The Mess of Skywalker: Too Many Sith on the Dance Floor

The Mess of Skywalker: Too Many Sith on the Dance Floor

I don’t give a man’s ass if you care about the spoilers I’m about to unload on you for Star Wars EP IX: The Rise of Skywalker because that movie is some hot dogshit.

First, let me make something clear. There are a lot of reasons why this movie doesn’t work but the performances were not one of them. Everyone did a pretty stellar job turning in performances for a bat-shit crazy script. Also, I’m not trying to attack the film the same way a rabid Star Wars fan would because the movie “messed up the lore.” Naw, I want to take a look at the script and talk about the problems of its narrative– and since this will be the last post of the decade, and since the problems I noticed are indicative of some troubling cinematic trends of the 2010s, this’ll also serve as a quaint little retrospective. SO. What went wrong with the Rise of Skywalker? 

Let’s start with the fact that it has four credited screenwriters, including the director JJ Abrams. I’ve talked before of how a showrunner requires a writer’s room in order to produce a quality show, else be cast the fate of True Detective: Season 2. But cinematic screenplays seem to suffer under the weight of too much influence. We saw this in 2015’s Jurassic World (totaling 5 credits for the screenplay). That final product we saw nearly five years ago was a patchwork of unrelated threads and tangents presented as if it should make any linear sense but was simply a sequence of vignettes loosely tied to the franchise’s conceit.

The Rise of Skywalker might be worse in this regard, the first two acts seemingly jumping around from five-second scene to the next five-second scene at such a dizzying rate that it felt as if I watch watching a music video than the world’s most successful movie this year. One suspects that one of the culprits was having spread the writing duties too thin across four people and then having to fold everything into something resembling a story. Writing is generally a solitary craft for this reason–or an extremely intimate one between a trusted collaborator– as it is hard to telegraph a singular vision of a story to even one other person before it’s finished. Imagine that problem multiplied three more times and the screenplay’s lack of communication within itself makes sense– even if the script doesn’t.

Some of these issues, however, could have been fixed with heavy revisions that would have required condensing smaller portions of the film into one. The afore-mentioned five-second scenes are largely in place to exposit where the team was heading in the next scene. There are just too many goddamn locations in this film. They go to Pasaana, they go to Kim Chi (I know that’s not the name, I’m not looking it up!), they go to Kef Bir, the rebel base is in a forest somewhere, Rey goes back to  Ahch-To and Tatooine at certain points, but the final act all happens around Exegol. That’s not even including the set pieces of the Star Destroyer(s). There’s no space to breathe when the story is always pushed to the next set. Abrams, perhaps, wanted to send off the trilogy with a tour of yet unexplored planets– or more likely, the four screenwriters fucked up and wrote in too many locations separately and merged all of these together. The obvious fix is to nix a planet, but the way the scenes seem to be arranged, and it barely made sense then, taking out any more of the story would fell this tensile house of cards.

Too many locations were behind another colossal disappointment of the decade, the should-have-been-great 007 feature Spectre which boasts a whopping 158 filming locations. Compared to the also-bloated-but-more-reasonable 51 of Skyfall and you can perhaps see where I’m going with this. When every scene is just a setup to get the next setup, there’s no basis to ground the audience. I can’t tell you what the hell happened in that movie because, as it was also a final installment of sorts, most of it was a marathon run of Bond doing “cool things” in “cool locations” and the value of any of those actions was entirely lost on me. Likewise, Rise falls into the same trap (although the filming was done almost entirely on green screens) taking place in too many locations to the point where it felt as if it didn’t take place anywhere. We got shown a weird alien version of Burning Man, only to get whisked away by Lando to get fed some exposition, leading to the next truncated action scene to find one of…

Too many MacGuffins. In other words, there are too many objectives. The dagger makes no logical fucking sense. The victory of finding the second wayfinder (for all of the dumb Star Wars bullshit names for stuff, an old nautical term for this magic GPS was a kick in the dick) was immediately nullified. Finn and whatshername crossing the waves to reach Rey, also rendered meaningless. Finn heading towards the control tower, also pointless. In this fuckin’ Star Wars movie, in addition to finding a 20-year old blade that belongs in the Goonies and enchanted map prisms, the gang has to hack into C3P0’s mainframe (the tears spent on his lost memory lasts about fifteen minutes before it’s restored), save Chewbacca from the bad guys (the pangs from his percieved death lasts 13 seconds), repair the Falcon, save Ben’s soul from the Dark Side and ON and ON and FUCK. It is the cinematic equivalent to watching a child play with action figures, endlessly explaining “and then…” but with million-dollar sets. How can you convincingly express a character’s motivation if they are narratively motivated to find 13 different things? Speaking of which.

