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An Unimpeachable, Full-Throated Defense of Nic Pizzolatto and ‘True Detective’ Season 2

By Brian Byrd | True Detective | August 6, 2015 |

By Brian Byrd | True Detective | August 6, 2015 |

Last week, sentient shitpile esteemed colleague Lord Castleton penned a sophomoric screed railing against legendary auteur Nic Pizzolatto and the second season of his cancer-curing series, True Detective. Rather than craft a compelling case, Castleton resorted to cheap heightest insults and juvenile ad hominem attacks against me, the lone bulwark heroically standing tall against a tide of unreasonableness.

I wish I could say I was floored, Castleton. Sadly, I expected nothing less from a man who forces his children to wear Aaron Hernandez jerseys to school each day because “society needs to recognize that their justice system is flawed.” The other day Castleton sent me an email with the subject line: “Check out this adorable baby elephant playing with kittens.” Yet when I opened the message there were no pachyderms or cute felines, just a single sentence:
He considers WWII veterans “takers,” wears camo jorts to weddings, regularly helps himself to co-workers’ lunches, calls friends collect only to fart into the receiver when they accept the charges, and fervently believes alcohol shouldn’t be sold on Sundays. Did you know Castleton isn’t even a lord? He forged his knighthood papers. This man has no lands or titles. He is a third-rate charlatan, a common serf lacking the acumen, personality and work ethic necessary to elevate his station in life honestly, they way most wealthy individuals do.

My plan was let all this slide, to turn him into Ignored Castleton. The facts are on my side, and you don’t beef down. But he put my name in the streets. Fail to hit back and I’m a fat pussy. So over the weekend I fired up my laptop determined to poke so many holes in his argument that by the time he finished reading my post he’d have to call himself Gored Castleton.

That was the plan, anyway. Then I watched last Sunday’s episode. Two hours later I met Castleton at the Appomattox courthouse. He slowly smashed a glass into my face, then left.

I can no longer pen an impassioned defense of True Detective’s second season. My reputation as an Internet nobody wouldn’t survive. Instead, I’m going to do something even more difficult — defend creator Nic Pizzolatto.
Hear me out. Objectively, season two is a mediocre show. But it’s not the junkyard inferno critics and social media mobs claim, either. Nor do its major failures fall directly on Pizzolatto’s justifiably arrogant shoulders.

Three interconnected problems torpedoed True Detective’s current iteration: erratic performances, inconsistent directing, and incessant double-standard comparisons with last season.

Of the four leads, only Colin Farrell and Rachel McAdams acquit themselves well. Farrell is revelatory, digging deep to find the pathos hidden beneath Ray Velcoro’s booze-drenched, coke-dusted exterior. Velcoro is a caricature in a lesser actor’s hands. The Winter’s Tale star deserves an Emmy solely for allowing viewers to empathize with a character who told a child he’d buttfuck his mother with his father’s headless corpse. Ani Bezzerides is all suppressed rage and childhood scars stuffed into a human-shaped sack, but McAdams manages to make her more than a one-note cliché by revealing the character’s humanity in drips. The pair’s interactions are often the best parts of any episode.

Then there’s the rest of the quartet. Taylor Kitsch is a capable if limited actor woefully miscast as closeted war vet Paul Woodrugh. The role calls for someone who radiates vulnerability and repressed self-loathing, not testosterone. Only once does Kitsch drop the hard shell to show the audience Woodrugh’s implied pain. Sitting in Ray’s car, hungover, his escape valve stolen, skin slick with shame, Kitsch finally lets the character’s inner torment bleed through. “I did everything they said, man,” Woodrugh said, his eyes moist. “Army, PD. It doesn’t matter. You do what they say, it doesn’t matter. I’ve been listening to them for so fuckin’ long, I don’t even know who the fuck I am.” It’s a great moment that Kitsch never comes close to recapturing. To feel nothing when a troubled young expectant father is gunned down by a corrupt cop requires either sociopathic tendencies or a truly unmemorable performance. According to my illness test I am only 30 percent sociopath. So this one is on you, Kitsch.
We’ve already wasted too much bandwidth ridiculing Vince Vaughn’s work…which is odd because I have no idea how to evaluate his performance. Can we really insist he’s terrible when his acting prowess stumbles in and out of scenes like a drunken apparition? Vaughn is Schrodinger’s Laugh At: simultaneously brilliant and incompetent. Still, Castleton is right — Vaughn was the wrong choice for an aging, in-over-his-head crime boss. Frank Semyon is purportedly a scrapper, a mutt, a man who advanced through brute force and determination. Vaughn plays him like a disinterested accountant. True Detective needed someone more slippery to play Semyon, someone with a little less polish. Think Russell Crowe, Delroy Lindo, or Sam Rockwell.

