With True Detective Season 2 now over – you can read our reviews here – one writer steps up to defend Nic Pizzolatto’s show from its critics.
True Detective is the most exciting thing to happen to television crime fiction since David Lynch and Mark Frost brought Twin Peaks into the world. Season 2, however, has been kicked in the head repeatedly by certain media outlets. The gloves were truly off as the weeks passed, with episode reviews detailing perceived failings with bullying relish. Not to look like a cynical contrarian or smart aleck telling the world they’re just plain wrong, but this time it’s entirely justified: True Detective Season 2 is a knockout masterpiece that has been greatly misunderstood by large chunks of the audience and the media.
Your preference might be for the current trend in morose, Scandinavian knitwear-clad detectives pining for the fjords, the forensic fantasies of CSI, the soapy banter of Bones, or the simpler pleasures of old Columbo and Poirot repeats on ITV3, but none of them trade in cosmic heaviness and existential angst quite like True Detective.
The debt to Frost and Lynch’s landmark television series has been duly noted. But Twin Peaks is essentially True Detective’s spiritual guru. Both carry out investigations into a genre above suspicion and take it as their remit to examine, even satirise, conventions and tropes, to produce a viewing experience way outside the norm. This is why Nic Pizzolatto’s HBO-backed creation feels so fresh and downright vital in a clogged up schedule of dime-a-dozen cop dramas and series’ doing hardly anything new with the formula.
For instance, the show’s title feels more than a touch satirical, or at least is invested in a certain sense of irony. Pizzolatto aligned it to old 1940s dime store crime fiction, and there was actually a magazine titled True Detective, which counted the great Jim Thompson among its contributors. Pizzolatto wasn’t at all interested in retro pastiche or cheap nostalgia, though. Instead, he has delivered two epic stories and a collection of characters defying all expectations and traditions.
Maybe the chief surprise of True Detective is its fundamental relationship to the horror genre. Season 1 was sometimes like a murder mystery written by H.P. Lovecraft. If Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) had looked up to the sky in the final episode and seen mighty Cthulhu emerging from a portal, it would not have been out of place at all. We’re so used to grounded gumshoe serials, where evil and bad things are explained as part of human nature. In True Detective, there is a sense of evil as a cosmic and guiding force in the universe. It’s incredibly eerie and startling. And when was the last time we heard a lawman expressing his thoughts in what often sounded like Manichean or pagan notions about the battles waged between light and dark? The answer is: never. Rust was more like a seer or mad hermit prophet than a detective working a case he and his partner had once messed up. The philosophically-minded aspects, poetic musings and stylised dialogue of True Detective is so far removed from the forensics-obsessed shop talk prevalent in so many programmes today. Perhaps that’s why, then, it’s been open to ridicule so often?
Joss Whedon once explained that Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s original premise was ‘high school as a horror movie’. Pizzolatto has given us ‘life/existence as a horror movie’. Critic Sam Ashurst pointed out on his Twitter page that if Season 1 was a monster movie, Season 2 is a ghost story. It’s a salient point and a good way into the series, if you’ve struggled and want to give it another whirl. Each character is haunted by their individual pasts and the mistakes they’ve made. It must feel to them that karma is coming around to collect.
Heroes can be complicated and sometimes they do bad things, always for the greater good mind you, but in True Detective Season 2, the protagonists are exceedingly damaged people. Ani (Rachel McAdams), Paul (Taylor Kitsch), Ray (Colin Farrell) and Frank (Vince Vaughn) are precariously balanced in the scheme of things, highly vulnerable, and therefore wide open to attack. They come across as lost souls stuck in limbo, the parched Hollywood hills standing in for Mount Purgatory.
Set in the fictional city of Vinci, California, located somewhere in Los Angeles County, the southern gothic landscapes and distinct cosmic-horror vibe from Season 1 has switched to what critic Leslie Byron Pitt coined as ‘new urban gothic’ (think: Starry Eyes, Maps to the Stars, Lost River, It Follows). This fits very well with the idea that Season 2 is a ghost story. Vinci is depicted as an industrial hinterland primarily made up of chemical plants, factories and warehouses. The repeated shots of snaking freeways give off ominous and foreboding emotions, too. Vinci is where corruption can thrive and also go unnoticed. There is even an amusingly peculiar detail, early on in the series, where Ventura County cops seem not to have even heard of the place. Ray quips that it’s ‘a city, supposedly’.
That True Detective Season 2 made pretty big demands on the viewer’s ability to focus on a story that redefines ‘twisty-turny’ is exemplary in this age. It can also be asking for trouble. But here is the thing: who killed Ben Caspere is not the most important narrative hook. It’s but a conduit into far more interesting regions of the narrative map. The complex multi-stranded plotting, which might have read, if it were a novel, like a gripping page turner, has produced bafflement for much of the run. It’s become a weekly gripe turned into cynical clickbait articles and passive aggressive ‘think pieces’. Yet Pizzolatto’s approach to the storytelling really doesn’t cater to weekly episode reviews; so much is deliberately obfuscated and left hanging. It’s done for a reason. You might not have liked that reason, but it’s absolutely not sloppy writing or poor craftsmanship. True Detective Season 2 is just not for the casual viewer half-paying attention, eyes flicking between the TV screen and the smartphone. No wonder it has, to para-quote a much derided line by Frank Semyon (Vaughn has been excellent playing against type), given viewers “blue balls in your brain”. How about giving something your undivided attention? How would that be?
True Detective is such a beguiling and impressive television drama, turning a format and genre inside out. It’s like a building by architect Richard Rogers. True Detective is the Centre Pompidou of detective shows. Reaction to Season 2 has been very mixed, for sure, but it was always doomed to high expectations after the southern gothic horror of Season 1 and that perfect partnership between Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey.
I hope the media-stoked negativity and audience dissatisfaction does not consign the show to the ground way before its time. True Detective Season 2, like its predecessor, has given the detective format a much-needed kick in the pants. It does not suffer from the television version of Difficult Second Album syndrome. True Detective Season 2 is something of a marvel.