It was supposed to be a lot of things – groundbreaking, event television, and a worthy follow up to the impossibly good 1st Season. Instead it wound up here on The Takedown. But the fact of the matter is that in my heart of hearts, I actually liked season 2 of True Detective. I’d say that this is going to hurt me more than I’ll hurt it, but that’s not how it works around here.
First, let’s get the nonsense out of the way. No, Season 2 of True Detective is not as good as Season 1. There were a lot of things that happened to fall just so for S1 to work out the way that it did. A new writer with new ideas, matched with career best performances and a razor sharp director all came together to make something so good it make me angry. Assuming Season 2 was going to be on that level is simply asking too much, although it did manage to make me mad. Hoping that the “mythology” of S1 would be resolved, or that S2 would even follow the same noir archetypes was a hollow hope from the start. The name and writer Nic Pizzolatto might be the same, but nothing else was going to be.
So if you’ve come to hear me rant about how S2 “ruined” everything, until I turn all blue and bile-filled spittle splashes across the screen in thick clumps, then you’re out of luck. This collection of tripe was a special sort of shit snowflake all on its own. Saying that it wasn’t the same as S1 is letting it off the hook for a whole hell of a lot of things that it screwed up.
One of the issues with directly comparing the two is that S2 was a different genre entirely. Now do not get me wrong, there is a lot wrong with S2, but that it wasn’t the Southern Gothic Noir of S1 is not one of them. S2 was what you would call a Neo-Noir. That means that it is a noir with all of the character tropes that you would expect – crime, corruption, nihilist tendencies, good guys that are not all good, and “dames.” The “Neo” part of the trope means that it is a “New” version. In other words a Neo-Noir is a re-imagining of what noir ought to be, frequently by changing up how the tropes play out. Examples of Neo-Noir include Blade Runner, L.A. Confidential, Chinatown, Memento, or if you’re of the digital set, L.A. Noire.
The thing is that this show seemed to forget all about the conventions of Neo-Noir. Genre stuff, almost as a rule, is about the conventions that exist within it. Some things are able to subvert conventions, but True Detective is not good enough to do that. It hinted at genre subversion in S1 with the Yellow King plotline, but generally played it reasonably straight. Coincidentally, it used the genre tropes of noir as a playground to give the audience a character study of the characters Rust Cohle and Martin Harte. S2 just took all of the tropes, and played them so straight that it became uncomfortable. What we were left with are things that, at a cursory glance have the correct shapes, but without any of the extra effort to make it work. This brings us to the characters.
Right then, let’s pull out the endoscope and get deep inside these people. In noir of any type, your characters must be likable. Fucked up as he was, Marv in Sin City was likable. Chinatown’s Jake Gittes is likable. Flawed – yes, but they are likable. I know, I know, I can hear you saying out there in internet land that likable characters are not needed for fiction.
Before you writers out there reach for your pitchforks, allow me to drop some knowledge on you. In noir many of the stories are Man vs Man but taken to their logical extreme where they morph into Man vs Society. The world of a noir story is fundamentally jacked. The hero (or anti-hero as the case may be) is the audience point of view. In noir, we need to root for them to succeed. They might not, but we need to want them to. While they may have severe character defects, they usually have some code of honor. Basically, we need to like them more than whatever they are fighting against, and believe that whatever the main character has as a moral center is better than what is around them.
In True Detective, Pizzolatto forgot about all of that first part and instead gave us a collection of character flaws that walked around and pretended to be human, almost like he was writing for E! What he forgot about entirely was all of the rest of the trope – the likable rogue part. The closest thing we have to that is the character of Frank Semyon – played by Vince Vaughn. He is a gangster who is trying to go straight via the use of a rail corridor (read: MacGuffin meted out in acres) development deal. He’s trying to get over his criminal past (the noir flaw) and live up to the standards of his wife while his mission is basically built around greed. We’ll get back to him.
Next up coming out of the clown car is Ray Velcoro played by Colin Farrell, He’s a drunk with a kid that may or may not be his, and he’s generally a cog in the larger corruption machine. As stated in a much better inversion of noir tropes, he starts off as “the tyranny of evil men.” He’s a drunk wreck with nothing going for him at all.
But when he thinks he’s at his lowest he comes across Ani Bezzerides (who I will refer to exclusively as “Ani” because these names are impossible). She is a tough detective for the Sheriff’s department who uses men and forgets about them. She drinks a lot too, and grew up in a commune or something. Also, (spoils) she was bad touched as a kid by one of her Dad’s hippie friends. This plays out on screen a lot like Velcoro’s character, which means a lot of brooding and drinking, only with exactly one fewer mustache. Also, you know a good old-fashioned character trait from teenage D&D campaigns? Let’s give her knives, because characters defined by their weapons is totally something that you do in adult drama.
Finally, rounding out our cast of misfits is Paul Woodrugh, played by Takedown Alum Taylor Kitsch. I swear that I thought his name was “Woodrow” until I looked it up right now to check the spelling. Just screw all the names in this with a nail bat. Anyway, he’s a damaged former military guy who is secretly in the closet. His flaw is that he has this very specific idea about what masculinity is – girlfriend, kids, cool motorcycle, that he chases that sort of life in spite of the fact that he would clearly be much happier just being himself. Like everybody else in this show except for Semyon, this presents itself as a lot of brooding and drinking.
But the question becomes so what? We’re supposed to be interested in these jerks uncovering corruption in the fictional town of Vinci and making the world a marginally better place? Oh no. I would barely care if these four people were saving the actual Earth that I live on from destruction at the hands of Galactus, and even then I would barely give a half hearted tug. In episode 2 Velcoro gets shotgunned right before the credits and honestly my thought at the time was, “well, that saves some space in my brain.” I was so little invested in any of them, that when there was the possibility that one of them died, I couldn’t have found a shit to give if I used GPS.