The erratic character motivations are a symptom of too many fuckin’ characters. The character of Finn has to respond to Rey, New Han Solo, Rose, New Girl-Who-Used-to-be-a-Stormtrooper. A lot’s been made of the fact that Rose’s character has essentially been benched, and the explanation was one of cutting scenes to make the movie fit into two hours and 35 minutes (UGH), but really, when you decide to make a trilogy centering around four principal characters (Rey, Kylo, Finn, New-Han-Solo) and you give each of them five other characters to interact with, it’s going to be messy. What the hell does Finn want? We don’t know, other than he has something really important to tell Rey, which was apparently not “let’s bang” but instead “I”m force-sensitive” which is just… you fuckers… it’s just unnecessary (especially since it was only explained via a panel interview with Abrams).

We don’t really know what Rey wants, either. She just bounces from A to B. We know that she’s afraid of succumbing to the Dark Side, but there’s been nothing in the previous two films to indicate that she ever would. So. Who gives a shit? But probably the most egregious case of this is when homeboy Abrams introduces MORE GODDAMN characters and they behave like fuckin’ nonsense puppets. The bounty hunter chick that New Han So-Poe used to shuffle uglies with goes from “I can turn you in for a bounty” to “Just between you and me, I think you’re pretty OK,” in SECONDS. Then, she asks Poe to run away with her, lascivious eyes and all, and when he declines the offer, she gives him the thing that she was going to use to escape. Regardless of HOW she escaped without that medal (another macguffin? kinda? one that we didn’t know they needed?) homegirl shows back up with the weird monkey Gremlin to help save the day and in a closing scene (that I actually liked) rebuffs the suggested make-out session implied by Poe’s expression. That scene worked in that moment but not the larger context of any sense of consistency. It was funny, unexpected, and a light little bow to put on that charact– WASN’T SHE GOING TO RUN AWAY WITH THE DUDE EARLIER THAT SAME DAY?! What the fuck does Kylo want? To turn Rey into his goth girlfriend? Is that it? Fuckin’ APPARENTLY. Who the fuck is that weird yellow alien with dicks hanging from his face? Why is he there? What’s his fuckin’ deal? (After a google search of “yellow dick alien slug” I found that he is A MECHANIC WITH NO DISCERNABLE ARMS FUCK YOU) Aren’t the Knights of Ren trained Jedi under Luke Skywalker who followed Ren to the dark side? Wouldn’t that have been an interesting moment if they allowed a moment’s breath to reflect on the fact that RenBen had to kill his old friends to save his new one? No? The only motivation that was clear was General Hux’s double-cross, because it was set up previously that he despised the direction that Kylo-Ren was taking his Order but that subplot was treated so flippantly that I barely remembered it before looking at a plot summary. Yes, the side-lining of Rose is indicative of shitty Hollywood trend to appease the toxic opinions of redpill redditors, but the tragedy of narrative here is that every character was sidelined and their stories were diminished into oblivion.

That’s not to say the movie didn’t do some things right. The final third of the movie, at least the bits of RenBen and Rey-Bae, was genuinely interesting as the movie slowed down around them to face each other on the fallen death star. One setting, two characters, strong emotions. That was good. It was also almost good when they combined forces to face Palpatine. Almost. It didn’t bother me all that much that Darth Sidious had been resurrected by old sith magic (blah blah the force and forbidden sciences, cool). But that fucker is a font of unnecessary explication to justify the existence of this trilogy without ever actually explaining anything. He created Snoke? The fuck for? You want to kill Rey? Or Kylo? Why? Oh, ReyBae and RenBen are a diad in the force? Is that just a cool word you learned? Why? And more importantly… who gives a shit? Is it so Palpatine can restore his powers? He didn’t know about their diad. But then he does restore himself using their force power. Couldn’t he have done that… with… anybody? What the fuck is going on? Half that diad is thrown out of the battle immediately so… goddammit, why are you telling me all of this, you shitty fucking movie?!

