True Detective All-Star Roundtable

Sunday night is the season finale of the highly contentious, oft-confusing second season of True Detective. I recently came across an article on Paste Magazine that pondered whether or not the second season would receive less derision if the brilliant McConaughey-Harrelson first season never happened.

Rather than read that, I decided to pose that and two other questions to an all-star panel of The Beat’s writers and readers. The panel is as follows: Chris Formisano, Brielyn Smith, Mike Campana, Jr., Joe Shahen, Dan LaFave and Kyle Ketcham.

If season one of True Detective never happened, would this season still feel as bad?
Formisano: I think it’s unfair to say that this season feels “bad.” Is it a let down compared to the first season? Absolutely. Is True Detective now a bad show? Definitely not. The writing has suffered but Vince Vaughan has shown true star caliber while having to deliver awful lines about metaphysical discussions about “the self” and crushing rats. Overall, this season is still vastly superior to any season of Grey’s Anatomy, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., NCIS (insert city here), or pretty much any network television series (except of course, LOST).

Smith: Maybe the question should be “Would this show have ever been on air?” While I don’t love every show that HBO airs, the network is generally known for having unique and well-received original programs. I wonder if the first season had never existed if this season would have even made it past the office of some HBO executive. My thoughts: probably not. The plot is uninteresting and convoluted, there is too much about the main characters and too little about the rest of the massive cast, and for a crime drama, there has been a stunningly small amount of drama or actual police work.

I suppose I should actually answer the question though. I don’t think that Season Two would feel so bad if I didn’t have the memory of Season One. If I didn’t remember the fantastic onscreen chemistry between Rust and Marty. If I didn’t remember that a staggering number of characters can be introduced because the main characters actually talked to them and not just about them. If I didn’t remember that at the end of every episode I wondered “what will happen next?” instead of “what just happened?” If I didn’t remember how much I cared about the main characters, even though they were pretty detestable human beings. The first season was horrific and dark and most assuredly gave me very vivid nightmares, but at least it got under my skin. This season I mostly feel confused and apathetic.

Campana: Yes, because this season is not that bad. Everything about this season is wonderful except the writing (which isn’t terrible, only mediocre) and the convoluted plot. I would certainly concede that these are two of the larger ingredients of a television program, but the shortcomings of two elements of a show cannot totally undo the rest of the program. The direction and cinematography are still stylistically intriguing, the performances are good (bordering on great, depending on the scene) and Central Coast/LA noir is still an attractive genre in many ways.

Shahen: At first I was going to say I hope this goes up before the finale, otherwise I may have to rewrite some stuff. Then I realized I don’t give enough of a crap about this season to do that.

Part of the reason this season seems so bad is because it is the follow-up to such an acclaimed first season. But even if the first season didn’t happen, bad writing is bad writing. No, it wouldn’t seem as bad, but it still wouldn’t be good. Everything Vince Vaughn says is absurd and cliched. Rachel McAdams plays a woman who hates men and wants to kill them, but wants to have crazy sex with them too. There’s some Blackwater group that’s involved with the case for reasons that you could not give in an elevator speech. Or in a longer speech. Episodes 2-6 were spent moping around being sad about life with little police work.

Unfortunately for this season, while it is supposed to feel like a whole new show, it is still part of the larger series and will be compared with the first season. That makes things that are already bad seem a lot worse. For instance, think back on how much we’ve learned about the personal lives of Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn. What purpose does all of that serve towards the larger purpose of the season? Not really anything. We’re trying to figure out who killed Ben Caspere and why, but that stuff gets us no closer to it. It’s already bad storytelling, then you think of the fact season one showed so much in the way of the main characters’ personal lives, and that makes it worse. In season one, it was done because understanding Rust Cohle’s personal life was the goal of the police trying to find out if he was a copycat killer. Here, it’s done to show how damaged everybody is or something.Yeah, the fact there’s no McConaughey to save the day hurts this season, but at the same time the writing and pacing is a mess. Another thought I keep having: If this were the first season, there would be no second. Or if there was, there would be no big stars attached to it. So there’s that.

LaFave: Less disappointing but = or even > bad. Though last season set general expectations higher, it did give us a palette of stylistic tropes that could be overdone, sometimes to hysterical affect. It was legitimately funny how True Detecitvey it was to have overhead shots of infrastructure and cigarettes and painfully elevated and pretentious dialogue about the fruitless pursuit of finding meaning or fulfillment in a barren moral landscape rife with decay and void of responsible drinking. Not what Nicky Pizza (shout Sammy P) wanted but whatever.

Ketcham: Yes and No. The first season of True Detective, although not without its fault, was an original, carefully crafted and beautifully shot take on the crime drama. The expectations for the second season were always going to be unrealistic. Unfortunately, season two missed the mark by a wide margin with the over wrought dialogue and scattered plot. Nic Pizzolatto’s ponderous and nihilistic writing tells us more about the writer than the characters who have to spew his clunky dialogue. McConaughey as Rust Cohle was able to take Mr. Pizzolatto’s deep thoughts and turn them into thought provoking queries on life and existence, but Season Two lacks a single character (Colin Farrell’s  Ray Velcoro comes the closest) that has the gravitas to pull it off. So there is the “yes” half of the answer, but the “no” half is simply that Season One still resonates and encourages me to believe it is a quality show.

Can you describe what’s happening in this season in four sentences or less?

