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True Detective's second season isn't bad — it's too familiar

Vince Vaughn as career criminal Frank Semyon.
Vince Vaughn as career criminal Frank Semyon.
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 latest episode of True Detective's second season. Before you dig into the latest round, check out our recap of this week's episode, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date. Joining culture editor Todd VanDerWerff will be deputy culture editor Jen Trolio, and foreign writer Zack Beauchamp.

Todd VanDerWerff: So many of the conversations surrounding this first week of True Detective's second season have revolved around questions of the show's quality. On the one hand, you have many viewers (like myself) who believe the season two premiere represents a new low for the series' quality. On the other, you have so many fans of the series — and I think I've heard from all of them, vocally and at some length — who argue that it's unfair to judge the series based on one episode.

Those fans are at least a little bit right. Judging a season of television based on one episode is a bad idea. I've seen the first three installments of True Detective season two, so I believe my opinion of it stands on slightly firmer ground, but there will be another five episodes to come after those — and they could all be of top-flight quality, or reveal that season two was always building toward something monumental.

Being a TV critic requires constantly reassessing one's opinions as shows progress and evolve; the profession is also an ongoing exercise in forecasting the future of a series after screening a limited number of episodes. There are more and more viewers out there who believe critics should wait to withhold judgment until a season has ended, and while I strongly disagree with that notion (in that I think there's still value in telling people whether an upcoming season has the potential to be any good), I can see where they're coming from.

But many of the negative reviews of True Detective season two aren't just talking about the show itself, nor are they focused solely on how season two compares to season one. No, a lot of them are more concerned with how many times we've been down this road before.

See, this era of serialized TV we're in is actually built atop a long line of crime series (in the form of Hill Street Blues) and lengthy murder mysteries where the payoff wasn't meant to be the point (in the form of Twin Peaks). But even more specifically, the last 10 years have yielded so, so, so many TV shows where a gruesome murder occurs in the first episode, and then in the weeks afterward, the cops on the beat solve the case. It has curdled into something so familiar and rote that I can hum it in my sleep.

Consider The Killing, AMC's now famously lambasted murder mystery, which debuted to really good reviews (including one from this critic) in 2011 before ultimately devolving into disaster. There are a ton of structural similarities between The Killing's pilot and True Detective's season two premiere. (Perhaps not coincidentally, True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto worked on that first season of The Killing.) Several different characters are trying to locate a missing person whose body is only found at the end of the hour. There's a hardened female police officer with a troubled personal life. There's also a seemingly tangential political plot.

I'd say The Killing's pilot was stronger overall. (For one thing, the missing girl being sought by her parents was immediately more tense than a police officer investigating the disappearance of a city manager.) But it wasn't dramatically better, even though it received dramatically better reviews. What I would say TV critics have realized in the interim (in part because of The Killing) is that these sorts of stories are very often saddled with strained, unsatisfying conclusions, so the excitement has to come from the way in which the story is told. And True Detective's season two premiere doesn't suggest that the series will tell its "new" story in a particularly new way; instead, it suggests an old story told all over again.

Think back to True Detective's first season. That was a show where the storytelling approach was far more important than the actual plot. The concept of two guys remembering a case from two decades prior, their thoughts filtered through the uncertain haze of memory, was relatively new. And the extended scenes between the two of them made it clear that the characters were going to be the point of watching True Detective, far more than the resolution to the case. That setup was strong enough to withstand an unsatisfying payoff.

But season two just isn't there yet. Its characters and storytelling are all lifted from other sources. The setting is overly familiar. Even the filmmaking is less inspired. And that conjures up the ghosts of crime series past, of shows like The Killing. This is not to say that True Detective won't prove me wrong, then spike the ball in my face right after scoring a touchdown. But it is to say that the mountain it must climb to prove itself is — perhaps unfairly — very, very tall.

Read the recap. Come back soon for more discussion.

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