After watching the Season 2 pilot of True Detective last night, the following question popped into my head. It hasn’t quite left me since: What makes True Detective True Detective?
The first thing I figured is that the anthology features detectives. Duh. Ok, got it. The second is that the setting, a strictly geographic American setting, must be personified as a character in and of itself. This involves many interspersed bird’s eye view shots above a sinister skyline, imbued with emotionally-inspiring color schemes and an ominous soundtrack adding to the series’ overall atmosphere. Throw in a movie-star status cast, a truly disturbing violently sexualized story-line (in other words, how HBO do), and intentionally deep, metaphysical ruminations about life, unfilled dreams, and the evil lurking within mankind, and voila, you have True Detective!
When considering an anthologized series, we must ask ourselves what characteristics hold the show together, and apparently, in regards to True Detective, this presented a problem for many viewers and critics.
Sifting through the internet last week, I came across an ample amount of hate for Season 2, which takes place in Los Angeles and, I admit, only barely manages to feel like it sort of relates to Season 1, set in the Louisiana bayou. As far as Episode 1 (“The Western Book of the Dead”) is concerned, Season 2 revolves around the intersecting lives of three detectives—Colin Farrell’s violently dangerous alcoholic city cop, Ray, who throws back another man’s Blue Label like it’s his job (it kind of is); Taylor Kitsch summoning his inner Michael Shannon to play Highway Patrolman Paul, who has suicidal reactions to hot women offering him sexual favors (just kidding, he’s depressed); and lastly, Rachel McAdams as Detective Antigone (!), who embodies the quintessential badass female cop to such perfection that it’s almost cliched… yet isn’t.
Add to our brooding gang Vince Vaughn’s wealthy and reticent corrupt gangster-turned city official Frank and his beautiful enigmatic wife (Kelly Reilly), and you got yourself a solid character-driven season, a show that has all of its fully-formed chess pieces in place. The plot revolves around a missing City Manager; his disappearance and subsequent murder derails (haha) Frank’s plan to develop a costly fed-approved railway project through central California.
So why so many negative reviews?
Many critics were put-off by writer Nick Pizzolatto’s dialogue, which definitely resembles that of our Season 1 universe, but comes off a little more noticeable this time around, most likely because we are now in a city we all recognize (and probably have frequented), and not in the deep backwater South, which retains so much mystery and stereotypical danger for the average viewer. However, I found the dialogue was wonderfully original and thought-provoking, filled with sadness and dead-ends, such as when Frank’s wife tells one of Frank’s employees “Everyone gets touched”, after learning about the disappearance of the City Manager. Or when Ray records himself on a hand-held voice recorder (presumably to his young son), saying, “I used to want to be an astronaut. Now astronauts don’t even go to the moon anymore.”
As far as the locale goes, Los Angeles presented here is like something from a Stanley Kubrick or David Lynch film, from unexpected fade outs, to oddly prolonged close-up shots, like when Vaughn and Farrell sit across from each other at a dive bar while a woman sings on stage under surreal lighting, to a wide-angle shot of Frank’s 1970’s gold-hued office, to the haunting, lingering shot of a costume bird’s-head in the passenger seat of the car that drives a dead man to his inevitable destination, bringing all our characters together.
It is an incredible feat to conjure up so many different characters, present them with so many interesting backgrounds, and actually make us want to watch more. The first season if True Detective was a success because of its terrifying, horror-like suspense and clever crime-mystery surprises. But it also had two amazing actors running the show, both of whom brought complexity and depth to their characters. Luckily, this remains the case for Season 2.
Part film-noir, part gangster film, part moody True Detective of yester-year, Season 2 has so much potential it’s nearly impossible to predict what’s going to happen next and not get sucked in to this universe. Personally, I’m so hooked already, I don’t really care how much this season follows in the footsteps of its predecessor.