The gripe here isn’t necessarily about the lore here, but just that the lore doesn’t matter. It isn’t relevant beyond a single scene and the scenes themselves, even the kinda-good ones, we’ve seen before. Essentially, there are too many new ideas to explain too many rehashed plotlines. Force healing is now a thing. So is cloning, and necromancy. There are so many new concepts introduced in this final chapter that the characters themselves, in an eye-rolling fourth-wall-breaking piece of dialogue call it out (“They FLY now?!”) It might have been different if any of the new concepts were introduced in EP VII or VIII, but we’re being told everything in the same movie in which Lando Calrissian shoots a stormtrooper with a bow and arrow. It’s not that great art can’t be told with the seat-of-your-pants, let’s-make-shit-up-as-we-go-along approach (Star Wars Episodes 4-6 is guilty of the same bullshit), it’s that as the final episode of this trilogy, it culminates to nothing. If Episode VII was guilty of rehashing the plot of A New Hope, then Rise is a pale imitation of Return of the Jedi shrouded in a bunch of gimmicky space religion gibberish to make it feel different enough. Where this should have resonated with the previous final chapters (III: Anakin succumbs to the Dark Side; VI: Luke stays to the light, Anakin redeems himself) the closing chapter to the third trilogy gives us a dual-win for the light side– ReyBae stays to the light, BenBen sacrifices himself to renounce the dark. That’s nothing new, but sure, it might’ve been a fitting end. It just seems so unearned, despite RenBen’s death, as so much of this movie is up its own ass in telling us why the nonsensical rules of this movie are more important than the two before it to justify taking the big bad from the first six movies and posturing him as the ultimate retcon villain. (See Star Wars and the Art of Derivation for more on how deriving art from previous installments leads to an ouroboros of self-fellating bullshit)

He would have got away with it too, if it wasn’t for you lousy Skywalkers*.

Much like the disappointing truncated 8th season of Game of Thrones, this movie would have benefitted from either a split release or another year in pre-production script development with writers who understood that less is more and that 2.5 hours is more than enough to evince a complete story. My guess with Game of Thrones, was that the writers and producers wanted to move on to newer projects and the care that they had treated the series up until the final (two) seasons must have felt like a yoke around their necks and wished to tidy things up as quickly as possible. The story arcs that had been cultivated for years were suddenly dashed and resolved in perpendicular character turns, mystifying audiences for the sake of cheap double ironies. With Rise, my guess is that there was too much pressure to release it this decade. It is, after all, a story of resisting fascism and the last in the franchise to be released before the 2020 election at the end of a decade that has fallen from hope to dystopia in ten quick years.

With the Orig Trig (as all of the guys who get hella laid refer to it as), there was an emphasis in George Lucas’s interviews about the importance of adhering to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. A lot of this is horseshit coming from Lucas’s mouth, as we owe his wife of the time a great debt in editing what was otherwise an unmanagable movie, and his mentor who infused Empire with genius storytelling techniques. Yet, the focus on making mythic storytelling accessible to wide audiences was part of what made those movies endure the tests of time. Rise of Skywalker is also a space-opera about Good v Evil and the battle within the soul between those two extremes, yet it isn’t accessible to anyone. To (again) use Dan Harmon’s simplification of the Hero’s Journey: A character wants something, they get it but at a cost, they return to the status quo, having now changed. Because so much of the screentime is dedicated to fan-service, disjointed scenes between a bloated cast of characters, and a directorial pissing contest, the journey the audience goes on is incomprehensible. Yes, the heroes go on a journey and achieve the ultimate goal of peace in the galaxy but the costs of that achievement were cheap. (Also who galvanized a fleet of your average pilot? They Field-of-Dreamsed that whole subplot, fuck’s sake). Yes, Leia sacrifices herself for the narrative convenience of writing herself out of the rest of the script and yes, RenBen sacrifices himself to bring Rey back to life (which was a pretty good moment, to be H) but when Rey rejoins Han So-Po and Finn, they share an awkward three-way hug and Chewie gets a medal. It seems more like a perfunctory obligation to see them all together again, instead of catharsis, or showing any changed chemistry of their relationships. The film doesn’t linger, almost thankfully, as it transitions to the imitation of a final ending as Rey buries the Skywalker sabers outside the Tatooine moisture farm. As an orphan who once collected rare items from sandy wastelands, I can see how this would have been a fitting seal to Rey’s character arc, as she is symbolically placing the past away and embracing her future. Then she tells a stranger that she’s a Skywalker. I get that it’s adopting an identity that’s not tied to blood, but even still this statement tells me that this movie just can’t let go and I walked away wondering exactly what this whole trilogy was trying to convey, to a startling internal question:.

