Two months ago, I asked a deceptively simple question: True Detective is a show about legacy; it’s an homage to the classics of the detective novel and film noir; it’s a fragment of Lynchian pop culture; it’s a writing exercise that expanded to swallow up its own foundation.
Eight episodes later and most of us – those being fair in our evaluation of the second season – are no closer to a perfect understanding of Pizzolatto’s show than we were at the conclusion of season one. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t learn a few lessons along the way. In setting out to do something different, Pizzolatto has conveniently mapped some of the borders of what True Detective might be.
Here are my five key takeaways from True Detective, season two.
Three Is Company, Five Is a Crowd
Back in the True Detective offseason, when fans were looking for any insight into the show’s second season, one of the most interesting pieces of writing was a Vanity Fair interview with showrunner Nic Pizzolatto. In the interview, Rich Cohen documents Pizzolatto’s quick rise to superstardom within Hollywood and asks the writer about his plans for the show’s second season. “I think whatever I had to say about the buddy-cop genre I said,” Pizzolatto answered, setting the stage for myriad second-guessing in the months to come. “Do you really just want to see two stars riding around in a car talking?”
Within the context of the interview, it’s a nondescript answer, one echoing the promise of every rising artist to keep pushing new boundaries and testing themselves against the limits of their craft. In the contentious world of True Detective fandom, however, these words may as well be Pizzolatto’s eulogy. Would audiences have reacted better if season two were only Ray Velcoro and Frank Semyon swapping vague threats in a bar? Should we admire Pizzolatto’s attempt to crafter a three-dimensional female officer in Bezzerides or condemn the man for not knowing his own limitations? Would we rather True Detective be a great show that lacks in diversity or a mediocre show that tries to set an example?
If there is some kind of common ground between fans and critics of the series, it is that Pizzolatto’s desire to be more than the guy who writes two stars in a car caused him to overcorrect and create a needlessly complicated web of people. At its heart, the first season of True Detective was a self-contained structure of love and lies between three people. With season two, Pizzolatto expanded his main cast to five characters, choosing to provide each with unrelated relationships and complex backstories. The need to keep switching between storylines made it difficult for Pizzolatto to lock characters like Woodrugh and Jordan Semyon fully into place; it also guaranteed that audiences would leave disappointed with a lack of closure for all involved. If Pizzolatto is unwilling to find a happy medium between the bloated narrative of season two and the “stars in cars” ease of season one, then the only streamlined True Detective we can look forward to hinges on the availability of serial tinkerers Topher Grace and Steven Soderbergh.
True Detective is Still Actor Rehab (With a Catch)
Ever since the beginning of the McConaissance, people have acknowledged that a season on True Detective is an excellent way to revitalize a lagging career. Mainstream audiences who were unlikely to watch movies like Mud and Killer Joe embraced Matthew McConaughey as a bonafide Hollywood star due to his performance as Rust Cohle. Meanwhile, people predicted that a stint in the True Detective universe would work wonders for public perception of Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn, two surprising choices for the show’s second season. They were right: Farrell has parlayed his True Detective success into J.K. Rowling’s newest film franchise while Vaughn has traded in profane comedies for period war films by Academy Award-winning directors (fine, so it’s Mel Gibson, but the larger point still remains).
One thing to consider, though, is the narrow scope of Pizzolatto’s curative powers. If we single out Matthew McConaughey, Colin Farrell, and Vince Vaughn as actors whose stock has soared as a result of their True Detective performances, we can start making some inferences as to the type of actors that would benefit most from the True Detective bump. For starters, each of these three actors fits a certain profile: white, forty, experienced in both dramas and dark comedies, and at a point in their career where they’re willing to gamble a bit to rebuild their reputation. Pizzolatto’s gifts as a writer – prodigious though they may be – do not extend to writing three-dimensional women or giving younger actors their first crack at serious dramatic work.
For better or worse, True Detective works best when it helps transition actors from the vitality of their leading man days to the relative fragility of their middle years. Actors who previously leaned on their physicality to sell action sequences and comedy are now playing fathers and middle management; True Detective gives a face to the awkward period between an actor’s peak and the elderly bitterness normally saved for the diminishing returns of Alan Arkin. Should this trend continue and Pizzolatto go hunting for his next actors in season three, he will have an endless supply of talented men looking for a chance to move back into the spotlight. Would True Detective pump life into the career of John Cusack? Adrien Brody? Would someone like Adam Sandler ever dare to give himself over to True Detective’s prose? Season two may have introduced us to the limitations of Pizzolatto’s writing, but there is still a lot of room within those parameters for shared success.
Showtime Needs to Hurry Up With Twins Peaks Already
While it may be difficult to identify the best or worst episode of this season of True Detective, you could probably make a compelling argument for July sixth as the season’s best day. That date – the Monday immediately following Ray Velcoro’s not-so-surprise return from the dead – gave fans and critics a glimpse into the Lynchian nightmares they hoped would play a big part of True Detective’s second season. Wired referred to the episode as taking “a hard left into David Lynch territory;” Grantland pointed out that the show had turned, “consciously or not, to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive as a central text.” The previous day, timed to coincide with the release of the episode, Vulture also published Bilge Ebiri’s piece examining the season’s Lynchian overtones; the spoiler-heavy contents meant that most read it that Monday for the first time.
