Review: Has 'True Detective' fallen victim to the sophomore slump?
Midway through watching the very first episode of "True Detective" season 1, Matthew McConaughey's Rust Cohle delivered what was already his fourth or fifth monologue about the pointlessness of existence, and I jotted down the following note:
Do I want to watch many hours of McConaughey saying this (stuff)?
As it turns out, I did. McConaughey was just that mesmerizing, Woody Harrelson wasn't far behind, and the direction of Cary Joji Fukunaga was so stunning that I was able to look past Cohle's lectures, the thinness of the female characters (or, really, anyone who wasn't Rust or Marty Hart), and the serial killer tropes and other recycled devices and even lines of dialogue peppered throughout Nic Pizzolatto's scripts. It had its flaws, but it was still one of the best things on TV a year ago.
Pizzolatto's writing was memorable, mixing in hard-boiled detective cliches with Cohle's nihilist philosophy, literary allusions and hints of something supernatural, and toggling between multiple time periods as it presented its story as an interlocking pair of tales told by the two ex-partners. It was filled with familiar devices of crime fiction, but was aware of how familiar they were and let its heroes — often looking directly into the camera (and at the viewer at home) — comment on them and preempt criticism of them. The closer we got to the end — particularly once Cohle and Hart exited their respective police interviews and we witnessed all action in present day — the more conventional the series felt, to the point where the finale involved them chasing a bogeyman through a haunted house. But there was an alchemy going on between his purple prose, Fukunaga's direction, and the transcendent performances of his leading men. You could suggest that, of the show's three core elements, the scripts were in obvious third place behind the acting and the directing, but Pizzolatto was the one who gave McConaughey and Harrelson the material they played so beautifully, and that Fukunaga found such visual inspiration in.
And without his original collaborators around, Pizzolatto struggles often to turn leaden stories and dialogue into another season of Golden Age drama.
With "True Detective" season 2 (it debuts Sunday at 9 on HBO), Pizzolatto is still writing all the scripts. McConaughey and Harrelson, meanwhile, have been replaced by a new cast of movie actors willing to give a few months to this new anthology miniseries format, including Colin Farrell, Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams, and Taylor Kitsch. Fukunaga, who helmed all eight episodes last year, has given way to Justin Lin and an eclectic group of other directors. (The third of the three episodes HBO made available to critics comes from Danish documentarian Janus Metz Pedersen, and Miguel Sapochnik — who was responsible for orchestrating the zombie chaos of "Hardhome" for "Game of Thrones" — was behind the camera for a later installment.)
The story this time involves a fictionalized city on the outskirts of LA called Vinci, which has a population of 95 but has attracted enough industry to make it a gold mine for its corrupt officials and the gangsters who support them. The city manager disappears — having absconded with $5 million that local wiseguy Frank Semyon (Vaughn) was using to go legit — and the case results in a task force including crooked Vinci cop Ray Velcoro (Farrell), Ventura sheriff's detective Ani Bezzerides (McAdams), and war veteran turned highway patrol officer Paul Woodrugh (Kitsch).
It's twice as many main characters as last time, each with a conflicting agenda, and the supporting cast is more robust and prominent — and, like last year, features a bunch of familiar HBO faces like W. Earl Brown (Velcoro's partner), Ritchie Coster (the perpetually, epically drunk mayor of Vinci), James Frain (one of Velcoro's commanding officers), Michael Hyatt (a state prosecutor investigating Vinci corruption), and David Morse (a local New Age guru). Pizzolatto endured many complaints last season that Rust and Marty were the only well-defined characters, but there was also something to be said for that streamlined narrative and the intense focus it allowed on those two men.
For that matter, that there's a woman among the four leads — and that Kelly Reilly, playing Frank's wife Jordan, gets more to do in the early going than Michelle Monaghan did a year ago — feels like a response to criticisms that Pizzolatto didn't write women well, or at all. That he deliberately makes Bezzerides someone who has shed as much of her femininity as possible to survive in a very male, violent world — "Fundamental difference between the sexes," she tells Velcoro, "is one can kill the other with his bare hands" — is itself a familiar and well-honored piece of police fiction (see also Kima on "The Wire"), but it also plays as an easy way for Pizzolatto to incorporate a woman into his usual fascination with masculinity.
And boy oh boy, is "True Detective" season 2 fascinated with masculinity — at times to the point where scenes play like unintentional self-parody.
Velcoro is a volatile, alcoholic repository of every self-destructive male archetype Pizzolatto hadn't already poured into Rust Cohle. At one point, he visits a doctor who advises him that while it's not impossible to live with unhealthy habits, he'd be better off not having every one under the sun. To make sure an intimidation victim gets the point he already made with blood, Ray warns him, "I'll come back and (violent sexual act) your (male loved one) with your (female loved one)'s headless corpse on your lawn."