Forget the Yellow King. Forget the time-jumping narrative structure. Forget, even, "Time is a flat circle."
What made True Detective's first season so instantly gripping for so many viewers were the scenes where Rust and Marty drove around the Louisiana countryside and shot the shit. Their relationship proved about the only consistent sounding board season one had.
For the first time, the second season of True Detective took off for me in its second episode, when it isolated Ray and Ani in a car together, to discuss their philosophies of life. The scene, which took place around two-thirds of the way through "Night Finds You," was a simple conversation piece, but it said so much about both characters (Ani's knives are part of her overall attempt to survive in a world dominated by men; Ray is upfront about his corruption, but only to a very limited point), as well as how season two is attempting to live up to season one.
By and large, I've tried to avoid comparing the second season of True Detective to its first, because the second season is clearly trying to be its own thing, and that strikes me as an admirable goal. But "Night Finds You" offers a look at how the show is grappling with that earlier season and especially with the criticisms of that season. As such, it's worth examining how creator Nic Pizzolatto has pivoted away from season one in some ways and embraced it in others.
Here are many folks' seven main criticisms about season one, coupled with the ways Pizzolatto has attempted to deal with them.
1) The show has no worthwhile women in its ranks
This was by far the most persistent criticism of season one, and it was the centerpiece of Emily Nussbaum's famous takedown of the show in the New Yorker. Wrote Nussbaum:
To state the obvious: while the male detectives of True Detective are avenging women and children, and bro-bonding over "crazy pussy," every live woman they meet is paper-thin. Wives and sluts and daughters—none with any interior life.
The counter to this point was that the show was so focused on Rust and Marty that it didn't really develop any other characters, which was true. But even that argument ran straight into the buzzsaw of the idea that cable dramas had been so focused on the primacy of white men for so long that the approach had become tiresome, an idea that has only gained currency since season one left the air.
Pizzolatto was clearly most stung by this criticism in post-season one interviews, and season two features a well-developed woman in Rachel McAdams's Ani Bezzerides. Yes, the "woman who's made herself hard to survive in a hard world" character type is a cliché, but "Night Finds You" shows that McAdams is able to add layers to that character we haven't seen before, and director Justin Lin keeps cutting to her throughout, as if her face might tell the entire story of the season. (And it might.)
Season two's other women are less impressively written. Abigail Spencer, as Ray's ex-wife, does her best to turn the character into anything other than a hectoring scold, but her efforts aren't enough to salvage her one scene. Kelly Reilly is basically around just to be a sounding board for Frank. And who knows what's up with Paul's mom? She seems dropped in to provide the season's obsession with Greek mythology with some sort of Oedipal complex around the edges (even though Paul seems to be gay).
Better or worse than season one: Push. We'll see how this plays out.
2) The crime-solving makes no sense.
This was the season one complaint I found most compelling. At the end of the day, what appeared to be a massive criminal conspiracy with supernatural overtones was brought down because of ... a shade of paint? It was borderline plausible, sure, but it was also deeply unsatisfying.
And in this regard, season two is much better, at least so far. Yes, it's also much more conventional — in that the structure mostly involves the characters wandering Southern California and interviewing people with connections to the ongoing investigation — but there's a reason detective stories are so prominent in fiction. There's an irresistible momentum to them once they really get going, and their very structure always means there's something else ahead, some other suspect to interview.
Pizzolatto, at least in the season two episodes I've seen, seems to have really done his best to craft a case that makes some degree of logical sense, even if it involves a man who wears a bird head when he shoots you. And that's impressive.
Better or worse than season one: So far, much better!
3) Every other line of dialogue is exposition
As I said last week, Pizzolatto's greatest weakness as a writer is in his exposition. The show will sometimes stop dead in its tracks to make sure some crucial bit of information is filled in for us, as when one of Ani's superiors recites a quick history of Vinci. Is this information Ani needs to know and, therefore, information that we, by extension, also need to know? Sure. But it also brings everything to a screeching halt for a little while.
Season one handled the exposition so much better, simply by virtue of having much of it delivered by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey — and by having the season's time-hopping structure constantly call any of the story's established "facts" into question. Season two mostly lacks all of that.
Better or worse than season one: Slightly worse!
