Is ‘True Detective’ Criticism Unfair?

It was the kind of fallout that was an inevitability. After relative unknown auteur Nic Pizzolatto, along with director Cary Fukunaga and stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, managed to capture lightning in a bottle with the debut season of True Detective.

Rumors of season two began before the first was even resolved, namely that Pizzolatto was going to create an anthology series, switching up the cast, characters, and location each installment. While abandoning the southern Louisiana coast and the type of mystery that verged on gothic horror (largely because of its literary influence), he elected to construct a storyline with more density, a sort of updated riff on Chinatown, with corrupt cops, corrupt politicians, and shady land deals.

Naturally, the audience freaked.

However, looking at the criticisms the second season endured—namely a convoluted plot and clunky dialogue—was applicable to the first season as well. Much of this was due to the contribution of Fukunaga, who helped create the show’s signature atmosphere. Additionally, the performances of McConaughey and Harrelson helped give the dialogue both depth and levity, despite its occasional shortcomings.

The absence of Fukunaga in the director’s chair was felt throughout the season, and while he gave a perfectly press-friendly reason as to why, the alleged feud between him and Pizzolatto likely played a big factor. Between that and the frustratingly uneven acting of both Taylor Kitsch and Vince Vaughn—the latter, for a time, seemed like actor out of his depth, but became a more subtle performance speaking to his petty criminal trying to legitimize himself, despite lines like “it’s like blue balls, for your heart,” that were so obtuse you could almost trip over them while watching.

Like Marty Hart said to Pizzolatto, who had one scene playing a bartender in the first season “why do you make me say this shit, man?”

The story may have also benefitted from reducing the number of primary characters, as the Velcoro/Bezzerides dynamic was far and away the most interesting aspect of the show. Doing so, however, would’ve meant treading dangerously close to the formula of the first season, which likely would’ve been criticized for. While Vaughn’s Semyon was an interesting addition to the dynamic, Kitsch’s Woodrugh often felt out of place, and his one-dimensional backstory never felt fully at home in the story.

With all that in mind, True Detective’s second season, when looked at apart from its predecessor, still managed to succeed. Pizzolatto re-built his narrative world from the ground up, creating an entirely new, moody atmosphere for a fictional city, and with it two characters on par with Marty Hart and Rustin Cohle. The compromised burnout cop Raymond Velcoro, successfully brought to life by Colin Farrell, who proved again that he can really act when he chooses to, and Rachel McAdams as the hard-nosed Ani Bezzerides, who was equal parts ruthless and vulnerable in ways we saw gradually overlap as the story progressed.

With the second season wrapping up tonight (with a whopping 90 minute episode) the number of unresolved plot threads has some people questioning its ability to resolve itself; it’s easy to forget the relentless criticism the first season found upon its own conclusion. It speaks to what the show is, a modern crime noir with occasionally ridiculous dialogue that, it’s worth noting, would still become the most popular topic of online conversation afterwards, and ultimately collapses under the weight of its own rabid fanbase.

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