Formisano: In 1992 a group of cops and city employees used the chaos the LA race riots to steal millions in diamonds, executing witnesses and leaving 2 children orphans in the process. Using their newfound power, they took over the nearby city of Vinci and together with some of the seedier businessmen and public officials on the West Coast they conspired to buy up massive amounts of land near a proposed high speed rail system to turn a huge profit. Three cops and a local mob boss, haunted by their own inadequacies, all from different walks of life are brought together to investigate the murder of Ben Casper(supposedly by the orphans previously mentioned), the Vinci city manager and archetype of both the diamond robbery and land deal. The foursome, all harboring their own secret agenda, are being manipulated by the corrupt Vinci power structure during their investigation but subsequently manage to turn the tables on these diamond robbing, murderous, politicians and businessmen, thwart their nefarious plot, get revenge on those who wronged them and solve a murder! #BOOM

Smith: Not well, but I’ll give it a go. 1. A cop finds a body of a Vinci city official and he comprises part of the trio of loser cops that have been assigned to handle the case. 2. There is a man trying to escape a life of crime by becoming a wealthy landowning criminal with other city officials, including the man who was found dead. 3. All of the trio of loser cops have very complicated personal lives that make them stare or glare “thoughtfully” for the bulk of each episode. 4. After months of “investigation,” the cops find out that the dead city official and the lieutenant, captain and other heads of the police department were involved in a jewelry robbery/murder and that it was probably the grown-up child of the murder victims that killed the city official from the first episode in revenge.

I would like to say that this week’s finale will tie some of these pieces together, but I also left out a whole lot, so I doubt it.

Campana: Yes. Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses by James Joyce is a 4,391 word sentence, so I think I can explain the plot of this season well within four. However, will my one, long sentence be any more coherent than the plot? No. My one sentence will be as meandering and schizophrenic as these past 7 hours of television have been and it will have no clarity until I arbitrarily decide that it was the Russian guy and Blake the whole time. And Chessani. Or something. Ask Molly Bloom.

Shahen: No. I mean, I can try, but it’s pretty hard: A corrupt city manager was killed, prompting an investigation from three different departments, who all chose three officers with personal demons to work it. There is some kind of corrupt plot involving Vince Vaughn and city officials and the construction of a train, but the point of that is not entirely clear. Rather than actual police work get done, we’ve learned that Gambit from the first Wolverine flick would rather die than let people know he’s gay, despite the fact a shit ton of people already know.

LaFave: No. Go to 9:05 for a more detailed answer.

Ketcham: Here we go: A decade long plot by rich people attempting to get richer. A dirty bureaucrat is killed. That sets of an investigation of dirty cops, government officials, and corporations that operate in a dirty world. An intrepid bunch of misfit cops dig too deep and don’t like what they find.

If anyone can tell me who Irina Rulfo is or if they could pick Stan out from any other member of Frank’s entourage I would be impressed and/or sad for you.

Will you still watch a third season? Why or why not?
Formisano: Most certainly. And I’ll be watching for the same reason that I’m going to watch the season finale; sheer curiosity. I’m enthralled to see what Nic Pizzolatto will come up with next. When the show becomes predictable or episodic, I will no longer watch..

Smith: I guess I might, if they make a third season. I know it has people talking about how terrible it is, but is that really what HBO wants to get coverage for? I suppose I was always wary of this season from the moment that I learned of the cast. I wanted to love it, but I did not feel confident that the actors would have any chemistry. I think I would, if only to witness another train wreck because I know what it could be. And it could be just like Season One.

Campana: I’ve watched every episode of Dexter, a show with about 16 good episodes. I’ve watched every episode of Californication, a show with 12 good episodes. I’ve watched The Tudors, a show with 0 good episodes. Mark me down for season 3 of True Detective, starring Michael B. Jordan, Rosario Dawson, Jared Leto and Dustin Hoffman, set in the Florida Everglades.

Shahen: As the great Sheryl Crow once sang, “A change would do you good.” The cool thing about this series is that each season is in a different city and a different time period. So however bad this season is, next season has hope. At least for an episode. I think they’re going to try and shake things up and go to the ’40s or ’50s or something. Really play into the noir stuff. Maybe it will be some sort of conspiracy involving some sort of post-WWII drug and murder trade.  Yes, that is the exact plot to the LA Noire video game. Whatever. But yes, I’ll check out the third season. At the very least I’ll see if they keep up the use of cool theme songs.

LaFave: Yeah there’s famous movie actors but it’s. t.v. show.  Genius. Imagine if rizolli and iles had famous superstars in it. You’d be like “that sux” but you would know because there was famous superstars in it so you watched it. I dare one of you to be like “yeah no way I’m gonna watch the super expensive cop drama with Tom Hardy, John C. Reilly and Ana Kendrick cuz I do cool shit on Sunday’s at 9.  Grow up Chisani.

Ketcham: I will. After saying all that crappy stuff about the show and complaining incessantly after every episode, I am always excited to watch. The onscreen talent is top quality and although Nic Pizzolatto’s writing frustrates me it is still “originalish” and often interesting. For me, the individuals behind the camera have been the true stars of true detective. Cary Fukunaga’s direction was excellent setting the mood and the pitch perfect pace of Season One. Season Two has suffered from some inconsistency (I think the show should go back to having a one director for the whole season) with multiple directors taking the helm, but it has not been without its bright spots. Jeremy Podeswa in the episode “Down Will Come” expertly staged and shot a heart-pounding gunfight. The collection of talent, the uniqueness of the material, and the simple fact that the people involved seem to care will keep me coming back for more.

I also want to watch Dan’s newly cast Rizzoli and Iles.

So, the panel has spoken. Feel free to chime in with your thoughts in the ‘Comments’ section below.