We might not have liked Rust Cohle, but he captures your attention in every scene he’s in. The same cannot be said with Kitsch’s Paul Woodrugh in particular. He is given little to do in the first episode besides strip shirtless and swallow a blue pill, just to sit on the toilet and wait for better things to arise, if you’ll pardon the pun. Sure, a deeper backstory is hinted at – Woodrugh is covered in a set of literal scars that are perhaps one of the seeds that led to his emotional ones. He races his motorcyle down the freeway in the middle of the night with the headlight off to feel something, which he clearly cannot feel within the confines of his current relationship. But you don’t yet feel for the character. He just exists. Luckily Ferrell, Vaughn and McAdams are stronger in their roles and the season may ultimately hinge on their interlocking destinies and chemistry as the tale unfolds.
One of the show’s strengths has been its examination of themes, and how people’s lives intertwine with their surroundings. Louisana served as the backdrop (and really, a secondary character) for the first season, while Southern California is the setting for this season. This season’s storyline revolves around the fictional city of Vinci (based on the real-life corrupt California town of Vernon). Shots of industrial parks with large warehouses are mixed in with aerial views of the congested Los Angeles freeway system, its arterial function driven home by heartbeat-like drums in the soundtrack, reminding us that the lifeblood of any major city is its veins of roadways and freeways. Not coincidentally, mob boss Frank Semyon is set on capitalizing on the addition of a new high-speed rail system that would offer additional arterial access to the city and this appears to be the major framework around which the plot of this season will hang. While not as compelling as Louisana, the visuals serve to reinforce the trapped, congested and dirty lives of the main protagonists.
While season one focused heavily on a Cthulhu-style mythos, mixing the deep magic of the bayou with its crime story trappings, season two appears to be a crime noir mashed up with Greek trappings. In fact, it brings to mind the Vertigo comic series Greek Street, which attempted to play in the same sandbox.
Several key parts in the first episode make this noir-Greek tragedy setting more clear:
- Colin Ferrell’s character is named Raymond (as in noir novelist Raymond Chandler).
- We catch a peak of a crow head riding shotgun in a car that is definitely evocative of the Maltese Falcon.
- The car’s driver is a mysterious (and unshown) presence, but his backseat passenger is not – we see that it is a dead body, his eyes covered by a pair of dark sunglasses. This undoubtedly references the Greek myth of Charon, the ferryman of the dead, who carries deceased souls across the rivers Styx and Acheron in his boat. Those souls payed their fee with coins obscuring their eyes (like the dark glasses do in the episode itself).
- Several characters and locations are named from Greek myth: Antigone Bezzerides and her sister, Athena are both named for Greek goddesses, and the Panticapaeum Institute, which their father runs, is named for an ancient Greek city.
- Bezzerides itself is a namecheck to the noir genre – A.I. Bezzerides was an American noir novelist and screenwriter (his most famous script was Kiss Me Deadly, considered one of the best noir films of the genre).
Episode one is setting up the dominoes. By the end of the hour, our cast of characters are inexorably drawn together, not unlike the characters in The Iliad, the epic Greek poem by Homer. There is a lot of potential here, but like any pilot, the first episode only begins to unravel the tapestry. Season two may very well fail to meet up with the lofty expectations placed on it thanks to the first season’s success, but it’s too soon to tell at this stage. What I see so far though makes it worth sticking with it, and I fully anticipate a twist or two in the narrative. As the opening credits warn, “I had to leave my life behind, I dug some graves you’ll never find…the story’s told with facts and lies, I have a name but never mind…” I for one am looking forward to seeing that story unfold.