True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto is a big deal—and he wants you to know it.
That’s the veiled message of the highly-anticipated second season premiere of his critically acclaimed anthology crime drama. With masterful direction by Cary Joji Fukunaga and strikingly forceful performances by dysfunctional buddy-cop duo Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, True Detective’s first season was an instant, addictive hit when it first aired on HBO. The decaying morass of the Louisiana bayou, Rust Cohle’s (McConaughey) droning, hypnotic nihilism, and a touch of gritty occult mystery combined into a perfect storm of prestige television. And with a stacked cast of Vince Vaughn, Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, and Taylor Kitsch, fans seemed sure that lightning would strike twice when the second season premiered on Sunday.
Pizzolatto, being the brilliant but somewhat insufferable auteur that he is, certainly tried hard to show us just how damn dark and brilliant he is. Set in the fictional, corrupt Los Angeles industrial exurb of Vinci (based on real-life California industrial town Vernon), Pizzolato ups the ante in every way possible. There’s the the operatic dialogue: “Behold what used to be a man,” deadpans criminal and entrepreneur Frank Semyon (Vaughn) on his character’s impotence; a few scenes later, he cautions an associate to “never do anything out of hunger—not even eat.” There’s the moral ambiguity tinged with oddly macho melancholy: Detective Ray Velcoro (Farrell) beats the shit out of his son’s bully’s father before threatening the 12-year-old himself. And there’s Pizzolatto’s much-maligned woman problem: He compensates for last season by essentially writing Detective Antigone (really?) Bezzerides (McAdams) as the show’s fourth male lead.
But somehow, True Detective’s second season is too much of a good thing. The dialogue careens from emptily baroque to cartoonishly vile (Farrell to 12-year-old: “I'll come back and butt-fuck your father with your mom's headless corpse on this lawn." Um, ok?). The story, spread thin across the four leads, is more of a pastiche of broken, dysfunctional lives threaded haphazardly together with excessive exposition. The familiar twin tropes of impotence and mortality carried over from the first season don’t seem as convincing without the strange subtlety of McConaughey and Harrelson’s. The result is a show collapsing under the weight of its own plot and Pizzolatto’s own ego.
Cinematic overkill aside, there’s another element that may explain the disappointment over the second season. Let’s call it a “sequel paradox.” In the eyes of the film industry, a sequel is as close as you can get to an affirmation of critical success; it means your story resonated with a broad enough audience and generated enough buzz to prove a sure bet for a film industry dependent on sequels and remakes for revenue. But despite the fact that the majority of sequels are usually worse than the original (according, at least, to a 2011 analysis of MetaCritic reviews by ScreenQuant), many sequels still outperform their predecessors at the box office. There’s a simple reason for this: Despite terrible writing or seizure-inducing direction, it’s the characters people adore—the Don Drapers, Walter Whites, and Leslie Knopes—that draw them back to theaters (or back to their TVs for another season). Viewers simply want to see how their story ends for them.
This is why True Detective’s second season seems like such a let-down for critics; Nic Pizzolatto is giving the audience what he thinks they loved about the first season—his creative vision, presented formulaically. But by adopting the anthology model and jettisoning the familiarity of the Louisiana bayou, Pizzolatto threw away a major unconscious sticking point for his audience—and, in turn, his insulation against failure. Even when breakout series like Lost, Weeds, and Dexter grew stale or declined into a spiral of ludicrous, nonsensical storytelling, die-hard fans stuck around just to see how each characters’ story will conclude. Other shows like The Wire have pulled off a rotating anthology format that was supposed to be an asset to True Detective, but at least The Wire maintained its connections to the institutions and players of Baltimore; the only glimmer of Harrelson and McConaughey is in the opening credits...as executive producers. Vaughn, Farrell, and their co-stars may deliver fine performances yet, but by wiping the slate clean, Pizzolatto took a leap of faith that fans of the first season were coming back simply for his particular brand of Shakespeare noir.
Writing for Vanity Fair, Rich Cohen describes Pizzolatto like this: “When I was a boy and dreamed of literature, this is how I imagined a writer.” The problem, it seems, is that Pizzolatto imagined writers that way too. Without the insulation of the sequel paradox, Pizzolatto is treating fans to the Nic Pizzolatto Show and not the True Detective they were anticipating. Time will tell how long they’ll stick around.
Photos by HBO