The following is a guest essay by my cohost and cohort over at the Mind Over Movies blog Garrett Andrews. Andrews describes himself as a simple “member of the species Homo Sapien, struggling to cope with the crushing weight of the existential void.” Consider this a companion piece to my simultaneous post on “True Detective,” a show we both seem to like. Let me know if you like Andrews’ work, want to hire him out for something literary, cinematic or philosophical, or just need an existential shoulder to cry on.
Many people, especially those online, have been busy lambasting the season two premiere episode of “True Detective.” While I can’t say I didn’t feel the slightest tinge of disappointment watching the premiere, I think most of my reservations about the episode ultimately stem from groundless expectations–and I suspect that these expectations are why the episode left a bad taste in many viewers’ mouths.
“True Detective” fans may have forgotten how the first season initially struck them–before hints of Carcosa and the Yellow King got them hooked. Although Rust Cohle’s nihilistic monologues may have whetted our appetites, many viewers remained skeptical of the show until mid-season. I remember that I wasn’t absolutely hooked on the show until episode four, when a continuous six-minute tracking shot made damn sure that I’d start taking the show more seriously. Up until that point, I considered the show “light entertainment” and a half-way decent substitute for “Game of Thrones.” The rest of the season secured the show a place in the pantheon of masterpieces of television.
In recounting the specifics of how I got hooked on the show, my intention is not to indulge my own ego or take a trip down memory lane for nostalgia’s sake. Rather, I’m attempting to remind myself of how I saw “True Detective” with fresh eyes. Part of showrunner Nic Pizzolatto’s brilliance lies in his usurpation of conventions–and this defiance of viewer’s expectations has been a key part of our attraction to the show. One of Pizzolatto’s strategies to defy viewer expectations is to refrain from denying our expectations in certain pivotal ways. He didn’t give us a twist ending. Rust and Marty Hart stay pretty much the same people at the end of the show as they were at the beginning. Many of the women on the show have been flat characters. But that’s been exactly the point all along. Of all the shows currently on television, viewers can rest assured that “True Detective” is one of the most self-aware. Pizzolatto is painfully aware of all the conventions he refuses to break or indulge in, and we’ve come to love the first season because of it.
The only way for the show as a whole to escape the confines of tropes and conventions is to acknowledge their existence and subsequently overcome them in a tactful manner. This is precisely what the premiere of the second season aimed to do: throughout the episode, the conventions established in the prior season were playfully acknowledged and largely overturned. Advertising for the show led many of us to believe that Colin Farrell would be replacing Matthew McConaughey’s role as a cynical, nihilistic detective, while Vince Vaughn would be replacing Woody Harrelson as the straight man. Yet, by the time the episode was over, we realized that Vince Vaughn’s character wasn’t even a cop, and Colin Farrell’s character, cynical though he might be, was almost nothing like Rust. In fact, the way the episode progressed led me to believe that this season’s True Detectives are actually the characters portrayed by Taylor Kitsch and Rachel McAdams. Pizzolatto has raised a giant middle-finger to the conventions that would have bound the show- unfortunately many viewers misinterpreted the convention-defying aspects of the season premiere as a middle-finger aimed at them personally.
Perhaps one of the scenes in the premiere episode in which Pizzolatto plays with conventions established in the first season most poignantly is the scene in which Colin Farrell’s character meets with his divorce attorney. At first, we expect that the second season will occur much like the first, with similar interview sequences, perhaps between Farrell’s character and his divorce attorneys, much like the prior season was split between the present interviews between Cohle and the two officers from internal affairs, and the past investigation. But our expectations are immediately shown to be superfluous: one interview sequence is all we get, and it’s unlikely we’ll be shown another.
And so, it seems that what Pizzolatto is really after is to train his audience how to have fresh eyes again. “True Detective” does not seek to simply entertain its audience, but to teach us to look at the world and television shows in a new way, and to give up the comforts of set conventions in order to experience a new-found freedom and to help us understand how shows can escape the conventions that bind them. Pizzolatto’s project is ambitious: Each new season of “True Detective” will be united with the prior seasons only by the fact that the show revolves around one central crime, or string of crimes. But we ought not to expect any continuity of tropes, characters, actors, even directors. We knew that “True Detective” would be an anthology, but until the second season, we didn’t know the extent of how far removed each new season would be from the last (we might have expected a similar sort of continuity to that present in “American Horror Story”). Now we know that Pizzolatto’s attempts at overcoming conventions and distancing each new season from the last are so ambitious that we may not have any other shows to which we can compare “True Detective.” And I, for one, count that as a strength of the show rather than a weakness.
With all this in mind, I’d caution viewers to refrain from judging the new season unfavorably until at least the fourth episode. Forget about Rust and Marty. Forget about Carcosa and the Yellow King. Forget about supernatural elements. And forget about Louisiana. This season is literally a completely different show. The first second of the first episode keys us in to this fact when we hear a completely different theme song (much to my disliking, but maybe it’ll grow on me. After all, I didn’t like country music, but by the sixth episode of the first season, I’d begun listening to The Handsome Family on Spotify). Part of what Pizzolatto is doing with the second season is wiping the slate clean. Pizzolatto is conscious of every convention he chooses to break or uphold–that’s truly the pivotal thing about “True Detective.” It’s not simply that the show ironically indulges in some conventions and it breaks others–it’s that it plays with conventions. And as any Nietzsche scholar will tell you, the defining characteristic of a free spirit is a playful attitude. Whether indulging in conventions or ignoring them, Pizzolatto’s message is clear: “True Detective” is not BOUND by conventions.