Everyone gets touched by darkness in True Detective's overpopulated second season

Now with even more Pizzolatto

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The first season of True Detective belonged to Cary Fukunaga. Yes, creator and (sole) writer Nic Pizolatto dreamed up its brooding semi-mystical Louisiana noir, which so many viewers, myself included, found immensely compelling. That it felt so watery and dreamlike; like a thin façade thrown over an all-consuming void, was all the work of Fukunaga, who, in an unheard-of-for-television move, directed all eight episodes. The show may have set up shop in some well-trod genre territory — cops, corpses, and disreputable drinking holes — but Fukunaga's ethereal framing of it was a striking counterbalance, throwing the meaning of everything from a Lone Star can to the pale skin of a cadaver into abstract question in ways that Rust Cohle, even at his most contemplative, could not. The more literal the show got, the more it derived its energy from Pizzolatto's dialogue and plot, the less engrossing it was — as evidenced by the sagging reception to the season's final few episodes.

Cary Fukunaga and Woody Harrelson were the MVPs of Season One

Here's another strong opinion: the MVP of the season was not Matthew McConaughey's memeable scenery chomper Rust, but Woody Harrelson's Marty Hart. The wild-eyed prophet got all the good lines, but if your chosen backdrop is the pitch-black darkness of human nature, you need a normal on hand to get touched by said darkness. Without that, there's no drama, no change. Watching Marty forced to confront his own hypocrisy and the fragility of the things he valued was the most interesting character development the show had going for it; Rust, by contrast, was relatively static. True Detective wouldn't have worked if it were a show about two burned out pessimists. One of them had to be a dad, both literally and figuratively.

Rust: This place is like somebody's memory of a town, and the memory is fading. It's like there was never anything here but jungle. 
Marty: Stop saying shit like that. It's unprofessional.

Of course, my pro-Fukunaga, pro-Harrelson stance is really just two ways of saying the same, very obvious thing: like any noir, True Detective worked as an exercise in contrasts. Yes, it was thoroughly weird and wild and felt unlike anything we'd ever seen on TV before, but its motor was still fueled by some very old-school storytelling tactics: Light vs. darkness. Gallant vs. Goofus. Wordy, self-serious scribe vs. detached, artsy director.

The second season of the show premieres this Sunday on HBO after a long hiatus, during which the plot has been constantly conjectured about, and countless #TrueDetectiveSeason2 pairings have been suggested on social media. The continued enthusiasm for that running joke is all the proof I need that the main appeal of the show was its streamlined duality, not it's Lovecraftian conspiracies. Even after the mystery of the Yellow King had faded, we still liked the idea of two people (however unlikely a pairing) driving around solving mysteries and chatting about the nature of the universe.

#TrueDetectiveSeason2 also speaks to the overall fan enthusiasm for a fresh start, and that, at least, is assured. The second season swaps rural Louisiana in 1995 for the Inland Empire of present-day Los Angeles; cults and child murder for infrastructure corruption. I'm generally a fan of the increasingly popular omnibus television format; the promise of a fresh slate brings new urgency and economy to a medium that can very frequently slip into repetition. But while noting the elements that Pizzolatto decided to keep from the enormously successful first season vs. those that were discarded, it dawned on me that omnibus television had been around long before Fargo and American Horror Story, in the form of reality television. And like Jersey Shore, The Real World, and any number of competition series, True Detective has become self-aware.

True Detective

The show has taken its loudest elements (self-destructive nihilists, grisly murders, and liver-annilihating booze consumption) and amplified them even further, while its subtler joys (those meandering car talks, the presence of even a flawed voice of semi-reason) are cast off. Instead of pitting one character long lost to the void against one still clinging to tradition, we have four characters all writhing around in the darkness in some form or another. It's a new mystery with plenty of avenues for potential, but in the first three episodes, at least, the shadow of its predecessor looms over the proceedings, to the point where it feels like we are watching four mostly talented actors "playing True Detective." When one character intones "Everybody gets touched" ominously at the end of a scene, it feels not unlike The Situation saying "The Situation" ad nauseum in the second season Jersey Shore.

True Detective has hung onto its textual qualities over the structural ones, even though the structure is what enabled us to hang with it even in its darkest hour. There is no interview framing device, the car talks are frustratingly protracted. I'm wary of spoiling too much beyond what's already out there about this season — not because there's that much to spoil, but because its one of those shows where people don't even want to know what color shirt a character is wearing before watching the episode for themselves. I get that, and there are some joys to be had in letting the show's new smoggy surroundings wash over you. But everything feels so essentially familiar that I don't feel any pressing curiosity about what fucked up Ray Velcoro (wife stuff,) Frank Semyon (childhood stuff,) Ani Bezzerides (sex stuff and dad stuff,) or Paul Woodrugh (army stuff and sex stuff.) Pizzolatto gives his female characters more to do this time around, but he still thinks sexual potency is a character trait, and his interest in dismembered female body parts — even just as a light motif — hasn't flagged.

True Detective Season Two

The loss of Fukunaga and his stylistic tempering of the material is also a hard blow to the forward momentum of the show. Justin Lin, of the Fast and Furious franchise, helms the first two episodes of the second season, but clearly has a harder time selling Pizzolatto's heavy-handed dialogue. On paper, Lin and California cops are a perfect match, but the director seems less trusting of TD's weirder proclivities, and that wariness rolls over to the cast, who never seem to quite believe what they're saying. (Colin Farrell deserves all the credit in the world for getting a clean take of one particularly ridiculous and profane insult.)

There is a sincerity to Pizzolatto's writing that is admirable even when it's kind of dumb

I'm not a person who ever had much of a problem with True Detective's self-seriousness; I'd take it any day over the winking camp of a Ryan Murphy show. There is a sincerity to Pizzolatto's writing that is admirable even when it's kind of dumb. And when the first hint of real Carcosa-esque weirdness does eventually rear its head, I sat up immediately. That wouldn't work on a show that wasn't as committed to its cause, no matter how humorless and nihilistic. But I then realized how desperately I had been waiting for something like that to happen, in a way I never could have expected the first time around. So much of the fun of True Detective's first season was all of us wading deeper and deeper into its cosmic muck, genuinely not knowing what we'd find there. I remain hopeful that the show might unearth some unexpected monsters at the end of its California nightmare, but it's got to break some new ground first.

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