The Secret Fate of All Shows

With the near-Pavlovian response any Game of Thrones devotee has when the weekend comes to a close, my roommate and I spent last Sunday mentally salivating at the familiar promise of quality television from our friends at HBO. Except, Sunday evening, TV viewers worldwide were immersed in an unfamiliar lineup of shows. Like the spring before it, this summer’s HBO lineup showcases a striking drama and two edgy comedies—the second season of Nic Pizzolatto’s highly-anticipated neo-noir crime thriller True Detective joins would-be (and definitely is-not) Dr. Strangelove geopolitical satire The Brink and unimaginative Entourage-inspired dramedy series Ballers to round out HBO Sundays. In fairness to both The Brink and Ballers, each brings a fun change of pace to Sunday evenings otherwise highlighted by what might be the most depressing show on television. For this reason, viewers will happily accept these offerings, even if they might not yet fill the holes left by Silicon Valley and Veep.

True Detective, however, does not have this luxury. This show that has chronically spurned anything and everything that might be considered appealing in favor of the deviant and offensive must work a little harder in order to appease its alarmingly attached viewers. We’re not here for laughs, and we’re not even really here primarily for entertainment. We’re here to be absorbed by the charmingly bleak landscape, gripped by the grim realities of marginalized America, and downright disturbed by the machinations of some of the most complex characters on TV. Such was the tone set by the first season of the show one British philosopher called “the most intelligent series in TV history.”

Close, but no cigar.

Inevitably, The Western Book of the Dead would disappoint those who expected something comparable to the original season. The series benefits from the unusual format of uniquely freestanding seasons in that the legacy of the debut season is safe—it remains a singular achievement in entertainment that will remain unspoiled regardless of what future seasons hold (see Lost). On the other hand, this forces the show’s creative minds to relive the literary childbirth of inventing entirely new characters, setting, and themes with each new season. While Nic Pizzolatto, the man behind True D, has been lauded at length for his masterful screenwriting, we can tell already from the second season that he is human, and that the show has, in many ways, set unsustainable expectations for itself. The first season was simply marvelous, and for a less ambitious TV show, the sustained genius of those characters and the sheer novelty of the story would be more than enough momentum to carry it through a sophomore slump. But because True Detective completely reboots every year, all it did was set the bar much too high.

To watchers new to the show, do not yet abandon all hope. True D remains arguably the most intriguing show on television—a dark and twisted psychological trip whose gritty realism pries open the deluded idealism of modern America. While the journeys it takes us on are far from savory, there is an undeniable nobility in the show’s attempt to tell the hard truths about humanity. As we witness the central characters laid bare before the vastness of human evil, viewers are forced to identify with the undeniable ugly side of mankind. It subscribes to the worldview that our planet is “all one ghetto, man—a giant gutter in outer space.” But in doing so, the show has an uncommon knack for reminding us what it means to be human. In a world where televised entertainment is always more marketable than it is memorable, this remains refreshing in Season 2.

…none of which is to say that The Western Book of the Dead was what we were actually hoping for.

Opening shots: The characters noticeably lacked the depth so critical to the show’s acclaim. The dialogue was comparatively dull. Where Season 1 kept us squarely in a supernatural haze reinforced by surreal material, Season 2 so far brings us a well-developed cop show. The cinematography invokes the same impenetrably sinister yet fantastical dreariness we knew so well, but this now feels fake given the uncharacteristically pedestrian subject matter. And the title song was also way too fucking creepy.

While Nic Pizzolatto, the man behind True D, has been lauded at length for his masterful screenwriting, we can tell already from the second season that he is human,

Characters first. Compared to Woody Harrelson’s Martin Hart and Matthew McConaughey’s Rustin Cohle, the central characters of the second season have so far demonstrated none of the show’s hallmark complexity, instead coming off flat and uninspiring. A drool-worthy cast that had viewers stoked saw its characters dissolve into predictable archetypes.

Why? Twice the major characters in the same amount time means half the time developing each character. Science, bitch.

So, in order to accelerate the character development and keep pace with being already 1/8th into each character’s entire arc, the show takes shortcuts. Colin Farrell’s Ray Velcoro is a standard disgraced cop who has become a failed father with drinking and anger management problems. Vince Vaughn’s Frank Semyon is a gangster with typical ambitions. Taylor Kitsch’s Paul Woodrugh is actually promising, despite having gotten more of him with the same bitchy look on his face than actual dialogue. Rachel McAdams’s character, Detective Ani Bezzerides, is my favorite, though—the bitter daughter of an established new-age hippie guru whose sister is a full-time porn actress adult entertainer—if that’s not the fast-track to plot tension, I don’t know what is.

These aren’t bad characters. They’re actually pretty good, compared to the rest of television. But by this point in Season 1, with the help of a plot that was simply more interesting, we had two characters, each independently well-developed, but whose juxtaposition was thematically meaningful and whose dialogue was some of the brilliant stuff on television. By now, between Harrelson and McConaughey, we had well-timed insults, probing personal conversation, and powerful philosophical musings that stirred viewers as we found ourselves somehow identifying with both at the same time. This expectation left much to be desired in the Season 2 premiere.

Western Book’s storyline similarly falls short—there’s a sacrifice of depth for breadth in the show’s progression, and the consequent loss of what made the True Detective special. The plot moves faster now, but it’s composed of stories we’ve seen before. There’s more action, but somehow it feels forced. The characters’ flaws are more exposed, but fail to give us any additional insight into their personalities than we already had.

True Detective is a show that prides itself on the ability to take on the ugly. But Sunday’s episode was all too quick to jump into the grit without actually making it interesting. Ray Velcoro beats the shit out of a suburban dad with brass knuckles for next to no reason. Paul Woodrugh only comes across the key crime scene through sheer chance. I hope this shapes up to be a season that we can all take seriously, but for now it seems far more cheap than what we were promised. It feels like a highlight reel of what garnered so much praise for Season 1 without any of the actual development that made us love it. Perhaps this is what we get for picking the guy responsible for The Fast and Furious 3-6 to direct Season 2 of a TV show we actually take seriously.

Perhaps most telling about the Sunday’s premiere is that it somehow managed to seem ordinary, in spite of all of sinister goings-on. Season 1 brought viewers into a chilling world, where the very landscape was draped in layers of obscurity. From the get-go, we had an intuitive sense of the deep evils which ultimately turned the show into a supernatural journey. By comparison, Sunday was just a darker, ballsier version of Law & Order—entertaining and watchable, but immediately forgettable.

Perhaps this is what we get for picking the guy responsible for The Fast and Furious 3-6 to direct Season 2 of a TV show we actually take seriously.

Is this the Secret Fate of True Detective? Nic Pizzolatto is too good at what he does to let that happen without a fight, so only time will tell. It’s still a great show, but there’s no shortage of those. The fact is that so far, Season 2 shows no signs of the existential genius we were hoping for.

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