David Lynch’s influence has been a major talking point in 2015, not only due to the resurgence of his own television show but also in the ways that controversial filmmakers like Nic Pizzolatto and M. Night Shyamalan have drawn on his work for their own franchises. For almost six contiguous weeks, both Pizzolatto’s True Detective and Shyamalan’s Wayward Pines did their best to remind audiences of the visual and thematic style that made David Lynch a household name. And here, at the end of both seasons, audiences have decided that neither show fully delivered on that promise. There is no denying that True Detective’s second season would be worse without its bits of surrealistic flair, but perhaps audiences would have felt less let down without being reminded of the potential in modern Twin Peaks.
The good news? Yesterday, Showtime announced that production would begin this fall on the new season of Twin Peaks, with David Lynch shooting the show in “one giant block” and absent any firm release schedule (outside of a vague 2016 or 2017 date). Does this long lead time and emphasis on cinematic television sound familiar? With fans finally getting the Twin Peaks sequel they’ve always wanted, perhaps the need for True Detective to fill that gap will lessen, allowing Pizzolatto to keep his flourishes of Lynchian style as just that: flourishes.
The Real Genius Behind True Detective Might Be T. Bone Burnett
After watching audiences award much of the success of True Detective to season one director Cary Fukunaga, certainly the last thing that Nic Pizzolatto wants is for another one of his collaborators to be singled out. Then again, T. Bone Burnett could choose to retire tomorrow and still been assured of his place in film history. Setting aside his career as a singer-songwriter and producer for artists like Roy Robison and Elvis Costello, Burnett has spent the last fifteen years building an impressive resume as a soundtrack producer and composer. Burnett was nominated for his first Academy Award in 2004 for the title song on Cold Mountain soundtrack; he would later win an Oscar for the original song “The Weary Kind” off the Crazy Heart soundtrack. In the interim, Burnett would produce a mixture of critically and commercially successful soundtracks, including O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Walk The Line, and Inside Llewyn Davis.
With a personal style built on traditional Americana and rockabilly music, Burnett was the perfect choice to accompany the rural landscapes of True Detective’s first season. Had Pizzolatto chosen to switch composers for season two – ditching Burnett in favor of a composer more regularly associated with American jazz – fans would have viewed it as another indicator of the show’s shift in tone and location. Instead, Burnett’s role as composer and music curator was revealed to be hugely important to the concept of True Detective as anthology television. Building off the industrial and percussive sound effects of 2006’s “The True False Identity,” Burnett’s first studio album in fourteen years and one that received favorable comparisons to artists like Tom Waits, the soundtrack for season two shifts effortlessly from country to city, allowing Burnett to mix together old classics (Conway Twitty’s “The Rose”) with emerging artists (a show-stealing Lera Lynn).
While Pizzolatto struggled to maintain a consistent tone in a new setting and with a host of new directors, Burnett’s role as composer and music producer was an invaluable steadying influence. Should Pizzolatto sign on for another go in the writer’s chair, Burnett’s music will once again be an important piece of connective tissue between seasons and part of what makes the series recognizable as True Detective.
We Will Never Stop Fighting About This Damn Show
Even the most peaceful denizens of Film (Television?) Twitter have to know that this was a rough season for True Detective. Negativity towards the cast and crew was ubiquitous; even limited or qualified praise for the show could make a writer feel like he or she was joining Butch in Sundance in their famous last stand. Critics also had to struggle with the burden of lopsided opinions: people who disliked the show tended to hate it while the show’s fans rarely mustered more than balanced praise for the aspects that worked. For some, it was a good season, but not the kind of television that lends itself to arguing against polemics.
And should True Detective stick around for another season, the conversation isn’t likely to get any less contentious. What began with the burden of expectations has now expanded and twisted to fold in the kind of personal evaluation of Nic Pizzolatto’s worth as a writer and a Hollywood figurehead. We cannot simply talk about what worked and didn’t work in the show; instead, we discuss the battle for creative control between Pizzolatto and Fukunaga or the author’s inability to write female characters. By crafting his series as sole-source storytelling, Pizzolatto has left himself open to the kind of auteur criticism we normally reserve for film. And like many conversations centered on auteur theory, the conversations stray from the films themselves awfully quickly.
The best case scenario, of course, is that there is a season three and that it is widely adored by all. This would allow fans of the second season to feel rewarded for their good faith while its critics would be justified in pointing out what didn’t work by the return of True Detective’s prestige characteristics. But should the show continue to stumble – or worse, should Pizzolatto choose to walk away entirely – the issue of True Detective’s quality would be a blood feud with no battleground to fight upon. This alone may be reason enough for Pizzolatto to return; I fear we have not yet begun to fight.