Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Truest Detectives

I'll admit that, when I first heard of True Detective, I confused it with the Jason Schwartzman/Ted Danson comedy Bored To Death, about a writer who pretends to be a private eye. I was like, "huh, that's still on? Weird." And then I just went about my life.

When I finally clued in, I watched the entire series over the course of a weekend. The show's moody, brooding disgust with its own world was mesmerizing: the Louisiana bayou could, and did, suck any number of secrets (and the men who kept them) into its backwater bogs. For me, season one was about what happens when men break: the cost of maintaining a masculine identity, the cost of losing one's place as family leader, and the men who close ranks to protect those among them who hurt women. Rust Cohle and Marty Hart weren't exempt from this brokenness. They only worked well together when they were working a case—any attempt at socializing ended in disaster.

As the series began, it seemed clear that Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey, was the more damaged of the two. After all, his wife was gone, his kid was dead, and he had spent untold months drugged to the gills as part of an undercover sting operation. Paradoxically, of the two lead characters, Cohle seemed to have the better handle on who he was; Woody Harrelson's Hart was a philadering liar whose need to be liked—nay, loved—governed his every interaction. Say what you want about Cohle, but at least he was an asshole to your face.

Anyway, the show begat a million think pieces and Hot Takes, focusing on everything from the cinematography to its anti-natalist bent to the semi-mystical elements to the unfeminist angle it seemed to pursue. It was Big Deal TV, and it had seemingly come out of nowhere. By the time I heard of it, the show was already three episodes deep; by the time it was finished, we were having True Detective huddles at every cocktail party, birthday outing, and bar crawl.

So season two, which kicked off on Sunday, has big shoes to fill. The show is an anthology, which means that no-one from seasons one's cast has returned, and the action and storyline have shifted from Louisiana to Los Angeles. What unites the two seasons so far is corruption (in season one, it was spiritual; now, it's political) and police characters.

The cast is....okay? I mean, I don't really care about Colin Farrell. To me, he's in the same group as Ryan Reynolds and Jessica Biel; that is, people who are bigger names than they are actors. The last big movie Farrell was in was Total Recall in 2012, which wasn't a flop, but it wasn't exactly a hit, either. Same with Rachel McAdams and Vince Vaughan; Vaughan, especially, has some work to do, seeing as how lately he's been phoning it with with "movies" like The Intership and Unfinished Business, both of which were unmitigated failures, and both of which earned Vaughan special excoriation for his performances. He's definitely driving the McConaughey bus in this season. True Detective is his chance to atone for those past movies, and prove that he's more than just a lumpy sack of eye-rolling. It'll be interesting to see if these guys have the chops to manage writer/creator/show-runner Nic Pizzolatto's somewhat heavy-handed dialogue without chewing every last scene from now until August.

Anyway, the story seems to be about a few different things. First and foremost is the construction of a high-speed rail corridor through central California—and, I mean, there's nothing sexier than public transit plots, amiright? Vaughan's character Frank Semyon is a gangster who seems to have reformed enough to be a viable leader on this project, but not so much that Ray Velcoro, Farrell's dirty cop character, isn't still his heavy on the side. It's a relationship that goes back the better part of a decade, after Semyon hipped Velcoro to the man who raped his wife. Velcoro is also investigating ("investigating"?) the disappearance of the City Manager, who was in business with Semyon.

McAdams plays Ani Bezzerides, a Sherrif's detective who isn't quite capable of separating her personal life from her work; hence, the raid on the cam-girl house where her sister works; hence, her spitting hate towards her guru father when she investigates one of his missing compound employees. I'm not sure how she ends up at the scene when the City Manager is discovered, eyeless and (presumably) dickless on the side of the road, but she is there. (Copious amounts of internet searching turned up bupkis on that front, so I'm going to assume it was because it happened on the side of the road and she has some sort of jurisdiction?) And Taylor "Tim Riggins" Kitsch plays the sexually defunct highway patrolman who finds said City Manager's body, after a game of high-speed, cheek-flapping motorcycle chicken with himself.

This season was promoted with vague allusions to "the occult" and "public transportation," which don't really seem to go together (unless the Metrolinx staff have a lunchtime Wiccan circle they're not telling us about), but I'm excited to see how the show handles that intersection. I'm also excited that there is a real live female cop in this season, which was sorely lacking last time around. And I'm excited to read all the endless recaps and think pieces that I'm sure will come out of this season, too.

True Detective is often not quite a show, per se: it's more a series of moods, of chiascuro-lit set pieces, of dialogue that would make a suitable bumper sticker for a hearse. It's T Bone Burnett's impeccable soundtrack work, of Cary Fukunaga's—and now, Justin Lin's—challenging scene direction. It's a chance for all of us to step into the swirl of television criticism, because both seasons seem to offer so much to critique. I don't mean that the season two is bad; quite the opposite. The show in its entirety is a rich swirl of character, plot, and philosophy. It's trying to say something about the world, which gives people a lot to chew on. 

With its older sibling now graduated, this season will have to fight to prove that it's up to the task of engrossing us all—of ruining another season of cocktails parties with our True Detective huddle. Even if it's not as "good," I think it's already well on its way to being just as interesting to think about.

Image via The Decider