Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): True Detective: thoughts on seasons 1 & 2

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

True Detective: thoughts on seasons 1 & 2


There are spoilers for both seasons of True Detective.

When I finished reviewing season 1 of True Detective a few months ago, I realized that beneath the confident virtuosity of the show's presentation was a fundamental confusion about what it really wanted to achieve. Was it an eerie, atmospheric exploration of occult iconography and themes? Or did it use esoteric elements as window dressing for a fairly straightforward procedural tale? Were the main characters deeply flawed antiheroes in the vein of The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, or Mad Men? Or were their blunders and blemishes, once again, window dressing to gussy up standard hero-cops for the gritty modern era? Despite being clearly organized around the perspectives of the two detectives, did the narrative strive to recognize and honor the points of view of supporting characters (most notably Marty Hart's wife and oldest daughter), and even minor characters in the eclectic ensembles, like the young prostitute or the alcoholic preacher? Or were they too window-dressing, added to suggest the aura of a sprawling saga with numerous voices without actually putting in the hard work of sustaining such ambition? Was the ominous statewide conspiracy integral to the story, its larger object despite being anchored in a particular case? Or was it... well, you get the picture. Did True Detective have true gravitas or, to paraphrase a famous dismissal of Twin Peaks, did it have nothing at all in its gritty little head except the desire to impress?

Because Cary Fukanaga's direction was so nuanced and evocative, and Matthew McConaughey's and Woody Harrelson's performances so assured, I was willing to offer the season the benefit of the doubt but this also meant that I was less inclined to forgive the flaws in Nic Pizzolatto's screenplay - and more inclined to wonder if the collaborators had carried the show more than the alleged, wannabe showrunner. Interviews with Pizzolatto didn't help the matter. I went into the series knowing nothing about the creator, only being vaguely aware that one person had written the whole thing, and one person directed (initially I think I expected it to be a single writer-director, rather than two individuals). Only when I had finished the season 1 finale on DVD did I go back and watch the HBO segments with Pizzolatto. Right away, I began to feel uneasy. He gave off a cocky, too self-assured air even as his answers tended toward on-the-nose and overly literary interpretations of his own material. I began to wonder if I hadn't been justified in my occasional doubts and winces (at some of Cohle's flowery dialogue, or the portentousness of some of the world-building, or - ESPECIALLY - the conventionality, tidiness, and small scale of the concluding episode).

As season 2 approached, there were even more warning signs. Vanity Fair's bizarre puff piece on Pizzolatto endlessly harped on his "revolutionary" concept of the writer as sole auteur (Fukunaga's name was never mentioned once) painting a humorless, self-aggrandizing portrait of the 39-year-old novelist as the Apogee of the Great Showrunners of the Golden Age of Television. Beneath this bravado flashed numerous signs of insecurity: his refusal to acknowledge the director's input, his temperamental stubbornness, his thin-skinned response to accusations of plagiarism and sexism, his lack of almost any self-deprecation or humility (except for one all-too-telling comment that he wasn't sure he wanted to direct any episodes because "he didn't want to ruin his own series"...but the description of his on-set activity implies he was directing in all but name). Given the reporter's admittedly roller-coaster relationship with the subject in the past (they were both writers on The Killing), I occasionally found myself wondering if this wasn't actually a hit piece cleverly disguised as a lionizing tribute. Intentionally or otherwise, the instantly-parodied article couldn't have done a much better job setting Pizzolatto up as a Humpty Dumpty ripe for a fall. Pizzolatto has not spoken much to the press since then, so maybe he agrees.

