Monday, February 29, 2016

You're Wrong About True Detective Season 2

"The war is lost. The treaty signed. I was not caught. I crossed the line" - Leonard Cohen (Nevermind)

Finally caught up with the sophomore effort of HBO's Nick Pizzolatto anthology crime series True Detective. Coming on the heels of the cultural juggernaut that the first season proved to be there was a lot to live up to and the consensus I picked up on whilst avoiding spoilery territory was that it had not. Worse, that it was just embarrassingly bad. Awful. Stupid. Cringe-inducing. Doubling down on the rip-off thing season one had been accused of. Off-balance on many a politically correct posture. Disappeared up its own asshole and unable to be heard over the feedback loop the characters generated.

This all made me very eager to see it. First - I root for success always. I want the film makers to make something I'll enjoy. I rarely hate-watch anything. And I may have a bit of a contrarian streak in me - so when the overwhelmingly bad reviews were hittin the Twitters, I burrowed in to my non-cable-having cave to hibernate and rest up for a DVD appraisal several months later.

And oh the dreams I had during my sleep. All that delicious hate nourished my anticipation so that I was primed for either  a sly and subversive success or a colossal failure of legendary proportions.

I began my watch early in January and finished a week later, dazed, but not confused and pretty certain I'd seen something special that will be the subject of critical reexamination a few years down the road. Give it a third season and I think season two will be reconciled to the first more clearly. The through-lines obvious.

In fact... I may even prefer season two to season one. May. Might. We'll see, but it's a possibility.


Spoilers ahead.........

Those through lines for one.

Both seasons are about little folks getting ground up in the big machinery, fed to the gods of (capital-P pejorative) progress, suicidal social stability and filthy fortunes. The difference - season one featured a couple of detectives attempting to nail the smallest, but only vulnerable, perp part of that establishment. In the end they succeed and live and the corruption roles on unabated and sure to crush more innocents along the way.

In season two the concerned parties chose a suicidal take-the-fight-to-them, burn-it-all-down strategy unsatisfied to let some low-level creeps get thrown under the bus on behalf of their overlords. In the end they die disgraced, and the corruption roles on unabated and sure to crush more innocents along the way.

Through line number two - locale as character. Dude. Dude. Yeah, season two proved that the show's run was not going to be focused on the South, but it confirmed that locale was muy importante to the whole affair and that for all the dirt beneath its fingernails, the feel of the show was going to be decidedly otherworldly and ethereal whether set in the lush and spooky, swampy rural south or the glitter-gritted, So-Cal, tin-machine urban sprawl.

That feverish reality is nourished and given some psychic lived-in atmospheric bolstering from that other man behind the curtain T Bone Burnett whose musical guidance set the scene for season one with The Handsome Family's Far From Any Road and counted down the self-destruct of season two with Leonard Cohen's Nevermind. The sound textures of each song coupled with almost embarrassingly on the nose lyrics that speak to each season's particular themes. In fact, if you pay close attention during season two the intro changes slightly each time to use different lyrics from Cohen's song that best match the episode its preceding.
For the second season Burnett doubles down on musical cues by introducing a Greek Chorus girl of sorts in Lera Lynn whose moody dirges fill the empty room of the bar where Vince Vaughn's gangster Frank and Colin Farrell's kept cop Ray regularly try to use the other as a father confessor. Her presence is one of those slightly surreal touches that feel Lynchian -her voice is to TDS2 what Julee Cruise's was to Twin Peaks- and so inform and aid the digestion of the text.

And those ridiculous rap sessions - they point to another through line...

...the philosophical mumbo jumbo the main characters are fond of speaking or perhaps simply incapable of not spouting into the void. It's not as singular as Matthew McConaughey's because this time we've got two or three characters given to this trait, sometimes exercising it in concert, and  -I think this is key- they have no Woody Harrelson on the other end to listen and be alternately devastated by or to deflate it with a pithy rejoinder. There is no one listening.

 Which is... Tragic? Funny? Exactly the point?

Beside the point anyway. Because all of this is simply character and not worthy of nor, I believe, intended to be invested in by the audience. Rust Cohle's first season soliloquies  were simply more costume that described the character and helped set a tone - it's always a character's action or inaction that defines them - don't be distracted. Easy to be, sure, because it's well-written and performed - no Deadwood-level shit here, but c'mon it sounds nice and maybe familiar...

...So that other thru-line - Play-giarism (yeah, I spelled it that way intentionally). The cribbing of other writers' and artists' schtick from Thomas Ligotti or Alan Moore to David Lynch and James Ellroy, intentional or not, is just another fun part of many a popular entertainment and I enjoy playing spot the reference or influence.

Be like me, or don't.

But let's contrast the two seasons. Here are some reasons I dig S2 apart from S1.

Season one was a standout for many reasons -consistency in Pizzolatto's writing and the singular vision of director Cary Joji Fukunaga for fucking starters- and I, for one was pleased with its version of the rough south, but there's another element that it succeeded in spite of and not because of, and it's the essence of my potential preference to season two...