4) The show is pretentious.
I don't know if Pizzolatto could write something that wasn't pretentious, and I'm not sure I'd even want him to try. (It might seem a little frightening, honestly.) Say what you will about the guy, but he usually displays a firm grasp of his own weaknesses in this regard, as well as a willingness to laugh at them with a winking line of dialogue.
Still, True Detective is a series where an episode of television can begin with a rock-bottom awful monologue from Frank about how he was locked in a basement as a child and ended up beating a rat to death, which then pivots into his fear that he might have died down there and has been dead all this time, living in a world made of papier-mâché. There's no scene worse than this one in the three episodes of season two that I've watched, and it made me briefly fear the season would somehow get even more ridiculous after the premiere.
Fortunately, the rest of episode two proved me wrong, but it was a near thing.
Better or worse than season one: Push.
5) The show was not as original as it thought it was.
In some ways, this criticism of season one was more of a criticism of True Detective's fanbase than anything else. Said fanbase elevated the show to the pantheon of all-time dramas within about four episodes, and anyone who advised slight temperance was told, endlessly, about the series' evident greatness.
Of course, there were some fun, original elements in that first season. The part where Rust and Marty served as unreliable narrators was somewhat novel, and the filmmaking was frequently quite ambitious for a TV show. At its base, however, the story was yet another cop story, with all the good and ill that implies.
In season two, True Detective has more or less doubled down on this. The cop show architecture is more evident than ever before, but I'm not sure that's a bad thing at all. As stated, there's a momentum to this sort of structure that's fun to watch play out, and Colin Farrell and McAdams aren't bad as crime-solving partners.
Better or worse than season one: So far it's worse, but that might end up being a good thing. The show's premature praise in season one probably caused much of the backlash.
6) The show is completely humorless!
I repeat: "Night Finds You" opens with Frank delivering a monologue about beating a rat to death while he was locked in a cold, dark basement as a child. Though not as hilariously self-serious as the season two premiere, the episode still feels grim for the sake of being grim, which is rarely a good place for a TV show to be in.
Better or worse than season one: Worse. Harrelson had a way with a laugh line that Farrell, let's say, completely lacks.
7) The show over-relies on its supernatural elements.
To be fair, the person who most frequently levied this criticism against season one seemed to be Pizzolatto. In post-season interviews, he often seemed frustrated with the way fans glommed onto the little clues dropped about the seemingly all-powerful Yellow King and Carcosa. He had only meant for such things to add a bit of local flavor and color, see, and they weren't intended to be the point of the exercise.
So season two is almost completely devoid of supernatural stuff, at least so far. What's happening is a pretty prosaic tale of botched land deals, corrupt cops, and gruesome murder. It's more artful, sure, but it's also nothing that couldn't provide the spine of an episode of NCIS, to be honest. Yes, some of the side characters (particularly Ani's father) still go in for some element of philosophy, but the center of the season is "normal," as dark tales of horrific crime go. There's little here that couldn't actually be happening right now, in some shadowy corner of the world.
But here's the flip side of this: Pizzolatto is really, really good at suggesting that something eerie and haunted is going on just off-camera. Indeed, it might be what he's best at. The Yellow King and Carcosa became such big parts of season one because he wove them so skillfully into the narrative and so neatly built into his story the idea of all-consuming, Lovecraftian madness. Without that, everything feels a little more like a typical cop drama.
At least, until Bird Head wanders out of the back room of the secret second home Ben Caspere was keeping in Hollywood, then shoots Ray. It's a brilliant, unsettling sequence, precisely because it seems like True Detective has left behind our reality and entered one just a few degrees left of it.
More of this, please. This show is so good when it indulges its creepy, horror-driven side.
Better or worse than season one: "Better," but that might end up being a bad thing.
Obama and Bush made cameos
My favorite visual gag in "Night Finds You" is the pair of consecutive scenes featuring appearances by Barack Obama and George W. Bush in the background. Whatever's going on in season two will not be constrained by politics as usual.
Join me Monday morning at noon Eastern to chat about this episode and other cultural topics in comments
We will be opening the comments at 9 am Eastern for you to leave your questions. I'll be by to answer them, starting at noon. There's lots to talk about from this one!