If films have not learned that HOPE without a definite message collapses under its own weight in the last decade, what have we learned?

 

If you would like to read some horror fiction that is not garbage but is probably somewhat guilty of the above-mentioned sins of storytelling, please check out Castle of Shadow available here in paperback and KindleCoS_cover_small

True Detective Season 3 – A Return to Form amidst the Formless Void

True Detective Season 3 – A Return to Form amidst the Formless Void

Yeah, yeah. You’re all, “Hey, Pierre, are you shilling for HBO? Because this is the fourth consecutive post about HBO and the second about True Detective.”

Which I understand. But then you had to go too far, asking, “Are there spoilers?”

Shouldn’t you be somewhere not vaccinating your kids, you calamity? Of course there are spoilers. Jesus. 

Last Sunday aired the season finale of the third season of True Detective. It defied a lot of expectations– in a rewarding, thoughtful way– and for my money’s worth, was a touching capstone to a season full of loss and tenuous relationships. The finale challenges the viewer to clear away the bullshit distractions in life and, like Wayne Hays eventually does (in triplicate in his dementia-riddled brain), focus on what really matters.

The centerpiece of the series’ third entry is a family torn apart by tragedy. While I’m referring to the Purcells in particular, this could apply to just about every family represented in the season. Isabelle Hoyt’s obsession and then kidnapping of Julie Purcell is borne from the accident that robbed her of her own children, essentially filling a void by causing another. Despite bringing them together, the tragic case is what keeps Amelia and Wayne from trusting each other until they both decide to choose an actual life together, separate from the Purcell case. One could even say that the tragedy Wayne’s dementia is what strains his son to a near-breaking point and is potentially what has kept his daughter away for so long.

But this season spends a significant amount of time with the bereaved family central to the case. We see Tom Purcell destroyed, first seeking oblivion in a bottle, before filling it again with God. Roland West takes him on as an adopted brother of sorts– but we come to learn that he’s filling a void, too, one left from Hays choosing a transfer instead of besmirching his soon-to-be-wife’s journalistic integrity. Lucy Purcell also continues to self-destruct, but now armed with the information that she willingly sold Julie into a “better life,” her cratering lifestyle is a self-flagellation of sorts for silently condoning the accidental murder of her son, Will. The need for her to keep quiet leads to some outbursts and while, in retrospect, Lucy’s “fuck all” attitude might speak to a mother’s guilt alongside grieving agony, she makes a point when she calls out Amelia for being a tourist of her pain. Lucy and Tom are subject to scrutiny, cops and writers looking through their windows during the single-most devastating part of their lives. Lucy can’t cope, eventually dying from a hotshot delivered by Harris when it was apparent that she might come clean. Tom stops punishing himself and seeks to punish others– namely Dan O’brien (no, not one of the funniest persons of internet comedy) — before finally receiving the oblivion that he, in some ways, was seeking the entire time via rigged suicide.

That aspect of voyeurism is played directly back at the viewer, as it is towards Hays. The TV show within the TV show, True Criminal, scrutinizes Wayne Hays hoping to validate their theory of what happened– or otherwise hoping that he’ll contradict himself. The stakes are pretty high once you realize that Hays and West killed a man with the added tension that Hays doesn’t know where he is half the time. But True Criminal also serves up a scathing condemnation of our true-crime infused society. It’s as not heavy-handed as it could’ve been, as True Detective understands that its audience is into grim shit, but it’s also not a wrong assessment, given that Netflix recently released a docuseries about Ted Bundy, seemingly glorifying that misogynistic piece of shit. As much as this story is about the core characters letting go of their obsession with a case that doesn’t need to involve them, this is Pizzolatto telling you to give the family of a murder victim peace by, say, not redditing out theories or saying that a school shooting was staged or poking at the grave decades later.

