There’s a really fun game of cat and mouse game going on inside Pajiba headquarters about True Detective this season. I’ve found it to be a show that I try to like every week, but basically don’t. Another, much more talented staff writer, Brian Byrd, feels like it’s better than we’re giving it credit for. He thinks it’s a solid B that hovers around A- territory and I think it’s more or less a boring, unimpressive yawnfest that outs its creator as a self-important pretender. That’s not exactly opposite ends of the spectrum, but it’s far enough that I’ve had to dodge a few well placed Tom Brady landmines and challenge him to a match of death quidditch.
Last week, we had the occasion to witness an orgy scene and there was kind of a haunting melody playing over the top of it. It’s John Adams’ “Haarmonielehre: Part II,” for those who were wondering.
I remember washing dishes after that episode and thinking “God, that orgy scene sucked.” How does True Detective manage to fuck up even something as primal and titillating as a bunch of naked people banging each other?
Basically, it was the intercut drug-induced realization that Ani had been sexually assaulted when she was just a little girl. That was fucking nauseating. And as the image of a predatory hippie from her childhood played out, I wondered how old Ani was when all of this happened. Because it was horrific. Then we got the answer. This image, right here, is basically the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen on television.
And by littering the morass of drugged prostitutes with the repressed memory of a childhood rape realization, it made the whole thing a commentary on sexual ethics and powerlessness.
Viewed in that light, True Detective is tackling some pretty important issues. The problem is that it’s not congruent. It’s not what I wanted to see. I didn’t tune in for an ethics lesson on modern sexual congress. I tuned in to be entertained. And I left feeling unfulfilled, nauseated and dirty.
This is the hallmark of this season’s iteration of True Detective. Nic Pizzolatto is giving us something we don’t necessarily like, aren’t necessarily interested in, and didn’t necessarily ask for, and those critical mistakes are couched in the fairly arrogant assumption that his particular writing style and storytelling approach will make it all interesting and likable. But it isn’t. It’s a hamfisted collection of self-important writing combined with shantytown performances and a ramshackle episode structure. Look no further than the fact that Stan is important to Frank Seymon but virtually unknown to us. You cannot build a tension-building, character-informing subplot around a character that literally zero percent of your audience cares about. Not a single person watching knew who Stan was. Like, nobody. EVEN STAN HIMSELF DOESN’T KNOW WHO STAN IS. What does that say about this season? What does it say that like four episodes after this unknown character was murdered, we get a whole scene where Frank Seymon visits the widow and gives a rousing speech to the dead man’s child? What does it say about a show that’s that out of touch with itself and its audience?
Here’s where I could post a HUNDRED stills of bad dialogue from the season. It’s where I could lament the endless, exhausting conversations about babies and adoption between Mr. and Mrs. Seymon that don’t tie in to any actual babies or any actual adoptions. Yes, Frank was adopted. I get it. A better writer could have managed that with a couple choice lines thrown in across a few episodes. We’ve been beaten over the head with it, and for what gain? What was the point of all that? I could rail against the stereotypical portrayal of Hispanics or make fun of the various word choices. There’s almost too much to make fun of.
And the casting? From the very beginning, it was suspect. It had the pâté of a contrarian casting vibe. The first season of True Detective was a huge hit, and for season two they could have had almost any actor they wanted. Knowing that, does Taylor Kitsch make the grade? Why? Taylor Lautner wasn’t available? Couldn’t get Hayden Christensen on the horn? I’ve been in on casting sessions at every single level from commercials to features and you wouldn’t believe how many people you can choose from for even shitty roles, forget coveted ones. And this is the cast we get? It’s not … sane.
With regard to that cast, I’d say it’s shaken out the way we all imagined, more or less. Look at the big four: Taylor Kitsch, who I’ve admitted to rooting for and guiltily liking because of Friday Night Lights, has been cringe-inducing. Specifically in that last scene with his mother. His ability to convey emotion and subtlety through the art form of acting is just limited. I want to have a hard lemonade with Taylor Kitsch and throw a frisbee with Taylor Kitsch and see underwear ads with Taylor Kitsch and read training articles about Taylor Kitsch, I just don’t really want to see him acting anymore. Sorry. That may seem mean. I think we’ve had a fair sampling of his merits and the overall product remains wanting. Rachel McAdams has been solid, because she’s Rachel McAdams, but her appeal has waned and it’s been more of a shoulder shrug than I expected. Vince Vaughn has put his lack of actual acting chops on display. It’s like when you see a plastic display cheeseburger and you order it and get a horrible, sloppy mess instead. Vaughn rewards us like the sloppy mess and tastes like the fake plastic burger. I don’t think he’s an untalented person, but his superpower is his comic timing and there’s zero of that shit happening here. The only standout is Colin Farrell, who I’ve enjoyed watching and who’s story I find myself connected to.
