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True Detective’s biggest problem right now is that it’s unwilling to have any fun

Maybe try a smile on for size, Frank!
Maybe try a smile on for size, Frank!
Tanya Pai heads the standards team at Vox, focusing on copy editing, fact-checking, inclusive language and sourcing, and newsroom standards and ethics issues. She’s also a founder of Language, Please, a free resource for journalists and storytellers focused on thoughtful language use.

Each week, a handful of Vox's writers will chat about the latest episode of True Detective's second season. Before you dig into this latest round, check out our recap of this week's episode, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date.

Tanya Pai, copy chief: Disclosure: I came to True Detective's first season late, and despite the extraordinary performances by its two leads, did not find myself a total convert by the end. Still, I was excited to experience season two in real time — though like many people, I'm finding it a bit of a letdown thus far.

There are good moments, to be sure, especially the superbly bizarre Twin Peaks homage series creator Nic Pizzolatto works into "Maybe Tomorrow" as Ray is recuperating from his plot contrivance injuries. But the scene also draws a contrast: Twin Peaks was such a specifically imagined show where, even if you didn't know what the hell was going on most of the time (which is likely), it mostly didn't matter because it was so much fun to watch.

But True Detective's second season, after three episodes, is not fun at all. It's partly that the series could badly use a break from the overly expository dialogue (which it could), which also encourages lazy viewing: You, the viewer, don't need to worry too much about what's important and what's not, because the characters will just tell you, to oddly enervating effect.

For contrast, consider a show like Mad Men, a show on which the silences mattered as much as — if not more than — the words its characters spoke, and which painstakingly developed those characters over the course of the series so that when it ended, we felt as if we'd changed right along with them. Or consider, at the opposite end of the spectrum, Scandal, a series I recapped (and was frustrated by) for three and a half seasons. Scandal’s bread and butter is its splashy, shocking, GIF-able moments, for which everything else is sacrificed: continuity, character development, meaningful story arcs. Anything you're supposed to pay attention to on Scandal is bold-faced and underlined twice by dramatic monologues and loaded stares; internal logic gets tossed aside in favor of continually forward-grinding plot. This makes for a fun but ultimately cheap-feeling experience, a series of OMGs and WTFs and not too much else.

True Detective's second season has neither Scandal’s legacy of machine gun dialogue and outrageous plot twists (disappointing cliffhanger aside), nor Mad Men's riveting examples of restrained, slow-building character work. The show seems to want to straddle these disparate worlds without fully committing to either, imbuing every exchange with Meaningful Pauses, which are immediately followed by overt exposition in case the audience misses something. Two recent, egregious examples: The set photographer telling Ray he's a "set photographer," then turning away to snap some photos; and Ray exclaiming, "I pissed myself" aloud to an empty apartment, for the weak payoff in the next scene of Ani saying, "Fuck, it smells like piss."

Then there's the fact that the show is, as Todd VanDerWerff put it, "grim for the sake of being grim." There's a heaviness, a sourness, that hangs over every character and every piece of dialogue (perhaps with Ray's crack about body issues being a rare exception). Vince Vaughn, straining at the limits of Frank's poker-faced persona like it's an overly tight dress shirt, seems the most uncomfortable of all, as if he’s deathly afraid that the comedic persona he’s best known for will slip through and ruin his credibility as a Serious Actor. Which is a shame: The show’s ponderousness could use a hint of levity here and there! I mean, a scene in which an immaculately dressed pseudo-gangster beats up a guy while sustaining nary a scratch and then pries his gold FUCK YOU grill out of his mouth is ripe for the kind of darkly manic humor Vaughn excels at. Instead, here it just seems … unhygienic.

All of which is to say that Pizzolatto is still committing the cardinal writing sin of telling, not showing. Perhaps he felt he bit off more than he could chew with season one's Yellow King/Carcosa mythos, and is overcorrecting toward the more traditional noirish cop drama so as to not have to contend with sharp-eyed fans' theories. Or perhaps the back half of season two will lay out the stunning reveal that Marty Hart and Rust Cohle's world of swampy Southern terror is linked to this more prosaic-seeming mystery in Vinci, California. Until that becomes clear, though, I'll be sitting in front of my TV, crossing my fingers for more Twin Peaks–style weirdness and hoping that one of the characters will at least crack a genuine smile.

Read the recap, and come back soon for more discussion.

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