Amelia characterizes the crime voyeur pretty perfectly. She’s plumbing her husband for details, plumbing other officers for details over promises of dinner, can’t let it go when she and Wayne meet Roland and his then-girlfriend for dinner, and puts it upon herself to interview Lucy, once and again. She’s called out, of course. By Lucy, by the black man with a white eye at her reading, by Lucy’s best friend. The difference between her and True Criminal, however, is that Amelia’s not out to condemn anyone. She humanizes the story of a tragedy the same way she humanizes Wayne– by establishing context and following up on that context, even if she “knows better by now.” It takes a true detective to marry a true detective, I suppose.

True Criminal also serves a pretty ingenious narrative function in that it drives the viewer’s expectations to believe that the Purcell case is tangentially related to Season One’s Yellow King and Season Two’s hippie-occult orgy. Personally, all of my theories centered around the possibility that it’s all connected, man. But it’s pretty satisfying to have Rust and Hart pop up on a computer monitor only to have all of that shit cleared away to discover that the mystery had been so much simpler than bureaucracy and the personal obsession of detectives, crime writers, and viewers thought.

Which all comes down to a reveal with Junious in 2015. Old men Hays and West put their unsteady guns upon him, himself an unsteady old man. While gardening. The moment’s tense but it also doesn’t let you forget that these are septuagenarians, even when they sit down to get the full story from him, Hays’s gun is on the table. And Junious spills.

It’s a classic noir trope set by Raymond Chandler– the end of the mystery culminates in the culprit spilling beans. By the end of the confession, Junious demands justice to kill him but our detectives give him the high hat, choosing instead to leave the man in groaning agony. It’s a complete juxtaposition to Woodard– the Native American Vietnam vet who cracked, not under police scrutiny, but under the system that fucked him with local racists attempting to lynch him  for no other crime than talking to children. He seeks retribution, and he gets it, only after making the decision Hays’s. Makes you think he was atoning for sins he wrought before he started shooting rednecks. He had the munitions. He had a plan. Yet, he made Hays pull the trigger.

We see a lot of “self-flagellation” in this season. After they torture and kill Harris, Roland West goes the Tom Purcell route of drinkin’ and causin’ ruckus. But this time, West wants to get the shit kicked out of him. And he provides a pseudo-comedic reason why. The motherfucker Wolverines out and gives more than he takes until a crowd overwhelms him. We see him weeping later in a gravel parking lot, without Tom, without Hays, without the girlfriend that Hays half-forgot. West seeks judgement, as Tom Purcell did. In that low point, a dog adopts him despite his fucked-up flaws, signifying why he prefers his family in a kennel while “passing time” in the country. Hays’s self-flagellation comes in the form of re-entering the Purcell case, via his late wife’s words. He puts himself on the rack of public opinion, agreeing to do the interview with True Criminal, and justifies it by saying that it’s helping him remember his life. Objectively, he’s only making more trouble.

But. There’s the annoying fact that the tracker Wayne “Purple” Hays is always right.  On the personal level, he’s right that Amelia is fucking with shit beyond her responsibility as a journalist, although the way in which he informs her of his opinion is pretty shitty. He’s right to defy the brass. He’s right to get an aged West on his side to complete the puzzle of the Purcell case, despite that he was wrong to force West to murder Harris. Mahershala Ali embodies Wayne Harris with a strident confidence and a reserved manner of speech– you get the sense that Hays always knows what he’s doing, even if he forgets why he’s doing it, and doesn’t feel the need to explain it.