It gets worse as the show goes on. You see, the specifics that I gave you above are more or less it. Character revelations about that reveal why they all act out in exactly the same way are pointless. They have no bearing on the plot, and it’s not like the characters change in any real way during the plot. Woodrugh for example is gay, but that entire through-line goes no place and takes 7 episodes to get there. I think that there might be more character development over 7 episodes of Chopped. S1 got away with this because the nature of the case affected Cohle and Hart in different ways, and their relationship shifted over time. But they started off as fully developed characters. S2 had these rough ideas and hoped that they somehow worked out.
I think that this most egregious sin happened almost exclusively because of an overstuffed cast Much like in the X-Men movies, there are too many people for any of them to get time on the screen. Since you have to flesh out the four main characters and their associates and get the plot moving along it forces you to paint them out in the broadest of strokes. noir is not really the sort of thing that lets you make broad declarations and just go with it. Instead it lives in the shadows and the gray areas. You need subtlety. In S2 of True Detective we didn’t get subtlety, we got ciphers.
Coincidentally, this complete lack of useful characterization comes to a head when it runs directly into…
One of the conventions of a good noir, and indeed any sort of crime story involving corruption, is that the plot tends to run a little complicated. The motivations for characters and suspects run deep, like a pudding, and the sense that things are not as they seem. However, in these situations the plot is supposed to be a form of backdrop – it’s just a stage.
Look, in S1 there was also a big, kinda derpy thing that was going on in the background, and the protagonists were supposed to be figuring it out. But that was the context, not the reason. It was just a place to play with the characters and give them interesting interactions and situations to develop character.
Instead, S2 confuses method for purpose, and gives us a labyrinth of a plot that we are supposed to wade through like ankle deep puppy slaw. At this point I would usually go on, at length about the plot and explain the where’s and why’s and who’s, but I’m not going to do that this time because the plot is long and bullshit and as I have stated, not supposed to be the point. If you want the full details there are other people that did the Lord’s work of connecting the dots so we don’t have to. Click if you want but you’re not going to learn anything useful. I mean, at least if you click here you’ll learn something and still respect yourself in the morning.
You know that the “mystery” is as irrelevant as Must See TV Thursday, since S2 of True Detective doesn’t even try to tie any of it up. There is a scene in an airport where things are caught on tape and apparently “solves” the the thing. Only it doesn’t. Instead it reveals another level of corruption and implies that there is another one after that. It is at that point both the audience and the characters decide that they would rather get out of town instead. Only S2 of True Detective is like Olive Garden – everything is corrupt and almost nobody is getting out alive.
I get the impression that the writer couldn’t get out of their own creation cleanly. I am not saying that these sorts of stories need to have endings that even border on happy, but some sense of resolution would be nice. In the end, all the plot managed to do was create an excuse for people to come after our protagonists and try to kill them. Only at this point most of the audience wants to apply a nailgun to these characters too.
What’s even more depressing than listening to the Cure, is that there is a good show buried in the bowels of this one. Let’s put on our magic thinking hat and figure out where S2 shit the bed. First, there are way too many blank characters and they are taking up too much of the damn story. However the plot can more or less be cleanly divided into two pieces. Let’s do that. There is the part with the cops Velcoro, Ani, and Woodrugh, and then there is the part with gangster Frank Semyon. The mystery of a corrupt city official being killed and a police task force involving the needlessly complex California police forces could be interesting.
That is a plot that I can get behind since each of the characters would be able to use their resources in different ways. Hacking out the gangster parts also reduces the number of characters and gives the ones you have enough space to breathe and/or auto-erotically asphyxiate. Hell, even finding out that whatever corruption is involved with all of their respective forces makes could at least be interesting because you could have those characters deal with it in their own unique ways. Instead we we given a trio of mopey drunks who make sad faces and never justify why they are from different police forces. But then again, these are just excuses to have characters do character stuff.
The show that I would have rather watched is the Frank Semyon show. You know what’s noir as fuck? Gangsters doing gangster shit. Sure, whatever, take the whole rail corridor thing and run with it. Build a mystery and fill that whole thing with corruption, because sure, why not? I think that would be fascinating because there would still be that mystery to solve, but instead would be built around somebody who does not have the same sort of resources that the police do. As a bonus his specific methods get to be a lot more exciting. Case in point: Semyon was a dude that (spoils) used a pair of pliers to rip a guy’s gold teeth out, teeth he then proceeded to carry around in his coat pocket. Semyon is the closest (and best) reason to watch this show, and every time he wasn’t on screen I could my interest flagging.
Instead nobody got the screen time they needed to develop the way that the genre needs. So in the real S2 (not the one that we would like to have) we are left with a plot that falls apart. This is a direct consequence of the lack of character development, which never gave us a reason to care about the outcome. Assuming that the audience should care because you said so is the hacky-est of writer nonsense. I mean, in the end not even the characters cared about Pizzolatto’s insipid drool plot. When you try to think about why any of them actually do anything the answer is always, “because the plot needs it.” If that’s the only reason, well, then you done fucked up son.
There’s a line about fury and sound that would be apropos for this entire season of True Detective. There was a bunch of stuff that happeneࡤ and the final outcome was a thunderous, “meh?” But like I said way up at the top, for everything that S2 did so wrong because it tried too much. It’s a failure, but a noble one, and I can’t just hate it entirely.
And that, is the closest you’re ever going to see to a “positive” end note on the Takedown. Agree, disagree, or agree to disagree in the comments.
Until next time.