In Defense Of True Detective

Amidst this golden age of television, creators of popular television series are pressured to outdo themselves from season to season. For many viewers, True Detective’s sophomore installment seemed to fall drastically short in this respect. Though a distinct entry into the True Detective anthology, the level of scrutiny seen after each episode was often overwhelmingly hyper-critical and always relative to the first season. Despite some tonal problems and disjointedness between episodes, the second season of True Detective really was a worthy entry into the series and did not justifiably earn the bulk of criticisms against it.

From the desert flats to the loud streets of LA, True Detective shifted out of the bayou, giving viewers a view of  expanding industrial, urban sprawl. Brought together by the murder of  Ben Caspere, the influential city manager of Vinci CA, three detectives and a criminal begin to unravel a web of corruption. Along the way they realize harsh truths about themselves and the worlds they helped build.

The merits of the second season lie mostly in its cast. An enthralling performance by Colin Farrell as Vinci Detective Ray Velcoro brought a slew of affecting emotional and physical scenes to the screen. Farrell, as Ray, gave the show most of its soul, especially when speaking with his son. Viscerally inducing feelings of sadness and regret with every uncomfortable mannerism, those interactions proved to be some of the most memorable. A watershed moment comes when he realizes a rapist he thought he killed long ago, remains free, and the man he did kill was innocent. The dilation in his eyes screams one word: remorse.

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Other criticism stems from a general sense of confusion from viewers. With more characters to consider, some have suggested that it became too convoluted. The additional players, motivations and pieces to the puzzle would prove to be detrimental to non-attentive viewers. Despite the sometimes awkward shifts between episodes, the case being worked by our detectives was neither desultory nor overly complicated. Spelling out the entire mystery would have been detrimental to the show as a whole.

In an age where we expect more from our television, everyone becomes a critic, which can lead to unfair comparisons between distinct features of a program. The nature of an anthology series dictates that seasons operate mostly independently of one another (American Horror Story), which makes comparison a little more complicated. Certainly there is reason to compare the merits of seasons overall. Yet, there is a fairer comparison to be made of Season 3 and 4 of Breaking Bad because it follows the same characters, with the same intents, growth and actions. In an anthology, one would hope that, apart from genre, the seasons would be far different in terms of approach and message. This is achieved in True Detective as the first speaks to a struggle of absolutes (Rust’s black and white mentality) while Season 2 focuses on the evasion of reality, happening within each character in one form or another. Cursory, uninvested examination of a season, will probably leave some viewers feeling confused.

Taylor Kitsch exhibited another powerful performance as California state Officer Paul Woodrugh. While most of Ray’s conflict was outwardly expressed through violence, Woodrugh brought such conflict to light through offhand comments, glances, and troubling looks. This detective struggles with his sexuality, home life, identity and future through subtle hints, not expository speech or actions. Kitsch deftly showed attentive viewers that the real conflict of his character lied not in the case, but in himself.

The largest and most glaring problem with Season 2 occurs in its episodic progression. Tonally there were some confusing transitions, most notably between “Down Will Come” and “Other Lives,” episodes 4 and 5 respectively. “Down Will Come” closed on a massive shootout which left numerous civilians and police officers dead and  the main characters in shock amidst the carnage. The episode closed with a freeze frame of that image. “Other Lives” sees the group two months later, emotionally in better shape and moving beyond the incident. While this time lapse accounts for the characters ability to move forward, the shooting was still fresh in the minds of viewers. The lasting repercussions of the event are largely unseen and unmentioned apart from the opening scenes of “Other Lives,” which leads to a large disconnect between the caliber of the event and the effects seen on screen.

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The cause of this dissonance may be chalked up to the changes in director for each episode. One of the reasons Season 1 is so highly praised is because of the collective vision behind it. Nic Pizzolatto as the screenwriter proved he could produce compelling television. Directing Season 1, Cary Fukunaga worked with Pizzolatto to create a fluid, cohesive piece. The success of the first season speaks to the value of two people with a common vision working on a single piece. Season 2 was not graced with the same care and consideration. With six different directors taking the helm of the eight episode season, it is no surprise that the season’s progression felt uneven.

Vince Vaughn, apart from a few questionably executed lines, (“Sometimes your worst self is your best self”) gave a commendable performance. As an actor, Vaughn took control of his scenes, just as his character did in relation to those around him. As Frank, Vaughn used his sheer intimidating physicality in ways he often lets slide. Feeling his world collapse around him, Vaughn as Frank Semyon, embodies a balanced conflict of internal struggles and physical altercations.

Rachel McAdams playing Ani Bezzerides, appears to be the only odd casting choice. Whether due to writing or acting, her character was underwhelming and bland. Her conflict came only to the attention of viewers in the last couple episodes, cheapening the feelings (if any developed) for the character. If the goal of the role was to epitomize a tough and determined cop, she succeeded, but if there were any other considerations made for meaningful character depth it would appear that they have fallen to the wayside.

As often occurs when speaking nostalgically, many forget how Season 1 of True Detective began rather slowly and was cautiously, then fanatically embraced by viewers. In a world dominated by pop culture centrism and quick rises to popularity, the opinion of the masses may not be the most fair and thoughtful.The payoff came when looking at the whole picture. With so many jumping ship before seeing the show through to its rightful end, how fair can such critiques be?

Though imperfect, those who stuck around cannot honestly be wholly unimpressed.

Such a sentiment is expressed by Ray in one of his numerous recorded messages to his son.

“Loyalty’s important, and usually painful.”

Featured Image Courtesy of Home Box Office

About Caleb Griego 150 Articles
Caleb Griego is the arts & review editor of The Heights. He has put his earphones through the wash at least a dozen times and they still work. He still doesn't know who to thank, so he prays to all deities just to be safe.