Casting isn’t Pizzolatto’s fault. Neither is the direction, which hit a nadir last Sunday. It’s unclear why HBO jettisoned the lone-director approach that worked so well last season. Whatever the rationale, the result is a disjointed, flavorless, low-res knockoff of Cary Fukunaga’s triumphant debut. Gone are his hypnotic visuals and clean, coherent direction, replaced with store-brand substitutes that don’t comparably resonate. The aerial shots feel shoehorned in this go-round. Episode four’s climatic daylight shootout, while entertaining, ultimately came off as a faded facsimile of the first season’s astonishing stash house robbery. Showpiece scenes aren’t the only casualty. The new crew abandoned Fukunaga’s inspired smaller touches, too — breathtaking establishing shots, birds flocking in strange patterns, shoes in a tree used as the transition point for a time jump. Justin Lin, who directed the first two episodes and is responsible for the season’s most distinctive, well-shot sequence — birdmask shotgunning Velcoro in Ben Caspere’s sex den — never established a distinctive visual template for his successors to follow.
These omissions snowballed, eventually resulting in an episode like “Black Maps and Motel Rooms,” in which Daniel Attias inexplicably films one moment of an assault scene in slow motion, then repeatedly cuts away from Woodrugh’s dramatic tunnel shootout to show Ray and Ani staring at each other like they were experiencing shared strokes. However HBO decides to course correct next season, hiring one director to helm the entire series — preferably one with strong eye for visuals, like the recently unemployed David Slade — should be at the top of their list.

The biggest issue most viewers have with True Detective, however, is that this season isn’t its predecessor’s equal. Taking the opposite position is a fool’s errand. Examine the explanations for why it falls short, however, and some damning double standards appear.

Consider the common criticisms levied against 2rue Detective: the plot is confusing, the supporting characters are impossible to remember, and the dialogue is absurd. Each is just as applicable to the treasured first season.

The most iconic line from last year is raw uncut Nietzschean gibberish. Time is a flat circle? Explain what that means, right now, using eighth grade words. If Vaughn delivered that line we’d laugh until our rectums bled. Now imagine Matthew McConaughey saying “Don’t do anything out of hunger, not even eat,” in his laconic nihilist Rust Cohle drawl while Woody Harrelson stares at him like he just slapped his ballsack on the dashboard. Suddenly not so cringe-worthy, is it? Pizzolatto’s language isn’t any more or less ridiculous than it was last season. The delivery is inferior, which, depending on your perspective, either sabotages the story or spotlights Pizzolatto’s deficiencies.

Equally fascinating is the revisionist history around season one’s supposedly comparative simplicity. Critics point to this season’s convoluted mystery and underdeveloped minor characters as proof Pizzolatto lost his fastball. But the Dora Lange case was anything but straightforward. Last season featured flashbacks, red herrings, fruitless detours, unexplored ancillary plot threads, pointless cheating, and a generational conspiracy that included everyone from the governor to religious leaders to lawnmower men. Even yard-wall enthusiasts can’t concisely recap last season’s plot without consulting their notes.

Or answer basic questions such as, what is the name of the character played by Alexandria D’Addario? (Hint: it’s not Bo Obies). It’s Lisa. Fine, that was tough. Try this: which detective was Gilbough, and which was Endermann? Whatever you guessed is wrong because there was no detective named Endermann. Gilbough and Papania where the two cops interrogating Rust and Marty. The grumpy-ass old cop, the bikers, Cohle’s girlfriend, the Lorde lookalike, the dude who kills himself in jail, Reggie Ledoux’s fat cook — we’re going to pretend these characters were any more or less impactful than the Chessani kids or Nails? Laugh at Stan’s importance to the plot if you must. He probably had more screen time than Steve Gercai, an inconsequential supporting season one character for six episodes before becoming hugely important in the penultimate hour.

Here’s what Gercai looks like in case you forgot.
Ring a bell? It shouldn’t, because that’s not Steve Gercai. This is.
Pizzolatto was doomed the minute season one became a phenomenon. Blacklash is now an accepted part of the cycle, an inescapable, unstoppable force with ferocious power and a freakish 40 time. Fans wrote off season two before the credits rolled on last year’s finale. The entertainment world didn’t wonder if Pizzolatto could meet or exceed his freshman achievement; they debated how short he’d fall. The man never stood a chance. The vitriol tossed in his direction is staggering, even by modern standards. The individual responsible for one of the greatest television seasons in the medium’s history is being dismissed as a worthless hack, a phony, a plagiarist who stumbled across bottled lightning and claimed it as his own.

This is ludicrous. Pizzolatto is a talent. The first season wasn’t an accident or the by-product of someone else’s ideas. Give the man that, at least. His novel, Galveston, is a taut crime thriller, and he helped with a rewrite of Antoine Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven remake. His resume has far more hits than misses. Shit, even his misses drive more conversion than most networks’ entire programming stable combined.

The acting and directing concerns don’t mean Pizzolatto is blameless, though. If he deserves credit for season one, he needs to accept partial responsibility for the follow-up. This season is overly complex at times. The dialogue can be unrealistic. He did wait too long to ratchet up the plot. Couple these with the Vanity Fair interview, his reportedly dickish behavior toward Fukunaga, and this fucking Blair Witch tribute picture, and the schadenfreude is understandable. We get the world we deserve, right? Maybe. I think Pizzolatto has earned another opportunity to remind us why he’s in a position to be torn down at all.

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