Nonetheless, and despite months of concern beginning with the unconventional casting decisions and implications that the occult would be left out of season two, early critiques seemed determined to give the season a fair shake. Response to the meandering premiere was disappointed, but most viewers preferred to withhold judgement before jumping to conclusions. By halfway through the season, Twitter was abuzz with snarky "hate-watching" barbs but most publications maintained a reserved, skeptical maybe-it-will-all-turn-out-okay attitude until the finale. At that point, the pent-up frustration finally bubbled over and episode 8 was widely panned (apparently earning only a 29 on Rotten Tomatoes). Todd VanDerWerff called season 2 "an utter disaster," and that was probably one of the milder reactions to Pizzolatto's folly. Personally, I watched all of this unfold with mixed emotions. Five episodes into the season, I gave up on any possibility of greatness and, even earlier than that, I concluded that Pizzolatto's ego was receiving karmic blowback. And yet the last three episodes (and even elements of the one before them) were fairly strong and episode 6 was a genuinely excellent hour of television with moments as well-directed as season 1. I reconsidered what True Detective (and its beleaguered writer) still has going for it.

After writing the above, I continued with a few more paragraphs dissecting Pizzolatto's hubris - why it is presumptuous of a text-focused writer to manage an audiovisual experience, how his desire to rush to the top of TV showrunner-dom (apparently because the audience for novels is too small) put the cart before the horse, and why he can't simply become the next David Simon/David Chase/Vince Gilligan without grappling with the form the way they have (I'm skeptical of the "pay your dues" theory of career advancement, but at the very least these other TV auteurs understand the intricacies - and the fundamental nature - of their medium in a way Pizzolatto clearly does not). But I've already criticized Pizzolatto in earlier reviews, and God knows the media's True Detective post mortems are crucifying him right now. So I've deleted these passages and would rather focus on the more surprising - and optimistic - realizations accompanying the disappointment of Pizzolatto's solo season (which is essentially what this was). Because, despite season 1's superior execution, season 2 actually does show promising signs of growth and depth, reassuring me that there is something substantial beneath the writer's lofty allusions and earnest philosophizing. If season 1 was the brilliant child prodigy, season 2 is the awkward adolescent - less sure of itself, but also stumbling toward a greater maturity.

The decision to develop intersecting narratives, primarily Frank Semyon's and Ray Velcoro's alternate paths through Vinci's corruption, is a much more ambitious and potentially intriguing approach than the bantering buddy-cop conceit - and at times, especially in its second half, True Detective was actually able to deliver on this idea albeit not with any consistency (and generally with a sense of "too little, too late"). While season 2's web of intrigue was notoriously convoluted, it at least avoided the mistake of season 1, which baited its audience with a massive conspiracy and then tried to satisfy us with a lone killer and some anecdotes about the bigger picture, quickly brushed aside. This time the killer was revealed very early in the finale before we move on to bigger fish. While many individual strands were unresolved, and the conspiracy was not exposed to the larger public (although it has the potential to be, based on the final scene) the characters went down fighting it, and its intricacies were unveiled for the audience. In other words, there was follow-through on the conceit of a sprawling universe, a marked improvement.

Charting a course of doom for his two protagonists, and making them more fundamentally and fatally flawed than the ultimately noble Hart and Cohle, is also a (perversely) more satisfying storytelling strategy. And it feels more honest to Pizzolatto's vision than the rather pat heroics of season 1 which hinted at a fundamental darkness, and pointed toward solemn tragedy, before wrapping things up in feel-good fashion. Meanwhile, the uneven but intriguing development of Ani Bezzerides - at least until she is reduced to conventional love interest in the finale - was Pizzolatto's transparent attempt to show his feminist critics that he could write a female character. But while this prove-it motivation carried its own inherent limitations, it also pushed the writer into surprising and rewarding new directions. In particular, the character's potentially trope-y abusive backstory and her sense of isolation and self-reliance as a woman in a man's world allowed Pizzolatto to explore some of his favorite themes and ideas without falling back onto the macho-nihilist cliches he has been criticized for in the past. (On the other hand, Paul Woodrugh, Pizzolatto's other attempt to tweak or critique conventions of masculinity and stoicism, failed to register as anything other than an afterthought.)

