True Detective – Is Season Two Really As Terrible As Everyone’s Making Out?

As the second season of True Detective draws to a close, the opprobrium towards it has reached fever pitch. Critics have mercilessly picked holes in almost every aspect of the show, from the plotting to the dialogue to the performances, and while viewing figures are actually higher than last year, that’s supposedly only because audiences are apparently tuning in to ‘hate-watch’ it. Meanwhile, the mystery that was the nominal focus of the season – who killed Ben Caspere? – has been overshadowed by a more incidental one, seemingly as inscrutable as the black stars of Carcosa: who the hell is Stan?

Stan, lest we forget, was a seemingly-minor henchman in Vince Vaughn’s crew who was never properly introduced to the audience, but whose death the show treats as a momentous event because… well, no-one’s quite sure. He is also, so the thinking goes, symptomatic of True Detective’s wider problems this season – problems of poor plotting, shoddy character work and puzzling motivations. Such has been the magnitude of the critical pile-on, HBO president of programming Michael Lombardo last week took the unusual step of publicly defending the show and its creator, Nic Pizzolatto, urging viewers not to dismiss season two until they’d seen the final episodes; inevitably, he only succeeded in feeding the narrative that it’s been an unmitigated disaster.

In fact, it’s been anything but. Season two may have its flaws – the whole Stan thing, for example, seems like a straightforward case of bad writing on Pizzolatto’s part – but I’ve found it absolutely riveting, and last night’s penultimate episode lent further credence to Lombardo’s argument. Many of the issues that people have had with this season are issues that were also present in the first one – the meandering pace (at least for the first few hours), subplots which had little bearing on the story (remember when Woody Harrelson’s daughter appeared to be briefly, tangentially connected to the big conspiracy?) and the fortuitous use of coincidence to move the investigation forward. What’s not present, however, is a character as iconic as Rustin Cohle, Matthew McConaughey’s antinatalist philosopher-cum-supercop, who set an impossible bar for this season to clear; indeed, you have to feel for Colin Farrell, who’s given one of the best performances of his chequered career as the haunted Ray Velcoro, yet can’t escape the unfavourable (and unfair) Cohle-lite comparisons.

The truth is, True Detective was always something of an acquired taste, a show whose roots lay in weird fiction and philosophical horror rather than straightforward televisual potboilers. It’s not so much a whodunnit as a whydunnit, and if it doesn’t always seem to have clear sense of where it’s going, it still has an impeccable sense of itself: the occult theme that made last season so unique has been scaled back, but visually, it’s still one of the strangest shows on TV. Season two might be a different kettle of weird – Lynchian rather than Lovecraftian – but I still find myself obsessively re-watching each episode in order to catch the small details – like Rick Springfield reading Carlos Castaneda’s ‘A Separate Reality’, or the Santa Muerte idols which appear intermittently – that enrich the experience and flesh out the show’s world, without necessarily furthering the plot.

The convoluted, slow-moving nature of that plot, by the way, is a standard feature of the California noir that this season has been heavily influenced by. ‘Chinatown’, for example, is a Gordian knot of a film which scarcely makes sense on first viewing, and whose complexities are only unravelled across subsequent re-watches; the same goes for the novels of James Ellroy and Raymond Chandler. You’re supposed to be bamboozled by the depth and scale of the corruption, and there are no guarantees that all the loose ends will be tied up; those have always been the rules of the game, so how come audiences and critics suddenly seem so unwilling to play?

The answer is that the backlash to season two had been building for months, thanks in part to some unconventional casting choices (hello, Vince Vaughn) and Pizzolatto’s response to the “stupid criticism” of season one’s underwritten female characters (‘Nic Pizzolatto Is a Schmuck and True Detective Will Suck Next Season’ declared one self-fulfilling Gawker headline, almost a full year out from episode one’s air date). The criticism was objectively true, but also sort of redundant: art is not obliged to represent anyone, and Pizzolatto should be able to tell the story he wants to tell without worrying whether his characters are ‘too white’ or ‘too male’. There is absolutely a need for greater diversity – not only of gender, but of race – in Hollywood, but it’s unfair to make True Detective a scapegoat for that, particularly when it was specifically about a culture of white, Southern masculinity and misogyny.

This season, however, is all about legacies – the lengths people go to in order to establish them, and the impossibility of escaping from their shadow: “We get the world we deserve,” as Ray Velcoro puts it. As themes go, it now appears horribly prophetic. Season two could never be its predecessor and it’s been unjustly criticised for that. But taken on its own terms, this is television as disorienting and intoxicating as a hit of aerosolised MDMA.