Is Season 2 of 'True Detective' a New Form of Art or Just Another Wannabe?

Our TV critic spends 10 hours binge-watching the HBO show, and arrives at a conclusion.

Michael Handelzalts
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Vince Vaughn as Frank Semyon in 'True Detective.'Credit: Courtesy
Michael Handelzalts

In psychology, “frustration” – so I’m told by Wikipedia (“In the beginning God created the Wikipedia”) – is “a common emotional response to opposition. Related to anger and disappointment, it arises from the perceived resistance to the fulfillment of individual will. The greater the obstruction, and the greater the will, the more the frustration is likely to be.”

That is the theory. Whereas, in practice, I spent almost 10 consecutive hours last Saturday bingeing on the eight episodes of season two of the HBO series “True Detective,” created and written – singlehandedly – by Nic Pizzolatto. True, I could have spaced myself and watched it on Yes Oh every Monday at 04:00, concurrently with its airing in the U.S., making the series an acquired taste, but I decided to withhold my judgement until the second season had run its course (on August 9), with the cat (the outcome of the plot, the whodunit, the “who won, who lost”) being out of the bag.

Hence my frustration: I know much too much, and based on that, I can either prove it is indeed the series that transforms the serial police procedural – a rather inferior species of a formulaic TV entertainment that is concocted by a committee (or a computer) – into a form of art, almost a classic novel in frames and episodes, or demonstrate that it is yet another wannabe, more of the same commercial TV fodder. But you may not have seen all of it, or any of it, and it’s on Yes VOD, so if I divulge as much as a whiff of a detail from the plot, you will be screaming “spoiler.” That is the obstruction in the way of my will as a TV columnist, when trying to say something sensible and original about the second season of “True Detective”: I have to write about it without telling you anything about it. Frustration reigns supreme in my soul.

But I have procrastinated long enough, so here goes: Season two of “True Detective” valiantly tried to develop the traits which got it the accolades in season one – delivering an intriguing story with fully fleshed out characters in very specific surroundings – while trying at the same time to address specific complaints about its drawbacks. For instance, season one had two male protagonists (and the chemistry between Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, and their characters was indeed special), both good guys (policemen) but at the same time possibly “bad” in some way, and the women were mainly sex objects. Season two has three protagonists, all of them cops, two male – (California Highway Patrol officer and war veteran Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), Vinci Police Department detective Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) – and one female – Ventura County Sheriff’s Office CID Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams). “Ani” (short for Antigone; she has a sister named Athene; viewer, please note the Greek tragedy reference) is quite a character, and McAdams is a pleasure to watch (her acting skills and onscreen persona; it’s not – only – about her looks). She has a scene in a “sexual harassment workshop” for police officers – there was a complaint against her involving her relationship with a male subordinate – which is a gem, but I can’t elaborate.

Good or evil?

Season two takes place in California, with its highways, and is all about corruption in high places (season one was in Louisiana, with a lot of voodoo). Actually, season two has four protagonists: the fourth one is a criminal trying to go straight (a sort of entrepreneur, former gangster, drug dealer and pimp, Frank Semyon, played by Vince Vaughn). The fact that he is sort of on both sides of the law is what, effectively, makes the difference to the plot. So, actually season two has many good things about it. Its problem is that as a viewer, you tend to look at any detail in it not as a fact, but as being a correction, or development or reference to an asset or drawback of season one. And that is why season two, much more than season one, looks like a formula trying to reinvent itself in terms of the genre, instead of like a plot full of passion in which you feel for the characters and don’t analyze for the aesthetics of TV craft.

What made season one of “True Detective” unique was the fact that it sort of reeked of a bleak worldview. The character played by McConaughey was unflinchingly nihilistic in his approach to life and death (including his own). If anything, I was a bit disappointed when he mellowed toward the end. Season two hammers in its worldview, which is supposedly reflected by the plot, to wit: “We got the world we deserve.” There is also a strong undercurrent about parenting issues of all the characters.

Many lines of the dialogue, especially toward the end, have to do with the characters questioning themselves as to whether they are “good” or “bad” (Velcoro sees himself as ultimately “bad”; Ani believes in the inherent “good” in him, and possibly herself). Which may sound to some very original, until the moment one realizes that was in chapter two of Genesis when man and woman were tempted – on pain of death – to taste from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

One of the more interesting points about the second season of “True Detective” was made by TIME magazine’s TV columnist, James Poniewozik, in a column entitled “True Detective, Louie and the limits of TV Auterism”: “TV is historically a collaborative medium, because it has to be: there are too many moving parts and too many hours to fill for anyone to do it all. But the idea of the author-driven series has been growing in TV for decades () [some series creators and showrunners] became celebrated as artists, organizing their shows around a single vision and intention. () Pizzolatto, an author by background, was of that latter school, and that made season one of ‘True Detective’ what it was, for better and worse () That first season had definite weaknesses – it overdid the writerly monologues and suffered from flat characters, especially the women – but it sounded like nothing else, rich and haunting. Pizzolatto was using noir fiction the way detective writers did, as the greasy-spoon plate on which to serve an existentialist main course. But Pizzolatto had the classic songwriter’s problem: You have your whole life to make your first album, and a year to make your second.”

But never despair: Pizzolatto is committed to HBO for another season of “True Detective,” where he will have the opportunity to strike again. That is, after all, the true American way: three strikes and you’re out.