Truly Defective: Death by Over-Characterization in True Detective Season 2
HBO’s True Detective was my first trip down the binge-watching rabbit hole. I hadn’t been watching the first season, but the noise about the finale last year was so deafening that I decided to see what it was about. I started the first episode at 8 p.m. on a Saturday, thinking I would watch the first few hours to get a base and then watch an episode a day until the middle of the next week.
Of course, that didn’t happen. I stayed up until 2:30 in the morning watching the first six episodes, fell asleep on the floor of the living room and woke up with the remote in my hands ready for the final two. Nothing else in my life mattered. I didn’t shower, I didn’t talk to anyone, I didn’t even eat between the time I started and finished. I had to watch Rust Cohle hunt down the Yellow Man.
True Detective was perfect. The perfect mixture of reliable (Woody Harrelson) and unpredictable (Matthew McConaughey). The perfect plot structure for a mystery: start with no information, gather a bunch, narrow it down to the final suspect. It was action, it was suspense. It was psychological, emotional, physical. It was the epitome of entertainment.
Before Season 2 of TD started, I couldn’t wait. I even made plans with my girlfriend to watch the show in the serialized, weekly installments for seven weeks and then binge again all day Sunday before the finale, to make sure we absorbed every piece of the series. That’s how invested I was in this season. Unfortunately, it’s been a huge letdown. I definitely won’t be watching any episodes a second time; actually, I probably won’t even watch any more on Sunday night, it’ll just fall into the the when-I-have-time-and-nothing-is-on bullpen on my DVR – the ultimate demotion.
What went wrong?
How could a show so engrossing become so unnecessary?
Here’s what I think happened:
You know that saying “some is good, more is better”? Well, what was good about TD1 was Rust Cohle (McConaughey). Hart (Harrelson) was excellent as well, but he was the straight man to set up Cohle’s internal insanity/intelligence knockdown-dragout. He stole the show, but he didn’t do it alone, he had to have a foil.
In TD2, four headline talents came to the show, doubling the amount of star power and effectively quadrupling the number of storylines. I don’t know who’s to blame, but somehow all four of them ended up trying to be the next Rust Cohle. There’s no Marty Hart. There’s no sanity and order. Just four alcoholic goodfornothings mumbling their way through conversations where everyone is hiding something.
Every character has a dark backstory and Herculean internal struggles that affect how they solve a crime. All four leads are fighting multi-front wars at all times and all those battles go both forward and backward in time.
Somewhere in between seasons, we took our eye off what made TD1 so great (a murder mystery entree with a side of interpersonal conflict) and ended up making TD2 a pile of unrelated internal identity battles that all take place around the time of a murder. Or is it a missing person? And wait! There are blue diamonds too.
Welcome to Season 2 of True Detective. Where every cop is a dirty cop. Every present has an unspoken murderous past. Everyone is hiding something. All of our detectives are no longer working police officers. Just like that girl, a couple of months have gone missing and no one seems concerned.
Instead of watching three detectives search for clues while one villain muddies the waters so he doesn’t go to jail for whatever his illegalities are (real estate maybe?), we get four stars, blindly digging up the past and no one solving a case in the present. We have four Rust Cohles without a Marty Hart to focus them and drive the case (and the plot) forward.
With only three episodes left, here’s what we know about the murder case:
- A man named Ben Caspere is dead and the killer gouged his eyes out
- Caspere hosted crazy, Eyes Wide Shut-type orgy parties at his house, where important people went for sex
- Somewhere there is a hard drive
And here’s what we know about the missing girl
- There’s a girl and she’s missing
- There’s no way this isn’t connected to the Caspere murder
That’s all of the solving we’ve gotten through five hours of this thing! Meanwhile, viewers can nearly write biographies on each of the four lead roles:
Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) is a recovering addict and current alcoholic. He’s going through a messy custody battle that threatens to take away the son that dramatically isn’t his. He has a violent streak, brass knuckling his son’s bully’s father to a pulp early in the season and baseball-batting Rick Springfield until his teeth start coming out in episode 5. He even killed the guy he thought raped his wife and fathered his ginger kid, but it turns out, he was duped. All his troubles forced him to quit the police force and start working for the shady Frank Semyon. He has a mystery scar on his lip and shows his inner brooding by wearing bolo ties.
Paul Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) is a war veteran who we meet in the middle of an attempted suicide. Or is he just addicted to the adrenaline of combat and needs to go on high speed, unlit midnight motorcycle rides around curvy cliffside roads to push the right buttons? He’s gay, but can’t admit it, instead impregnating his beard and proposing to her to continue the ruse. He was framed for sexual assault by a Paris Hilton look-a-like and has to go on paid leave from his police work, which is a problem. He decides to settle down and build a family, but all of his money from the war was gambled away by his good-for-nothing mom.
Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) grew up in some kind of weird, mysterious hippie cult that her dad leads and rebelled against it by joining the police force. She was demoted from detective to managing the evidence locker after the shootout, which is a shame because she’s the only one trying to actually solve anything. She has the healthy sense to smoke E-cigarettes, but doesn’t realize she’s putting her sister’s life in danger asking for help investigating the crime. Bezzerides has the most unknown territory in terms of backstory, but her suppressing all of that is what makes her interesting.
Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) got pretty rich doing something illegal but all of his money was in the hands of Caspere when he died and now Semyon is on the war path to reclaim his fortune. He grew up poor, working as a picker in his teenage years, only to drag himself up to high society as an adult. He owns a casino that’s a front for plenty of other illegal business. His wife can’t give him a child, which is surprisingly something he wants. He doesn’t get along with any human people because he’s always trying to pull a fast one on people and his dad used to lock him in the basement when he was a kid, so he had to kill rats to survive.
Doesn’t that seem just a little unbalanced to you? How can we have so much backward-looking character building and no forward-progressing case solving?
There aren’t clues to put together. No one is even a cop anymore. Everyone has started mumbling/growling so much I have to turn the volume up so loud the sound effects wake up my neighbors. There’s a pretty important character named Pitlor whose name makes you say “wait, what did you say?” every time he’s mentioned.
The makers of TD got so caught up in the successful minutiae of TD1 that they tried to make an entire season out of it instead of actually making another good mystery show. There are certainly a couple of crimes still to be solved in TD2, but we’re not going to do that. They’ll just exist until the finale, when they’ll get resolved, but we won’t actually see any of the process, which is the fun part.
To double down on the distraction of this backstory avalanche, we’re also going to have to wrap up all of those plot tangents too. How does Velcoro’s divorce end? Who did he really kill? Is Frank going to get his money back? Does Riggins come out of the closet? Does he stay with his beard? What is Ani’s dad’s cult doing (besides kidnapping women)? We have to do all of this AND find the missing girl AND solve Caspere’s murder. This will be exhausting. The only thing that makes sense is if the missing girl killed Caspere because she found out that he fathered Velcoro’s kid and was threatening to make Riggins join Ani’s dad’s cult if he came out of the closet, which was also hiding $5 million of Frank’s money, which had been converted to blue diamonds. The whole thing is on a hard drive. Inside of a bird mask.
Don’t even get me started on how awful the theme music is.
At least that shootout at the end of episode 4 was fun.