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.