Season one: Serial killer.

Season two: No fucking serial killers.

Wha? A major crime teevees production not about a serial killer? In what universe? In this one, motherfuckers. The gods smiled and delivered us from that cheapest of used up conventions. Y'know what? This one doesn't even have a hacker or tech genius in the story. None of those magic devices. What we're left with is bad shit going down all around and through the agency of our cast of characters.

Those things include brass knuckle beatdowns, lots of drugs, gangster shit - like running errands for gangsters... actually that's all Colin Farrell.

Who and what else has S2 got going for it?

Daddy issues. All kinds of daddy issues. Taylor Kitsch as a veteran and closeted motorcycle cop trying like hell to make a hetero-relationship work with the lady he's knocked up. Rachel McAdams as a wobbling broken survivor - the only survivor amongst her childhood friends including her younger sister who were brought up in a hippie cult under the guidance, or lack there of, of her charismatic father (David Morse). Colin Farrell whose shitbag of a cop sold out his ideals for personal revenge earlier in his career and now wallows in self-destructive behavior while losing grip on the only thing of value he has left in his life - a chubby, sad, redheaded son he's increasingly close to discovering is not his own (Farrell's desperation to imbue the kid with some self-confidence and a sense of self-worth is pretty moving - especially as his methods are as fucked up and broken as his intentions are good). And Vince Vaughn is king of a crumbling kingdom without an heir and having difficulty conceiving one as well as justifying bringing a child into the world he's made.

It's Vaughn's by-his-own-bootstraps gangster Frank who has the most engaging story line this time around - and no, it's not the fertility issues. We've seen plenty of stories of the rise and fall of empires of various kinds, but his trajectory felt unique to me. He's a small timer about to vault into a much larger strata, semi-legit and aside from the fact that his business is illegal and brings misery to many, seems to be a person of some character and convictions. When the big business opportunity he's been building up for years blows up in his face and he's left to watch the already fat cats get fatter off of his efforts while he's left to eat shit, his blue-collar work ethic kicks in, he sucks it up and descends the ladder strategically rather self-destructively, humbly rather than in a blaze of glory.

Of course he reaches the terminus of the range of his ability to back down by season's end and the fight that's left in him is something to see, but it's that slow, measured descent that I found so compelling and unique.

Structurally, the seasons have similarities too. Both stretch out over eight episodes covering a much longer time span than your typical procedural (S1 was what, 20 years? And S2 almost a year) which is key to the show's success in my eyes. Super condensed timelines are a stumbling block to me in books and films and it's refreshing to have the freedom to explore a single story over the length of time that story needs rather than have to cram everything in to a terrible 24 hours or some arbitrary deadline like that (a strength of an anthology show that doesn't have to have twenty new episodes a year - or the reverse of the problem The Killing ended up having - stretching a couple month's of story into multiple years of storytelling). I'll be looking for S3's 4th episode to have a show-stopping action sequence in it tho... won't be a surprise this time.

Each cast member got at least one moment to do something fucking badass and memorable too - Farrell beat the shit out of an unsuspecting citizen in front of his kid, Kitsch put his armed forces training to damned good use in an abandoned subway shootout, McAdams got to knife murder a giant fucker who was strangling her and Vaughn mixed arson and shooting somebody point blank in the face with aplomb.

Finally, the season's climax has some amazing sequences. Farrell and Vaughn shoot the shit outta some gangsters and steal their shit like they were Buzz Meeks in The Big Nowhere, and then there's their respective desert and woodlands showdowns that are just beautifully staged and handsomely shot.

I'd love to watch both seasons again, but I feel S2 will reward second viewing far more than S1's "mystery" storyline. Sorry, America. You got it wrong. True Detective Season 2 was good.


J.L. Abramo said...

You have eloquently echoed my reaction to the second season. In spite of the prejudice (spelled pre-judgment) that greeted Season 2 before it even aired, based on comparisons to the first season and some aversion to Vince Vaughn (who was I thought was terrific), I found it very satisfying. And I agree, the story line was much more relevant than a hunt for another whack-job. (More "The Wire" than "The Silence of the Lambs".) Perhaps having more than two protagonists and one antagonist was a little too much for some viewers to assimilate. For whatever reasons Season 2 was under-appreciated, I thought it stood on its own as very good storytelling.

Loneract said...

Agreed season 2 was good. Colin Farrell was excellent. His early work annoyed me but here he's great. The weekest scenes were those with Vince Vaughn in them. I usually like Vaughn but the lines he was given were pretty pretty bad.


That cops get slaughtered scene was off the hook.

jedidiah ayres said...

Once Colin Farrell learned how to say 'no' to job offers, his body of work improved dramatically, but I remember seeking his first starring role TIGERLAND when it came out and being positive I'd just seen THE next big movie fucking star.

I won't say there weren't a few awkward moments and some of them did have Vaughn in them, but overall I think his character was my favorite