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True Detective: What Went Wrong

A lot.

The most damning thing that can be said about True Detective’s second season is that it’s too amorphous to be constructively criticized. You might as well try to hold water in your hands. The sophomore outing of Nic Pizzolatto’s crime drama, which ended Sunday, was so disorganized, mannered, and altogether scatterbrained that it’s tough to say definitively what it was trying to be, much less analyze how it failed to reach whatever goals it might have set for itself. I defended it at first, but after a while I had to stop because it was making a fool of me.

More vexing still were the pockets of artistry and emotion that appeared in the murk, like lilies floating on a sludge pond: the tremulous way that Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) and Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) came together; the nightmarish intensity of Ani’s flight from the sex party at the mansion, with out-of-focus couplings blocked by the drugged-up heroine’s face and shoulders, and a mournful, classically orchestrated score swooning on the soundtrack; the defiant way doomed ex-patrolman Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) crawled toward his gun; the dream sequence of Ray’s father* (Fred Ward) predicting the circumstances of his death while a Conway Twitty impersonator onstage behind him crooned “The Rose.” If somebody cut together all of those sinister helicopter shots and projected them on the wall of a bar, I would drink there, just as long as the entertainment wasn’t Lera Lynn, who has a lovely voice but whose True Detective performances could be compiled on an album titled Songs in the Key of Woe.

The show’s occasionally inspired scenes and images deserved a more meticulously conceived and precisely executed vision — or, at the very least, a narrative that you could follow without consulting a 4,000-word explainer. I’ve had exchanges with fans who insisted that it was “all there.” I can’t agree. The problem wasn’t the presence or absence of relevant facts. It was the presentation of those facts, which was consistently lacking, and the show’s annoying inability to decide whether it cared about such things. The plot was too messy to be characterized as dense, but coherent (like, say, Miller’s Crossing or L.A. Confidential or The Big Sleep, chauffeur lapse and all). You can’t chalk up all the dead ends and dropped plot threads and “important” people you barely see (like Stan, whoever the hell he is) and the seemingly retro-engineered relationships (like Vince Vaughn’s Frank and his henchman Blake) to “dream logic.” David Lynch practices dream logic. This show is just a mess.

I don’t fault the core cast for the failures of season two, even though there were complaints about all of the principals pretty much from the start. They were working with what they’d been given, and it wasn’t enough. Try playing one of five leads with no discernible sense of humor and a penchant for staring broodingly into the middle distance and see how well you do. In contrast to season one, where the major characters were clearly defined (though not necessarily deep), Pizzolatto’s season-two characters didn’t feel like characters so much as badass losers whose backstories kept piling misfortune upon tragedy like Jenga blocks.

Paul was a closeted gay man being wrongly targeted in a sexual harassment case. His floozy single mom (Lolita Davidovich) stole his nest egg, and he suffered PTSD from his Afghanistan experience that apparently included a My Lai–type massacre (the details on that last thing were sketchy even by season two’s standards). Ani was a woman in a male-dominated profession; and a male-dominated genre, the neo-noir crime thriller; and a male-dominated network, HBO; and a male-dominated series, True Detective; add to that a tangled sexual history subjected to a sniggering double standard by her colleagues, and a hippie-guru father (David Morse) spouting Cool Whip homilies, and a sister named Athena (Leven Rambin) who freaked her out by becoming an Internet porn performer, and a childhood spent in a New Age commune where a bearded visitor molested her in the back of a van, and she was toting around a half-ton Santa bag of woe. Ray was a dirty cop and an alcoholic and a cokehead and an angry divorced father and a guy with daddy issues, and also he murdered the man he thought raped his wife and fathered his son, and unfortunately those last two things turned out not to be true. Ray lost his mustache after the shootout. Maybe he lost his mustache during the shootout — there was a lot going on.

Frank had lived out that classic gangster arc of street criminal to semi-respectable citizen, only to realize he was outclassed in treachery by the Russian gangsters and slick one-percenters and corrupt government officials who’d glommed onto the land deal. This might’ve played as scuzzball tragedy if there had been anything in the writing, or in Vaughn’s performance, to suggest that Frank’s rise to casino boss and would-be pillar of the community was remotely believable. He made sense as a looming thug, but not as anything else. Kelly Reilly’s performance as Frank’s wife, Jordan, was so disconnected from recognizable human emotions that I would not have been surprised if she’d been revealed as a Tyler Durden–like figment of her husband’s imagination. But considering that Jordan was defined solely as an adjunct to her clumsily conceived husband’s desires, I wouldn’t call her bad. If there were an acting equivalent of the Purple Heart, Reilly would deserve a crateful.

What went wrong? We’ll find out eventually, the internet being what it is, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the culprits weren’t ego and time: Too much ego, not enough time. In the aftermath of season one’s success (deserved, I’d say), Pizzolatto, a literary-fiction writer by trade, became an overnight wunderkind showrunner philosopher-king. He parted ways with season one’s sole director, Cary Fukunaga, and hired a bomber crew of guest directors (including Justin Lin, who helmed the first two*). In interviews like this one, he seemed to go out of his way to assert primary authorship — perhaps understandably, considering that most of the positive attention paid to season one had to do with the show’s direction, photography, music, and acting, while most of the complaints (including the ones about sexism) were about the writing. Pizzolatto committed to solo-writing season two fast enough to get it on HBO just 15 months after the season-one finale. Given all this, it’s not hugely surprising that the result feels like a first or maybe second draft rather than a polished final product. The break in the middle (after the shootout) makes the final four play like a redo, and there aren’t enough mirrored elements to make it seem as though it’s all part of some grand design, the intricacies of which will be revealed if you stare at the thing long enough.

I’m not ready to write off Pizzolatto, though, because if this season was a failure, as I believe it was, at least it was a singular failure, a morose pastiche of neo-noir, the civic corruption story, James Ellroy’s crime fiction, and ham actor fantasies of “edginess.” (Cocaine! Knives! Molestation! Arson! Sex parties!) I wish Pizzolatto could have had another year to work on it, but only if he’d hired a writing staff experienced in untangling a spaghetti-blob of plot threads, and perhaps a powerful showrunner unafraid to tell him that he isn’t good at everything and that there’s no shame in moving over and letting other people drive sometimes.

* An earlier version of this story mistakenly noted that Ray’s dad was dead and that Justin Lin directed four episodes this season. Ray’s dad is very much alive, and Lin directed two episodes.

True Detective: What Went Wrong