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When I stepped away from writing weekly True Detective reviews a month ago, I did so because I just couldn’t handle spending an hour each week recounting all the ways I was disappointed with this season of the show. I said that I didn’t expect things to improve to the point where I would regret my decision, and that if the show somehow had a miraculous turn-around, I would pop back in and write something up detailing the change. Since this is my first crack at a True Detective review since then, well, you can guess my general thoughts on the remainder of the season.
So, rather than spend another 700 words listing the ways this season disappointed, I thought I would go through a few lessons that can be learned from the failings of season two of True Detective, and offer a few suggestions for how Nic Pizzolatto might be able to right these wrongs when HBO inevitably renews the show for a third season (despite the general ire directed at this season, the nature of the series and this season’s ratings were still high enough to justify a renewal).
Let’s start with the most glaring issue this season: the story was far too broad, with far too many characters, to be served within an eight-episode season. What made season one work (until it went a bit off the rails at its end) was its laser-like focus on Marty and Rust. Yes, there were trade-offs with that approach, namely that all supporting characters had the depth of tissue paper, but having two complex characters to care about worked a great deal better than the alternative we were presented with this season. I would rather watch two gifted actors sink their teeth into deep characters than watch several desperately try to mine some sort of depth from poorly constructed ones. Imagine how good Colin Ferrell and Rachel McAdams could have been if they were given characters with the complexities of Rust and Marty? Considering what they were able to bring to the table with Ray and Ani, it would have been like watching a master class.
Shaving down the number of leads not only allows the show to dive deeper into the characters, it also allows the show time to flesh out and build the season’s mystery. Imagine the season without Woodrough’s storyline, or with no scenes of Frank dealing with infertility. Now, dedicate that time to learning more about the actual conspiracy in the government of Vinci. Maybe even learning the names of all the players. In this fantasy world, we wouldn’t spend weeks talking about poor Stan, or learning why Nails (and yes, that’s how the show actually spells it) got his scar. Think of all the time left to build this world from the ground up. Instead of hearing second or third-hand about actions, we can see them happen. The premise of the second season wasn’t what was flawed this year, it was the execution. And that can be remedied with a radical idea: don’t let Pizzolatto steer the ship on his own in season three.
Now, I’m not sure how feasible this idea is, since it is Pizzolatto’s baby, but if we look at the evidence, it’s clear that he needs other writers around him to help steer the ship. We’ve seen how the story and characters can get away from him in two iterations of the series now (even though season two was the more egregious of the two), and there is no guarantee that additional writers will be able to right the ship should the show start floundering in season three. But at this point, it can’t hurt to have a few more voices in a writers room calling out ideas and characters that don’t quite work. And as lovely as Pizzolatto’s distinctive dialogue was coming from the mouth of Matthew McConaughey, this season proved that it takes a particular person to be able to deliver it. Adding a few more voices into the writing process would allow scripts to be tailored to better suit the actors in a given season rather than using the “one size fits all” approach that did not work this year.
And last, but certainly not least, I hope that season three is set in a more complex locale than the highways of California. Remember season one of the show, how Louisiana was the show’s third lead? The use of the Louisiana landscape heightened the action, and created such a pervasive ambiance that we were fully transported into that dark dangerous world of the strange every Sunday night. This year, until Frank’s final walk through the desert (which didn’t work from a story perspective at all, but did manage to finally ground the season in its locale for the first time), California was largely absent. Yes, we were given a whole host of helicopter shots of roads and cars, but there wasn’t a sense of what makes California special. Why was this story set here, when it could have been anywhere else in the world? There was no sense of why Vinci was special, why we needed to be here to tell this story. And for a show that spends as much time as this one talking about its location, we need to better understand why here, why now.
I am walking away from this season with regret. It could have been so much better. Ferrell and McAdams have the chops to handle this type of material (and my one hope is that film studios can look through the dreck of the season and see both actors deserve shots at playing excellent roles in the future), and given normal dialogue, Vince Vaughn could have been just fine in a much smaller role (Taylor Kitsch, I fear, has only proven he can’t grow beyond Tim Riggins). Will Pizzolatto learn from this year’s critiques and shake things up for next year? Perhaps. I am not holding out a great deal of hope though. After all, time is a flat circle.