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True Detective's season 2 premiere was a new pilot. That's why it was so bad.

As Antigone "Ani" Bezzerides, Rachel McAdams spends most of True Detective's season two premiere casting about for something to do.
As Antigone "Ani" Bezzerides, Rachel McAdams spends most of True Detective's season two premiere casting about for something to do.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every week, a handful of Vox's writers will discuss the second season of True Detective. Before we begin, check out our recap of the season premiere, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date. Joining culture editor Todd VanDerWerff will be deputy culture editor Jen Trolio and more.

Todd VanDerWerff: So I didn't much like the season two premiere of True Detective. In and of itself, this isn't especially remarkable. I was a little more muted on the season one premiere than many other critics (though I certainly thought it was a better episode of TV than this one was), and even behind leaving this specific show entirely, season premieres are tough to execute well. That's the case even when you have returning characters to work with. But in trying to set up a whole new story and a whole new world and a whole new set of characters, series creator Nic Pizzolatto built himself a gigantic mountain to climb. Realistically, "The Western Book of the Dead" was always going to have a lot working against it.

That I believe the episode largely failed doesn't in any way diminish my belief that Pizzolatto could pull out of this skid as season two progresses. I was similarly skeptical early on in season one, and the midsection of that season was some of my favorite TV last year. Many, many shows have aired bad season premieres over the years, and it's perhaps one of the easiest obstacles to overcome in all of TV.

But with that said, this episode's problems ultimately boil down to one, when you really think about it: "The Western Book of the Dead" doesn't have the foggiest clue what story it wants to tell. It features four separate vignettes that we must have faith will intertwine at some point, but it doesn't really bother to make any of those vignettes original or compelling on their own.

Let's break them down, one by one.

  • Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) is investigating the disappearance of the city manager of fictional Vinci, California. Along the way, he tries to deal with problems stemming from his son, who is being bullied at school and fails to live up to Ray's rigorous standards of masculinity.
  • Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) is trying to take his crime business legitimate, so that his descendants won't be entirely sure where the money came from in the first place. He also wants to make a killing on construction of a high-speed rail line linking Northern and Southern California, where this season is set.
  • Antigone "Ani" Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) is presumably named after A.I. Bezzerides, screenwriter of many famous film noir movies. She spends a lot of the episode seemingly casting about for something to do but mostly busts her sister, who's working at an online porn site, before visiting her dad, an aging hippie who occasionally speaks at some sort of New Age retreat.
  • Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) is a California Highway Patrol officer who's been suspended from duty after being accused of soliciting oral sex from an actress in exchange for not writing her a ticket. He's falling apart without his work and spends lots of time driving around at high speeds in the middle of the night, which is how he finds the body of the city manager Ray's been looking for, bringing the characters together.

Those four stories don't contain anything that doesn't already bubble over with cliché. Now, True Detective is not a series that cares particularly strongly about avoiding cliché on a plot level (season one was ultimately about a serial killer backed by a criminal conspiracy), but it does attempt to achieve something deeper and more nuanced on the level of character study. And that's where "The Western Book of the Dead" falls on its face. None of Pizzolatto's "new" characters are particularly new or nuanced. In season one, you instantly knew so many interesting things about Rust and Marty; that's not the case in season two.

If I were forced to take a stab at the reason for this, I'd say it's that Pizzolatto works without a writers' room. In season one, that was okay, because he'd presumably been mulling the basic bones of Rust and Marty's story for a while. But when forced to come up with something in a hurry for season two, I suspect he fell back on a bunch of tropes viewers know all too well.

True Detective's closest cousin is FX's Fargo, where Noah Hawley writes all of the series' scripts but does work with a small writers' room to plot out the season as a whole. As far we know, Pizzolatto just doesn't do this. And the writers' room, where a bunch of writers work together to top each other and come up with the best stories possible, is where the best (and, admittedly, worst) TV is made. In True Detective's first season, at least, Pizzolatto had director Cary Joji Fukunaga at his side for every episode. Season two doesn't even have that sort of steady presence.

I think that's why the premiere seems to take so long to get going. The scenario it sets up — one case seen through the eyes of people working it from many different angles, with many different agendas — is incredibly promising, but the writer doesn't quite know how to bring everything together. So he tries his best with brute character study, and mostly fails.

Read the recap, and come back tomorrow for more thoughts.

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