‘True Detective’ Season 2: Was It Better Than We All Thought?
The first season of “True Detective,” starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as Louisiana detectives pursuing a serial killer, is considered a masterpiece of mood, a neo-noir that expertly delivered its plot twists and existential despond.
When the show’s second season debuted in 2015, it was lambasted as a poor follow-up, a half-baked mess of classic noir tropes and overindulgent acting. But was it really that bad? Or did it just suffer in comparison with its predecessor?
Just in case you need a refresher—or you haven’t seen it—the second season of “True Detective” involves three detectives and a gangster attempting to solve the vicious butchering of a city official. The three cops are Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch, twitchy), a California Highway Patrol officer who’s desperate to hide the fact that he’s gay; detective Raymond Velcoro (Colin Farrell, sleazy), a drunken burnout who displays a fair bit of courage once he sobers up; and sergeant Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams, wound tightly), whose addictions and obvious instability are tempered somewhat by her devotion to her job.
The gangster is Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn), who takes a lounge-lizard approach to gangsterdom that recalls Dean Martin, only not nearly as wry or drunk. He’s also the most cliché character in the mix, a big-time mobster who goes legit only to find the street isn’t willing to let him go. The death of the aforementioned city official leads Frank to lose everything, forcing him to revert to his old ways to reclaim his money and survive. Vaughn is great at the character’s smarmier aspects, but, despite his physical size, he’s not terribly intimidating when it comes to physical violence.
There are other actorly mismatches. Colin Farrell is a smart actor, but he delivers lines in a raspy, serious growl that a noir star of old—Bogart or Mitchum—might have properly delivered with a comedic drawl. He had the same issue in Mann’s remake of “Miami Vice,” where his deadly serious delivery of lines like, “My Mommy and Daddy know me” made the theater audience (or at least the audience in my theater) burst into laughter.
But Kitsch and McAdams never hit a false note, and the rest of the cast are the usual character actors and bit players who acquit themselves well in these kinds of shows. The production values are all top-notch, from the directing to the score. So, what went wrong? Did anything go wrong?
After re-watching all eight episodes of season 2, I think the answer to that question is… no. It’s serviceable California noir, with a nefarious plot centered on public infrastructure in a way that self-consciously echoes older, better movies like “Chinatown.” The acting is decent, the action scenes crackle, and there’s a nice thread of nihilism woven through the whole thing (along with the faintest dash of mysticism). It’s good enough—but after the heights of season 1, good enough wasn’t nearly enough for critics and an audience that wanted another masterpiece. If you tried to watch it soon after its premiere and hated it, it might be worth another shot. In American television, shows that try to embrace pure noir archetypes are relatively few and far between.
Revisiting “True Detective” as a series also made me realize that, for all his gifts writing dialogue, showrunner Nic Pizzolatto was never great at assembling a compelling central mystery. The brilliance of McConaughey and Harrelson (particularly the former’s philosophical asides) helped overshadow season 1’s generic serial-killer plot. Season 2 tried harder to present a complicated mystery, but ultimately it’s a mishmash of classic noir elements. In season 3, which featured Mahershala Ali as a detective slowly losing his mind, the mystery is little more than window dressing, an excuse for a character study.
Pizzolatto has stepped back from the series, and the new showrunners—Issa Lopez and Barry Jenkins—have indicated season 4 will be set in Alaska, with Jodie Foster as a detective exploring how everyone at a research station disappeared. It might be radically different than what came before—and that might not be the worst thing, at least for those who want a bigger focus on a central mystery.
Nick Kolakowski is the author of „Maxine Unleashes Doomsday“ and „Boise Longpig Hunting Club“ as well as the Love & Bullets trilogy of novellas. His noir fiction has appeared in Tough, ThugLit, Mystery Tribune, Plots With Guns, and various anthologies. Brandnew: his „Payback is Forever“ (Shotgun Honey 2022), inspired clearly by the novels of Richard Stark. Our review here (in German). – Just out: Hell of a Mess. A Love & Bullets Hookup.
Nick Kolakowski, geboren 1980, aufgewachsen in Washington. D.C., hat Geschichte in Chicago studiert. Er schreibt Romane, Kurzgeschichten, Lyrik und Essays, viele davon über Crime Fiction und verwandte Themen. Seine Texte erscheinen u. a. in der Washington Post, in Shotgun Honey, North American Review, The Evergreen Review, Rust & Months. Kolakowski lebt in New York City. Eine Besprechung des von Parker inspirierten „Payback is Forever“ in unseren Bloody Chops.
His column „Gunsmoke“ with us:
From ‘Touch of Evil’ to ‘True Detective,’ Long Shots are Crime Films’ Secret Weapon
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4 Ways Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” Novel Stands Out From the Film.
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The Most Honest Nihilism – on „The Way of the Gun“
No, Time to Die – The latest James Bond movie digs into the fatalism at the iconic spy’s core.
Cormac McCarthy’s Overlooked Masterpiece? – „The Councelor“
„Nightmare Alley“ – How Guillermo del Toro’s Film Alters a Masterpiece Noir Novel
David Cronenberg – The Carnal Crime of “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises”
With Parker, Donald E. Westlake Pulled Off Crime Fiction’s Most Spectacular Magic Trick
Guy Ritchie’s Return to Crime Films is Worth Watching