Strange family: A critical review of HBO’s “True Detective” season two (2015)

It is no secret that this blog likes “True Detective.” The first season still stands, in my opinion, as one of the finest uses of the medium of television. Despite the fact that I no longer subscribed to HBO, I was looking forward with great expectations for the second season in a way that I hadn’t been looking forward to television other than (the recently departed) “Hannibal.” So when the reports started coming in that the show was lackluster, and that behind the scene showrunner Nick Pizzolatto was kind of an ass, I was disappointed, but still looking forward to judging for myself. With expectations adjusted, I got around to watching the show and was pleasantly surprised. It still ranks as one of the best products of 2015–certainly the best of the recent spate of LA TV thrillers. Was the second season as good as the first? No. Was it bad? Far from it. The first season was pure gold; the second was merely mirror-polished silver.

I understand some of the criticism. The second season suffers in part because it lacks the unifying hand of a single director (remember, all the episodes of seasons one were directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga). Regardless, we get some fascinating sequences, like the Lynchian opening to episode three, “Maybe Tomorrow”–photographed in dream-like parallels and sporting perfect music selection by T Bone Burnett. Episode four, “Down Will Come,” contains a tense, sprawling shootout with standard action cinematography that is quite different–but still effective–from season one’s infamous single camera shot in episode four.

Much was also made of the cast, and much of it was mixed. Bigger and more diverse–three angry white men, and one angry white woman, instead of the previous two; one closeted gay instead of the previous zero–to grapple with Pizzolatto’s more labyrinthine story (Pizzolatto occasionally shares writing credit with Scott Lasser and script coordinator Amanda Overton) of grotesque murders and local corruption. Everybody picked a favorite. Mine was Farrell, as corrupt cop Ray Velcoro, whose grotesque facial hair, preference for bolo ties and quips straight out of classic detective television (“I ain’t exactly Columbo”) may make him seem like a bit of an anachronism, a scenery sweating slice of the 1970s. But Ferrell plays him with such a world weariness–the man looks physically exhausted, genuinely weighed down from a lifetime of conspiracy–that he transcends believability to become something more. There are shades of the out-of-place, unstuck-in-time Bates family in “Bates Motel” about him, which adds to the mystique of both the character and the show.

Vince Vaughn is, well, Vince Vaughn. As mobster-about-town Frank Semyon he handles the physical stuff pretty well, actually, perhaps given his years in broad comedy. But when it comes to the character’s frequent monologues, Vaughn resorts to a kind of “serious actor voice,” which ranges from suitable to silly depending on the length and content of the speech (it should go without saying that the shorter the better; Vaughn delivers grim one-liners with deadpan ease, but longer meditations on rats and water stains fall flat). The majority of the sympathy for his character is actually drawn from Kelly Reilly, as his long-suffering wife, who beautifully rounds out what could have been a minor part in the hands of a lesser actress. Reilly treats her like a human being, and we have no choice but to treat her likewise.

A special note must also be made of the supporting cast, particularly of the corrupt members of the city of Vinci’s government. Ritchie Coster is delightful as a thoroughly sleazy mayor, Afemo Milami an excellent foil as a surprisingly stony police chief, and James Frain as a police bureaucrat whose allegiances are constantly shifting is…well, he’s James Frain, isn’t he? The man excels as pretty much any villain he plays.

“Detective’s” second season is at its core about families. Velcoro wants to reconnect with his (supposed) son; the Semyons want a child; highway patrolman Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) is having a child, whether he wants one or not, and struggles to connect with his girlfriend and mother; and (the delightfully named) county sheriff Antigone Bezzeerides (Rachel McAdams) butchers her way through a relationship with her father and sister. Even the cryptic solution to the mystery is a family affair. Combined with the unquestionable sense of fatalism (“We get the world that we deserve”), the show seems to run opposite the popular modern doctrine that we create the family we end up with. Not so fast, “Detective” says. Family is not who you decide to put up with; it’s who you have to put up with. The city of Vinci itself seems like the unwanted child of both Los Angeles and Ventura counties, and, like a bad seed, it’s picked up the worst traits of both: remote and industrial, shadowy and corrupt. But Vinci’s parents cannot abandon it any more than the ocean can abandon the tide, and law enforcement from Los Angeles county and the state of California struggle to help their spawn. Does it work? Well, the southland has always been noir country. I’ll let you figure it out.

“True Detective’s” statement on familial fatalism is certainly something to chew on. But in a modern world, where freedom of choice is the topic of choice, the show’s downbeat message seems to have failed to captivate viewers. But that’s the way it goes, I guess. In the end, we get the television that we deserve.

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