True Detective’s Infamous S2

Season 2 of True Detective just didn’t quite work. But it came very close in many ways and so I think it’s worth exploring why it missed the mark. The short answer is that it tried to do too much. It tried to leapfrog Season 1 both in form and in function – and the form part didn’t really work, either. And so it Icarus’d. And we were disappoint.

First, function:

Last year I wrote a short article about True Detective and why it worked. Basically I said that there are dark little corners of this country, where the local custom and culture has not yet been homogenized into the national norm, and in these places weird shit can go down. The exploration thereof is the basis of a lot of Twin Peaks and The X-Files and now True Detective. It defines a genre: New Weird America.

True Detective Season 2 took this to its next level. It showed that you can have this same kind of atavism, nasty and weird, right smack in the middle of the modern world. It hides in plain sight. It actually exists! It doesn’t reach up from the darkness to steal our children; it reaches down from above to manipulate our everyday lives. In this way, Season 2 was an advance upon Season 1. Season 1 was fantasy with elements of realism; Season 2 approached the level of journalism – The Wire moved from B-More to The OC.

Functionally, then, Season 2 was a level above Season 1. But they didn’t stop with function. They tried to do the same with form.

Season 1 was told in a fairly linear fashion. In the present day, two dudes are being interviewed. They talk about the past. Eventually their narrative catches up to the present. Then, they go forth and conquer.

It’s a great storytelling device. But if you took it away, the series would not suffer. This particularly because the two narrators are telling the same story. It’s one frame around one narrative. Classic storytelling – Citizen Kane with a cherry on top.

Season 2 was not simple or linear. There were four protagonists instead of two. They didn’t even meet until the end of the first episode. They didn’t really start working together until the end of the sixth episode – the point in the first season when the detectives resume their partnership. And they had a great deal of their own shit going on – some of which ended up affecting the other characters, but much of which did not.

There was a definite madness to this method. The other point of Season 2 was that, as Jordan says,”Everyone gets touched” – the consequences of little choices, the interconnectivity of things and lives and the world. Heady stuff. Hence the season’s near-constant motif of California highway interchanges – the huge land-spanning Gordian knots that the detectives realize they cannot cut, but must untangle, from the beginning.

So there was a point to this. But saying “I meant to do that” only gets you so far. Making your TV show really disjointed and complex in order to prove a point does not excuse you from having made your TV show really disjointed and complex. It’s just not good storytelling. Certainly not for an eight-episode season of TV. Do you know why House of Leaves should not serve as the basis for the next season of House of Cards? Yes! Yes you do! I don’t need to explain it to you! Don’t do it!

True Detective Season 2 had two functions. One was to show that the weird and evil of the bayou can be found just as easily in Bel-Air. Phenomenal stuff. This too would have been enough. The other was to show that The Detective Story needs improvement. This is a tough nut to crack even when your audience is not defined by having liked your first season – a classic detective story! It’s doubly tough when it means you have to make a story which is noticeably hard to follow… and also get them to follow it. (The Night Of barely pulled this off, barely). And it’s triply tough when you are trying to leapfrog your first season in both form and function simultaneously.

There is one final point I’d like to make, and that is tone. True Detective Season 2’s tone was off. Even if it had been nothing but another Season 1 it still would have had problems. Too many furrowed brows, too many intense internal monologues made agonizingly external. Too little wit and too many purposeless homages. The first season found drama in small things; the second took nothings and belabored them like pinatas. It felt like it set out to put “an epic spin on topics that don’t [usually] get the epic treatment” – which is what PT Anderson said about Magnolia, for chrissakes. Season Two set out in function to avoid the sins of the genre; in form, to critique them; in tone, to commit them, each and every one. The first is a triumph; the second, a failure; the third, Brumaire-like, a farce. The three together was season two of True Detective.

There was also that five-minute-long dream sequence where a Conway Twitty impersonator in a powderpuff-blue tuxedo sang background to a prophecy that turned out to be right with no explanation and for no reasonBut if I’d started with that, you wouldn’t have bothered with my analysis. And, uh, maybe there’s something to learn from that, too.


~ by davekov on 5 September 2016.

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