Friday, August 7, 2015

On True Detective and Weird Fiction, a Defense

I loved the first season of True Detective. I wasn't one of those naysayers who saw the end and held my nose. I loved the way the Chambers/Lovecraft stuff was wrapped up: maybe it was part of Rust's dreamlike hallucinations, maybe it was real. We'll never know. In fact, my entire circle loved TD1. Everyone I know was floored by it. It was my first introduction to the depressive and dark Thomas Ligotti and it eventually opened the floodgates for me to delve into some of R. Scott Bakker's darker musings a la Blind Brain Theory. It made the Prince of Nothing even more poignant to me.

Then came season two. I was already prepared for the weird fiction elements to be stripped out. Pizzalotto said as much in a few interviews. But I held out hope season two would match season one in quality, whatever the tone and subject matter.

I wanted dark, brutal, uncompromising weird fiction out of season two. What we got was a Noire through the Pizzalotto lens. You can hear it in the trumpets, see it in the dark sleek atmospheres. Almost no one I know likes season two. My close friend stopped watching somewhere in episode two. "It's not as pretty. It's too [visually] dark. It's all shadows," she said. She's right. It doesn't bear up to the beautifully composed rot of season one. The cinematography was off in another world. And the acting, maybe, doesn't bear up to the career-defining performances of Woody Harrelson and Rustin Cohle (I mean Matthew McConaughey).

Yet there's something there. By no means do I argue that season two is as good as season one. It simply isn't. Pizzalotto tried to branch out and experiment and the limits of his craft as they currently exist were revealed. He is best when his characters are moving through an ugly dream of life, absolutely at his worst when allowing his characters to go off the rails and become caricatures of themselves, belching semi-deep and fake-heavy dialog. How did season one manage it? There was always a straight man to look at Rust and laugh, to remind him how creepy or weird or overdramatic he sounded.

We don't have anyone with any ground here. Sure, Woody Harrelson's Marty turned out to be a real piece of shit scumbag patriarchal misogynist codswallop. But we didn't know that at the beginning. Indeed, we have been given almost a negative of season one: the truth of the characters unfolded with the truth of the murders. The "mystery" was never that mysterious: we got an easy breakdown and wrapup, which is what irked a lot of people. The whole thing came out in the last two episodes. But the characters were slowly and methodically revealed the entire time. Just as the Mexican gangs Cohle mentioned, who pull back your face and show it to you before you die, season one was an exercise in showing people who they were and showing the audience at the same time.

Season two gives us everyone immediately. We get to know their flaws right away, before there's even a story. We don't discover them in the course of the tale, we know them, or feel we do. Sure, there are surprises along the way, and those are great surprises about them.

But fundamentally, the issue I think everyone is having with season two is an issue I'm not having. I bucked the noire atmosphere for a few episodes. I didn't want some neo-noire, I wanted fucking yellow signs and the existential threat to the human race of its own false consciousness. But once I realized what I was dealing with (at the end of the first episode) and learned to cope with the difference (end of the second episode), I actually began to enjoy season two. A lot.

Now sure, there are problems. Problems I would never have poked at in season one. For example, can it really be that only the main characters survived that shootout? That's lazy writing. Characters sometimes groan heavy with the depth of philosophical weight they're forced to murmur to each other in the car (note: for Pizzalotto, the car is a place of intimacy, perhaps the only place in the entire series where people are straight with each other). Exposition sometimes comes in big thick globs.

But seeing Frank Semyon and Ray (who's last name I forgot) stare each other down over the death of the wrong man? Hearing Semyon say "Don't you shoot me, Raymond," or "You may be the last friend I have left"? These are moments, just flashes mind you but they're there, of the beautiful glorious writing of season one.

Pizzalotto is still in there. Season two isn't pure genius straight from the tap of Valhalla like season one was, but it's still good (if confused) television. And Pizzalotto has the power in him to tell more season one True Detective stories.

If we destroy him now, we'll never hear them. And season two isn't worth crying over unless you're comparing it to season one. Don't do that. There's no comparison. Season one is the pinnacle of television perfection, second only to the Wire and Rome. Season two is just ok. But it's not bad.


  1. Honestly, season two has been a lot more enjoyable for me than season one. The first season was brilliant but as far as being able to sit down and just enjoy the hell out of it season two has been a better watch for me. Less creepy child molestation and a whole lot more corrupt city. Loving that change, though last week's episode was a breath-taker for sure.

    1. Also, I like Vince Vaughn's acting a lot in this season. He's made the show for me.

    2. I've yet to see the latest episode, which the internet is hailing as the episode that "makes True Detective good again," which I hope means that because I enjoyed the last few I will REALLY enjoy this one.

    3. If you liked the last few you'll love it!