Which brings us to what I think the core theme of season three to be. It’s summed up by “Amelia’s ghost” when she tells Hays to “know himself.” He might not remember where he is, but by God, he knows he’s there for a reason– hence waking up on Shoepick Lane and hence following up on Amelia’s ghost tip to determine whether or not Julie Purcell still lives. I like the AV Club’s take on that scene where it seems that Hays has a flickering notion of why he’s there and who this woman is before it disappears again– for the better. For all the tragedy wrapped up in the complications of dementia, the ability to forget is also Hays’s strength. Slowly, as the case is left to the past, Hays’s family finally comes together, including West, who has also let go of years of resentment and bitter loneliness to become a brother again to Hays. Since Hays is a tracker, a seeker of truth, forgetting the ending is the only way his story continues– or as Amelia ghost puts it, “the story goes on, healing itself.”

That last shot of Purple Hays in the jungle, his truest self, is going back into the tangle of his own mind. There, he’ll get lost in the Purcell case again, but he’ll also be with his wife, and make the same mistakes and loving commitments to her over and over again. But before he gets lost in the thicket, Hays looks directly at us, confident and wild, as if to say, “I know who I am. Who are you?”

If you are interested in reading some of my own noir fiction,  please check out Muddy MS_cover_smallSunset, available hereThe book follows PI Roy Delon as he untangles a web of corporate deceit in St. Louis, 1955. 

Case For (and Against) True Detective Season 2

Case For (and Against) True Detective Season 2

Season 3 of True Detective is rolling out some premium episodes, oozing with mysterious juices while drawing up another intricate web of deceit and dark psychology. The third take in the miniseries is more grounded than it’s predecessors–  the set designs, shooting locations and wardrobe are more understated than ever before and feel worn and degraded or otherwise perfectly tacky in that chintzy 80s kind of way. They absolutely nail what it feels like to be inside a civic building in the south with the 1990 police interview shots– claustrophobic, ancient, with bare, tan brick walls. The season’s coming into its own, keeping the story as simple as possible but unraveling it in a convoluted way. Like the old mystery-writing adage goes, “Write the ending first, then work backwards,” or in Season 3’s case, “Write the ending first, then jump all over the place.”

Pizzolatto must have learned from the Sophomore season’s mistakes, which utilized the narrative strategy of “make a story as impossibly convoluted as possible, make all of the convolutions essentially worthless to the story, but make it look cool as hell.” Despite all that, I’m not a hater on Season 2. It looks cool as hell and delivered several wonderful TV moments and surprisingly subtle touches in a season otherwise over-rife with crying, moody staring, and balls-to-the-wall violence.

There many reasons people thought Season 2 didn’t work. In my estimate, about half of it fell on the production. Part of what made Season 1 so powerful was its directorial tone with Cary Fukunaga eking out harrowing shots from the Louisiana landscape. Whether or not that could’ve been replicated is besides the point, the first season felt complete. Season 2 had 5 directors for 8 episodes. They do a good job in making the LA landscape seem like a futile wasteland as well as transforming the woodland areas into something unspeakably sinister. Still, with that many directors, there’s gonna be some jank between episodes, and the stylistic flourishes of each director combat that of the others. And you can feel it.

A lot of people flared their anger towards the casting director and Vince Vaughn caught the brunt of the hate. I enjoyed Vince Vaughn as Frank Semyon. While some couldn’t get over his filmography of being a wedding crasher or the hippie dipshit that causes all the grief in Jurassic Park: Lost World, I’ll never disparage an actor for trying something different in their career– hell, travel back in time to the 1980’s and tell audiences Bill fucken’ Murray will have a resurgence as a dramatic actor in the early 2000’s and you’d be beaten to death with a Ghost-Busters lunchbox. I enjoyed the little flourishes that made Frank Semyon a subtle character: he was a low-class hood and now that he’s the boss of a casino, he only drinks Johnny Walker Blue which is a scotch that your annoying-as-hell whiskey nerd friend (Hi!) will tell you is basically Johnny Walker Green in a nicer bottle and a 250 dollar price disparity. It’s a perfect emblem of Semyon– a cheap thug in an expensive suit. That shit? Works. 

A finely-dressed thug who uses 20-dollar words like “apoplectic?” It… uh. Sounds awkward and comes off as shitty but it… works? Or at least, I get what Pizzolatto is trying to get across. That Semyon’s word-choice, just like his brand of whiskey, are examples of his overcompensation for his meager circumstances when he was younger.