These are my opinions, and I've already read pieces which argue the exact opposite: that Pizzolatto's fatal misstep was allowing his critics to chart his narrative course. To be fair, I agree that some (though not nearly all, or even the majority) of the season's flaws were due to a gawky uncertainty that wasn't present in season 1. But you know what? Sometimes that gawky uncertainty is necessary for growth. And I do think the above points represent growth as a storyteller. At the same time, Pizzolatto regressed as a collaborator; or rather, he leveraged the success of his first collaboration to avoid collaborating again. This exposed not only his weaknesses as a filmmaker (he frankly isn't one), but also his surprising weaknesses as a writer: the plot development was artificial, the pacing plodding, repetitious, and stretched-out, and the dialogue...well, season 2 was highly quotable for all the wrong reasons. After crafting season 1's thrilling twists and turns, he could only cut-and-paste mystery cliches this time; after patiently and carefully structuring the back-and-forth time jumps between 1995 and 2012, he padded out these new episodes as if he was a writers' room hack under the gun, finding ways to hit the needed hour before rushing off to the next installment; after authoring Rust Cohle's memorable monologues, he created dozens of meme-worthy clunkers that were unintentionally funnier than anything Vince Vaughn said in Wedding Crashers.

The man is frankly taking a hell of a beating right now, with one piece ripping to shreds his only public statements since the premiere (some admittedly but harmlessly gaseous self-analyses of his writing process). Another article suggests - apparently straightfaced - that HBO "George Lucas" him (my term, not the writer's) by continuing the series but assigning a new writer to the task...even offering the idea that they bring back Fukunaga and let him choose the writer. Ouch. So if I don't come to praise Pizzolatto, exactly, I also don't want to bury him. Instead I'm hoping he is able to open his own eyes to what doesn't work in season 2. Rather than over-responding to outside critics, he can let his own inner critic get to work. First of all, I wouldn't mind if he broke his self-imposed format and crafted either a longer or shorter miniseries. Too many characters pop up for cameos full of meaningful glances before vanishing from the narrative as it rushes to a conclusion: it's as if Pizzolatto forgot he was writing a self-contained 8-episode arc rather than an ongoing multiseason saga. And I'm already on record desiring a link, however subtle, between the different seasons. Beyond that, if we can boil down Pizzolatto's failure to three causes, they would probably be: moving outside of his comfort zone (from a testosterone-heavy mystery set in his home state and loosely inspired by his own novel); assuming too much responsibility for the show's execution; and working way too fast - with 18 months to craft 8 hours of television, he seems to have put an early draft onscreen instead of working through its issues.

The third problem is the most easily resolved, and I hope HBO offers him more time to create the next installment (allowing resentment to turn into anticipation again). I have little trouble believing he would gratefully accept the breathing room. As others have noted, an anthology with different characters and locations each season does not need to be rushed into production. The second problem has been the most cited, and Pizzolatto's response will be really, really telling - probably the most important factor in whether he is able to bounce back or simply become an M. Night Shyamalan-esque punchline. Most importantly, the next season needs one single director (arguably much more than a co-writer) and I would imagine HBO would love for Pizzolatto to accept help, despite his stubborn desire to be the sole showrunner. This has been discussed ad nauseum and the ball is in his court now. But it's the first problem that intrigues me the most because I think it was a strength as well as a flaw of season 2. If Pizzolatto can learn from season 2's mistakes, while continuing to push against his own limitations - instead of retreating into the limited but efficient prowess of season 1 - he can create a work which avoids the drawbacks of both seasons.

If season 2 has reneged the guarantee (which I assumed going in) that any season of True Detective will at least be consistently entertaining, it has also opened up the possibility (which didn't seem to exist after season 1's pat finale) that True Detective can be something more than just entertaining. Now it's up to Pizzolatto: does he end up like Ray Velcoro and Frank Semyon, doomed by their stubborn go-it-alone ethos and insecurity-masked-as-bravado, or like Jordan Semyon and Ani Bezzerides, retreating to regroup before striking back, driven by a determination that the world we deserve is only as good or bad as we choose to make it. I wish him well.

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