The ancillary cast has been underwhelming, to say the least, and through no fault of their own. They should teach the Chessani character in film schools everywhere as the very definition of a one-note caricature. That seems to be a malady of Pizzolatto’s approach. In attempting to fashion characters with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson type depth and intrigue, he seems to expend all of his creative energy, leaving nothing for the rest of the cast. You want a list of one-note characters?
The red haired Seymon enforcer
The male black cop that works for Vinci
The female state D.A.
Ani’s ex partner
Ray’s ex wife
Ray’s ex wife’s new guy
The lounge singer
The scar waitress
The actress with the ankle bracelet
Whoever this guy is:
The Hispanic gardener
The kids that were playing soccer in the toxic waste
The Russian hookers at the orgy
The farting fat cop who got killed
Paul’s girlfriend Emma
The corporate rail guy
Any of the thugs when Frank called the meeting
The “fuck you do” bodyguard Ani slashed to death
Chessani’s drugged out wife
I mean, this guy…
…is the only guy who wasn’t exactly what we thought he was when he had the brilliance to say the line “I’m Chinese.” That’s all it takes to play against type a little! How hard is that?
Is there any depth whatsoever in any single one of these characters? Aren’t they all right out of central casting? Maybe the secret behind Harrelson and McConaughey was that they were, y’know, Harrelson and McConaughey. I’m not saying every Russian cam girl has to be a Nobel laureate (though just writing that kind of weirdly turned me on a little) but can we get something interesting about any of these people? Maybe Chessani’s son has some potential but we have two episodes to go and we’ve seen like three minutes of him. And don’t get me started about how Pizz writes women because you’ll force me to go back to college just to write a thesis on the subject.
I can’t remember ever thinking “you know what my entertainment needs? More public works projects.” Maybe that’s a hangup of mine. Maybe this plot should be more interesting to me than it is because the subject matter: rail corridors and corporate malfeasance isn’t all that shocking to me. In my mind, this type of near-sighted Enron’ing of America by venal corporate assholes is all around us at every minute in the broad light of day so it feels surprisingly undeserving of nior. There’s nothing dark and surreal about Time Warner Cable or Fox News or big data or big pharma or private prisons or NFL headquarters or FIFA or Comcast or INSERT HEARTLESS, MONEYGRUBBING CONGLOMERATE here. That doesn’t mean I want to see an HBO show about them.
So why keep watching? If I hate it this much, why not just give up? Well, primarily because I’m one of those people that has to finish everything. I finish every video game and bowl of cereal I ever crack open. I sit through movies I’m not crazy about just to see the complete vision. I finish every book I start. But additionally, it’s because this show is in my wheelhouse. I’ve been a noir fan for as long as I can remember and a cop show fan since Hill Street Blues. I’ve been an HBO disciple since Michael Fuchs ran it. And as someone who tries to keep a finger pad on the pulse of American cultural phenomena, quitting on a show like this just doesn’t make sense.
But make no mistake about it: 75 percent of the way through this season, this show is a complete miss. It’s not that it’s not great, it’s that it’s not even particularly good. Next week, Brian Byrd, my esteemed colleague, a man who a future Time magazine will label “the most influential Nic Pizzolatto apologist of the twenty-first century,” a man who rises and sets in the very shadow of the football circus the Patriots provide and then questions the manner in which they provide it, a man so tall he’s dressed daily by the hovering chickadees from Snow White, will try to convince you that True Detective is a solid B, and sometimes an A-. I won’t tell you to give him the attention he deserves because his writing will merit that on its own. But when he pisses on your leg and tells you it’s raining, you tell him that this show may not be the D to D- that the primeval vulgarian Lord Castleton thinks it is, but if he’s asking you to grade True Detective any higher than a C, you tell him your answer over the sound of erasers clapping and heartballs and contracts with signatures on them. Don’t get apoplectic or strident, and don’t be a cooze or a “fat pussy” about it. You just tell him your answer in plain, non-Pizzolatto dialogue:
You’ll do no such thing.