But the awkward way that that the “apoplectic” line hits the screen gets to the heart of why Season 2 is the Schröedinger’s cat of True Detective– in that it works and yet doesn’t work at the same time. To figure out the paradox, let’s look at Pizzolatto’s writing method, his inspirations, temperament, and the politics of Hollywood.

First, let’s start with the writing method. Pizzolatto is a one man band (previous to Season 3) and whether or not that’s born from an impulse to protect your intellectual property (an impulse I wholeheartedly understand) or a self-serving genius-complex that “I’m the only one who understands this story,” (an impulse, I also, kinda, understand) the man demanded to write the season alone.

Here’s what an HBO exec has to say:

I’ll tell you something. Our biggest failures — and I don’t know if I would consider True Detective 2 — but when we tell somebody to hit an air date as opposed to allowing the writing to find its own natural resting place, when it’s ready, when it’s baked — we’ve failed. And I think in this particular case, the first season of True Detective was something that Nic Pizzolatto had been thinking about, gestating, for a long period of time. He’s a soulful writer. I think what we did was go, ‘Great.’ And I take the blame. I became too much of a network executive at that point. We had huge success. ‘Gee, I’d love to repeat that next year.’

More established writers have already pointed out that a yearly production schedule is generally necessary when writing a series. Hell, Game of Thrones has been flying without the captain hand of Martin’s novels for two seasons now and it still manages to be coherent, entertaining, and generally great (a few caveats, maybe) year after year. The difference is Thrones has a writing team instead of a one man show– just like every other show on television. The exec quoted above is certainly not wrong when he said that Pizzolatto had been cooking up Rust Cohle’s and Marty Hart’s existential trip into horror for a while. 

Anyone who’s read Pizzolatto’s virgin novel, Galveston, knows that he cannibalized several traits from the protagonist to bolster Cohle’s eccentric vibe. I don’t fault him for that, as it made Cohle a more magnetic character. Reading Galveston in its entirety, however, is a disappointment. Its written as if Cormac McCarthy wrote a Texan Modern Noir and then it just kind of falls apart after the first half. (I’ve tried my own hand at this exact genre with my free novelette, Crimson Stain. Reviews are mixed, to say the least, so I can’t fault the man.)

While taking full custody of the writing rights sounds like a good thing in a contract to protect your baby, know that a year ain’t quite a year in Hollywood’s calendar. Scripts have deadlines and 480+ minutes of entertainment must be written and shown to producers. With a room of writers, you have a spectrum of people telling you what does and doesn’t work with a story. Without that feedback, you might dig yourself into a hole. Hemingway said, “Develop a built-in bullshit detector.” If the writing sucks, someone will tell you. Hard to do when you’re penning a show yourself. It’s represented nearly perfectly in the “apoplectic” scene: Velcoro doesn’t foil Semyon in the way that would make that scene–that word– work, by telling him to shove his fancy language up his zoot-suit, the same way no one was there to edit Pizzolatto’s more fanciful dialogue. But hey, sometimes, you’re George Lucas. Sometimes you’re an English professor who impressed his way into Hollywood with a perfect show and was then forced under a gun to write another season.

Now, I’m going to take some time to discuss The Big Nowhere, a novel by James Ellroy and the second entry in his La Quartet. Nearly everyone can, on some level, remember LA Confidential (a pretty good film featuring Guy Pierce, Russell Crowe, and, igh, Kevin Spacey) and yet it is forgotten that it’s part of a four-part series. The reason being, other than the disaster of the 2006 film Black Dahlia, his other books have been in film production purgatory– especially The Big Nowhere, a project that George Clooney had tried to push through the pipes for 15 years. The problem is film copy-write law. And it’s as convoluted as a murder mystery, so keep with me, folks.

So. Names of characters in a movie where one film company holds the rights cannot be used by another film company who holds rights of a different entry in the series. Sounds like a small deal? Imagine if the film rights to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was purchased by Paramount while The Chamber of Secrets was purchased by TriStar. Tristar would be legally obligated to rename the seriesall of the main characters and potentially the main fucking conflict itself, since it corresponded to the first novel! And that’s what happened to the  LA Quartet (and thousands of stories, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry one of them.) Thus the script of The Big Nowhere had so many names replaced and its plot-points altered, that it no longer resembled the initial story, whatsoever. Hence, it died in Hollywood utero.

