What is True Detective?
After fifteen months of wild speculation, endless #TrueDetectiveSeason2 pairings, and enough casting backlash to make even DC Entertainment cringe, last night finally brought us the season two premiere of everyone’s favorite HBO police procedural. Some things seemed different: Executive Producer Nic Pizzolatto traded in his old cast and crew for shiny new models, with the dubious city of Vinci, California replacing the Louisiana coastline as a breeding ground for sin. Some things seemed not-so different: cigarette smoke and alcohol pour from every corner of the screen as characters struggle under the weight of their past.
But while “The Western Book of the Dead” might introduce the names and places of season two, it does little to answer some of those nagging questions we’ve been holding onto for the past year. Will this second season live up to expectations? Will the show maintain a cohesive look and feel without the presence of season one director Cary Fukunaga? And what, exactly, are the elements that separate True Detective from other shows, even in an anthology format?
At first glance, it appears that much of what made the show prestige television has gone missing. While the first season of True Detective was never as committed to the occult storyline as it pretended to be, the setting of rural Louisiana offered a backdrop that made us believe this type of bloody mysticism was possible. The people in True Detective lived on the fringe of society, in cities and towns where old gods die hard, and this rural setting made it possible to believe in even the most far-fetched of Rust’s theories. In season two, Pizzolatto again hints that the occult will play a role in the murder investigation – with a well-placed owl head and an orgy room pointing to future reveals – without the benefit of the underlying aesthetic. Include a secret society and True Detective will inevitably struggle to re-find its footing; remove it and you’ve cut out part of what makes the show special.
And while audiences are making the adjustment to the show’s new tone, True Detective also doggedly refuses to play to its strengths in regards to character development. Last March, Kate Erbland wrote a piece explaining why True Detective was never going to bring complete closure to its central conspiracy. In the article, she offers quotes from Pizzolatto himself that throw water on some of the more complicated fan theories. The show was always going to be about the relationship between the two characters; should True Detective Season Two follow suit, then, it will be difficult to judge until its characters are fully in play. Each person introduced in “The Western Book of the Dead” is kept within his or her own environment until the episode’s final moments; the exchange of perspectives that defined both Rust and Marty are intentionally withheld from the season two opener.
Still, not all differences make the show worse. It wasn’t that long ago that we tuned into the first season of True Detective for nothing more than a recognizable cast and a promising mystery. While the jury might still be out on Vince Vaughn and his stilted delivery, the prospect of shared scenes between Rachel McAdams and Colin Farrell should be enough to keep anyone watching. McAdams in particular seems to be in midseason form as Sheriff Bezzerides, with Farrell showing, yet again, that the right material can keep him from sleepwalking through a role. There are times that Pizzolatto seems to be hinting at a police trio not unlike the officers in Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential; the good cop, the bad cop, and the celebrity cop, each with part of the puzzle and a desire to atone for past mistakes. Throw in composer T Bone Burnett’s nimble switch from a bluegrass soundtrack to one infused with neo-noir jazz samples and you might see a show already on its way to establishing a brand new idenity.
While it may not be the most obvious comparison, there are ways in which True Detective might serve as the longform version of Law & Order. While that series was almost entirely episodic – occasionally parceling out bits of character development for its tenured cast members or mixing in a two-part episode – the repetition of a familiar plot allowed it to be surprisingly nimble in its cast and crew changes. You could switch out Michael Moriarty for Sam Waterson, Sam Waterson for Linus Roache, and the story of an assistant district attorney doing his best within the confines of the legal system would remain clear. Perhaps True Detective is destined to become its own standard of plug-and-play, with each season blending together old faces in front of the camera and new ones behind it. Audiences watch them struggle beneath the burden of their sins and pursue seemingly mystical leads; up-and-coming directors are given a chance to show their talent within the the confines of Pizzolatto’s narrative. Faces change, places change, and still the screen is filled with dour chain-smoking and binge drinking.