On the roller-coaster ride that is the zeitgeist of modern popular culture, HBO's True Detective is at a nadir. The show, which spawned a thousand thought pieces during its bravura first season suddenly cannot do anything right. In the wake of the second season premiere, the reviews were damning, mocking everything from the overwrought dialogue to the forced imagery of eagle heads and artisanal dildos.
If there is anything we like more than an underdog, it is knocking someone off a very high pedestal. Having caught lightning in a bottle, True Detective was bound for a fall. Nic Pizzolatto, the creator of True Detective, is a particularly inviting target - he is self-absorbed and pretentious, has said some odd things in interviews, and has a very high opinion of himself. The first season landed in that perfect Venn of "serious television" and "internet sensation" that translates into something more sought after than ratings: buzz. From Twitter to the office water cooler, people could not get enough of Rust Cohle's aluminum Lone Star stick figures or his rhapsodizing like a 2 A.M. dorm room philosopher.
The web happily fell down the rabbit hole of obscure books and freeze frame images to discern the identity of the "Yellow King" and slapped show dialogue on fake greeting cards. But here is the thing – the half-life of cultural relevance in today’s day and age is incredibly short. The critical acclaim for True Detective was just another sugar high before the next big thing. By the time award season came around, the show garnered many nominations, but the once-thought acting award locks for Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson did not come to pass, while Pizzolatto and director Cary Joji Fukunaga were recognized at less prestigious ceremonies than either the Emmys or Golden Globes.
So when the casting and storyline for Season 2 were announced, the first hints of a backlash were primed to begin. Vince Vaughn? Four lead characters? A meditation on power and corruption through California land use policy? No Cary Joji Fukunaga? On first viewing, The Western Book of the Dead seemed to validate much of the criticism. The hour did feel cluttered at times trying to shoehorn in all the leads, there was a level of exposition that came off as heavy-handed, and having imbibed eight episodes worth of time-is-a-flat-circle-esque ramblings, lines like “Don’t do anything out of hunger, not even eating” came off as stale, not substantive. The cinematography, which was used to such great effect in turning rural Louisiana into an alien landscape, was now used in service of endless highways and industrial sites.
Of course, Pizzolatto was in a no-win situation. Had he simply made a second season with his first season stars (or in the same location) the outcry would have been that he was unwilling to take chances and the story would have been directly compared to the first season. Having chosen to start fresh with a new cast and location, critics are experiencing an addict’s woe – chasing the euphoria of the first high. When something so original and interesting is aired, the natural inclination is to want the next iteration of it to be equally good if not better. Second seasons are by their nature tricky in the same way movie sequels are, especially when the first go-round is so iconic. While shows like Seinfeld and Breaking Bad did not peak until several seasons in, other shows like Homeland and House of Cards have suffered similar sophomore slumps.
So allow me to offer a modest proposal. Stop extrapolating whether you will like an entire season of television based on a single hour of it. Go back and re-watch the premiere with an open mind, re-consider some of the warts you saw on first viewing. Take in Season 2 of True Detective without the baggage of comparison to what you already know. Wipe your own critical slate clean. Instead of hoping you will get that same chill up your spine when Rust Cohle said that the universe was one big ghetto, appreciate the genius of a coked-out, alcoholic Ray Velcoro calling his own son a pussy and looking a 12-year old in the eye and screaming FUCK YOU. Instead of envying the ample bosom that swelled in Marty Hart’s face, consider the empty shell that passes for Paul Woodaugh’s soul and the blank look on his face while receiving an enthusiastic blowjob with as much excitement as a trip to the dentist (and by the way, why did he wait until he was at his girlfriend’s apartment to pop his Viagra? Wouldn’t it have made sense to take care of that before he arrived so he would be at attention and ready to go?) Instead of the banter between Papania and Glbough, be open to Ani Bezzerides and Elvis Ilinca (I mean, come on, who doesn’t love a guy named Elvis?) And while you are at it, do not drill down too deeply into the weird iconography found in Ben Casper’s home or the riffs (or wig) of new age guru Eliot Bezzerides. We all know those blind alleys only lead to frustration and disappointment.
Meanwhile, the critics will continue picking apart the dialogue, marinating in absurdities like the saddest guitar playing woman in the world, and hate watching every flat line delivered by Vaughn. In doing so, they will, to paraphrase this season’s tag line, get the show they deserve.
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