While we’re on this tear, let’s talk about how the film LA Confidential fucked up two major things. One, the gregarious and Irish Homicide Captain, Dudley Smith,  gets clipped at the end of the movie. Given that he’s the through-line villain of the entire fuckin’ series, making the sequel, White Jazz, an impossibility. Two, they re-write the character of Buzz Meeks to serve as a pathetic, fat, corrupt cop who gets shot in the first fucking act.

If you’ve read LA Confidential, you’ll recognize Buzz Meeks as the poor fucker whom Dudley shoots in the prologue. If you’ve read The Big Nowhere, you’ll recognize that he’s the baddest motherfucker in the entire Quartet. He’s ex-police, a romantic, white trash, serves the mob, and holds a heart of gold, as pure as it can be in the 50’s, who tries to pull a heist on the biggest corrupt cop of all time.

Pizzolatto wanted his Buzz and Meeks it too. Thus he split him into two characters: Ray Velcoro and Frank Semyon. Velcoro: the corrupt cop, boosting drugs and working with known criminals, doing extra-curricular brutality to provide for his son. Semyon: the low-class thug whose violence gave him a ticket to a higher societal standing, whose bid for a better standing signs his death warrant.

You might notice that having the same character talk to each other doesn’t exactly equal a dialectic foil like Marty Hart vs Rust Cohle. Velcoro talking to Semyon is interesting, but there’s less of a didactical back and forth in terms of personality and more of an ironic power exchange in that the mob boss is directing (and sometimes fathering) the cop. There’s some cool shit there, but it’s barely explored.

Taylor Kitsch’s character, Paul Woodrough, is almost damn near unnecessary. He’s interesting, despite the revelation that he’s gay was a decade late on social-progressivism. It’s my belief that he was inserted to mime the story of Danny Upshaw in The Big Nowhere, a detective who nearly solved a brutal psycho-sexual string of murders but was ultimately manipulated into committing suicide because the threat of revealing his homosexuality. Woodrough’s character has some redeeming qualities and serves to give the team tactical leverage when they get caught in a colossal fire-fight in Episode 4, but his personal hangups don’t lead to much thematically.

Rick Springfield plays a ghoul of a plastic surgeon and I’m sure that everyone watching was pretty satisfied when Colin Farrel knocked his teeth out. It’s the mirror image of yet another Ellroy character, one who performs plastic surgery on sex-workers to make them appear like celebrities (in Season 2, it’s “8 to 10s!”).

There’s more to corroborate my theory, but my take on True Detective Season 2, is that Nic Pizzolatto was attempting to finally bring to screen The Big Nowhere in a ham-fisted way that was set in his own world. And in that way, he kind of succeeded. Given that we’re never going to see The Big Nowhere hit the screen anytime soon, there is a part of me that champions Pizzolatto’s attempts as somewhat heroic. It’s agreeable to the namesake of the series in a philosophical sense– True Detective was once a magazine that offered a wide variety of pulp hard-boiled noir that served as inspiration for the noir film movement. Noir-God Raymond Chandler has gone on record saying that Phillip Marlowe was a product of “the pulps,” combining elements from other writers and characters to forge his own. It then makes sense to me that you’d want the television series to draw upon all sorts of influences and have direct nods to the works that defined the genre, old and new alike. The fact that Star Wars is Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress mashed up with Flash Gordon doesn’t diminish my love for A New Hope. 

So does True Detective Season 2 work?

Again, yes and no.

Narratively, I think it comes down to the fact that Pizzolatto was trying to tell one story while also trying to transcribe another in the same story. It destabilizes the bones. Not that you can’t tell two stories at once with the noir format– Chandler’s The Long Goodbye pulls this off and that’s generally accepted as the best Marlowe novel.

Perhaps then, it is a matter of focus. I can see that Pizzolatto and his co-writers are determined to deliver something we haven’t seen before. They aren’t going for razzle and dazzle spectacle, which I appreciate– they’re not simply trying to up the ante after last season’s bloodbath– but instead work on torquing personal relationships and complicated regional politics. So far, Season 3 makes the promise that this story is nothing but focused… even if the main protagonist isn’t.