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Season one of True Detective was a runaway hit thanks to the convergence of three elements: Nic Pizzolatto’s story (which, in the end, didn’t hold up nearly as well as one might have hoped and inspired a great deal of backlash, but for the first several installments were interesting and complex), Cary Joji Fukunaga’s incredible direction (while the show’s famous six minute tracking shot is best remembered, the entire feel of the first season was due to Fukunaga’s eye for the dark and mysterious), and the incredible performances of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. Well, for season two, all that remains is Pizzolatto, who has once again handled the series’s writing responsibilities. And, having the weakest link of the first season as the only returning player, things are bound to be less awe-inspiring the second time around.
And after watching “The Western Book of the Dead,” I certainly don’t feel the excitement and intrigue I felt with the first season. Perhaps it’s not entirely fair to compare season one to season two, but when a show becomes a pop culture sensation right out of the gate, it’s hard not to. This time around, we’re in the Los Angeles suburbs rather than the Louisiana Bayou. I’m sure the political intrigue of L.A. is interesting to some, but the storyline itself could easily be the story on any number of cop shows currently on the air. It doesn’t crackle with tension and weight in the way season one did. A large part of that missing spark comes from the loss of Fukunaga.
The second season premiere was helmed by Justin Lin, perhaps best known for his work on the Fast and the Furious film series. And outside of the game of motorcycle chicken Taylor Kitsch’s character, Paul Woodrugh, played on the highway, the episode is visually dull and muted. There is no sense of environment, no pulse of what makes the city tick. In season one, the bayou was the third character within the show. Here, it feels like this is a story that could be told in any location around the world. We could be in upstate New York, Chicago, London. For a show that aims to present a noir piece set in a particular community and culture, season two lacks that deep, emotional link to its setting.
But perhaps the episode’s biggest misstep is found within its script. I can appreciate the difficulty faced in introducing four separate leads and a season long mystery within the scope of a single episode (especially considering that the season is only eight episodes long, which means more plot crammed into less episodes than is normal for a prestige drama). That being said, I was shocked at how clumsy Pizzolatto is in laying out his four central characters within the episode.
We have Vince Vaughn playing Frank Semyon, a local mob leader, who is forced to deliver some of the most stilted and strange dialogue of the series. The cute, but strange, platitudes worked well when McConaughey delivered them last year because there was something just a bit off about his Rust Cohle. With Vaughn, it’s clear he’s trying his absolute hardest to turn some of the crazy out of place statements he’s entrusted with into gold, but it just doesn’t quite work. To his credit, when the dialogue is more muted and normal, Vaughn has a great deal more success. Then we have Colin Ferrell’s Ray Velcoro, who is just an absolutely awful person. Just awful. This isn’t even antihero area, he’s just a complete alcoholic jerk (who, I presume, will have some redeeming element to him). Rounding out the male trio of the cast is Kitsch’s Woodrugh, who, you guessed it, is damaged. Although, unlike Farrell and Vaughn, he’s scars are physical as well as emotional. Kitsch isn’t given a whole lot to do in the episode, but he sulks and swears well.
Finally, we have Rachel McAdams as Antigone “Ani” Bezzerides, who is also damaged (definitely starting to see a pattern here). However, unlike the male leads, we are told how she is damaged through her father and sister’s comments (a pet peeve of mine is being told rather than shown key points of exposition- if it’s important to the story, show us, don’t tell us). Should her family’s assessment of her prove to be wrong, I’ll concede this was an intriguing technique for Pizzolatto to utilize. However, since her family tells us that she’s been damaged (and she reacts to their accusations with just the right amount of guilt to suggest they are right), I have a feeling they are spot on in their comments. I will say that Ani’s dialogue and McAdams’s performance are two of the strongest elements of the episode. Unlike with Ferrell (who’s character is so broadly drawn it detracts from the episode rather than adding an element of menace as intended), McAdams plays Ani as tightly controlled and barely holding on- we can see in her eyes that she’s only moments away from snapping.
There are some interesting threads and character moments within the episode, but this mystery and set of characters doesn’t pulse with the same ambiance and intrigue as season one. I expect, now that a great deal of the heavy exposition lifting has been accomplished, the story will begin to streamline a bit more. But, without a major hook to get us interested (last season’s use of flashback worked so incredibly well to immerse us in the drama of the story), it’s hard to get excited for yet another tale of government corruption. I trust this cast, and I hope that Pizzolatto opts to drop the more ridiculous dialogue he’s used so far in favor of more grounded fare. But I’m just not feeling True Detective like I was the first time around.
— Antigone is an awfully loaded name to give a character. I have a sneaking suspicion that some elements of the Greek tragedy will sneak into her story before the season is out (she already has a sister she’s at odds with, after all).
— While the direction of the bar scene between Vaughn and Farrell was a mess (I got whiplash from the constant switch between two-shot and close-ups), it was one of the most successful character moments within the episode. I could feel Vaughn’s Frank desperately reaching to connect with Farrell’s Ray, and growing more and more disappointed at seeing what Ray’s demons have done to him. While it’s hard to see Vaughn on screen and not see him as one of his comedic characters, I like where he’s going with Frank.
— Love this season’s theme and credits.
— There’s no way Ray is the father of his son, right? Unless his ex-wife is a redhead, I’m not sure that guy Frank IDed as the rapist is the father either. Considering the nature of the series, I wouldn’t be surprised if we find out Ray went after the wrong man.
— While Pizzolatto promised that this season would shy away from anything relating to the occult or supernatural, that bird head in the backseat of the car driving the recently deceased Ben Caspere was strange, right?