True Detective just wrapped up its second season with a lengthy 90 minute finale last Sunday that answered some questions , but not the most important one: why was season two such a disappointment? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to that question. There were moments this season that hinted at or even approached greatness and the second half was undoubtedly much stronger than the first. But the show missed the mark way more often than it hit, resulting in a disjointed mess that never really coalesced into anything worth recommending. With a top-notch cast and the confidence of HBO behind him, series creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto should have had another great year of pulpy detective drama under his belt. Instead, we got a season that tarnished much of the goodwill engendered by last year’s strong first season. These are the 8 reasons that True Detective season two simply didn’t work.
8. Boring Setting
One of the best parts of True Detective‘s first season was its haunting visuals, which were aided by the decision to set the story in Louisiana. The exquisite landscape shots were a key component in establishing the series’ unique tone. Unfortunately, the move to Southern California — a location that has been done to death in crime fiction — simply felt boring in comparison. This isn’t to say that it’s impossible to make the Golden State look visually-interesting, as many shows have done so, but the sun-soaked urban decay of season two just never felt right. The frequent aerial shots of gridlocked California traffic did succeed in establishing a tone, but it was more one of depression than anything. This had the effect of making the setting one of the least significant components of the entire season, as it was never used effectively so as to make any sort of lasting impression.
7. No Unified Direction
One of the less immediately obvious changes from season one to two was the loss of director Cary Fukunaga. Fukunaga directed every episode of the first season and was an essential part of keeping that season’s visuals and tone consistent. Unfortunately, season two did not have an auteur director at the helm and as such, was wildly inconsistent when it came to direction. Some episodes had visually-dynamic scenes that felt reminiscent of Fukunaga’s work, such as the orgy scene in “Church in Ruins” or the bizarre dream sequence that opened the third episode. Most of the time though, the show’s direction was visually flat and felt lifeless and uninspired in comparison to what Fukunaga accomplished last year. If and when season three is made, Nic Pizzolatto should seriously consider investing in a single director again to maintain a level of uniformity throughout the season.
6. Not Hard-Edged Enough
For a HBO-produced program, True Detective felt pretty tame in comparison to other shows like Game of Thrones or even The Wire, which True Detectives owes a considerable debt. Of course, not every show has to follow the ultra-violent sadism of something like Game of Thrones, but a program airing on HBO comes with some built-in expectations. There was very little sexual content this season (even the much-talked-about orgy sequence is relatively tame) to the point where the show even ignored pre-established character traits for no discernible reason. Ani was built-up all season as a sexually-vibrant woman, yet her only sex scene was so tame it resembled something out of a soap opera. When it came to the grittier details, other than the blowout shootout from episode four and the occasional Vince Vaughn-delivered beating, the season overall was notable for its distinct lack of violence. For a show that was so overwhelmingly dour and focused on the darker aspects of humanity, it felt strange to be watching a relatively tame — especially by HBO standards — crime drama that did little to shock its audience.
5. No McConaughey and Harrelson
It’s difficult to fault the casting choices of Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Vince Vaughn, and Taylor Kitsch, as they are all fine actors in their own right, but none of them were able to match the prowess and presence that Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson brought to their roles in season one. The often embittered relationship between detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hart was one of the best elements from that season and McConaughey in particular delivered a laid back, yet intense performance unlike any other on TV in 2014. Unfortunately, nobody was able to fill his shoes this year. It often felt like Rust’s penchant for philosophical rambling was split evenly among the cast, which made them all (especially Vince Vaughn’s Frank Semyon) feel like Rust imitators rather than fully-formed characters. To be fair, Colin Farrell and Rachel McAdams did fine work and the show arguably would have been better off if the pair had been the only main characters. As much as Vaughn and Kitsch had their moments, they felt completely extraneous to the plot and their inclusion was never really justified. As a result, all of the main characters were disappointments because we didn’t spend enough time with any of them to become fully invested in their respective plights.
4. Show, Don’t Tell
True Detective was repeatedly guilty of ignoring one of the most important rules in fiction, which is that it’s always better to let the viewer experience the story rather than have a character tell them about it through needless exposition. There’s a reason that Ray was pretty much the only character we could latch onto with any sort of emotional connection and that’s because his backstory was largely shown through action. We felt his pain and despair when it came to the custody battle and question of parentage revolving around his son Chad because we witnessed it repeatedly and often. Unfortunately, it was much harder to become attached to characters like Ani and Paul because the show stumbled trying to convince us why we should care about their inner-conflicts. Ani in particular suffered from this, as she was given a backstory out of nowhere late in the season involving some sort of childhood trauma that likely included rape, but other than a brief hallucination that barely touched on these events, everything else was explained by her through tedious dialogue. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for heavy exposition, but True Detective really had a dialogue problem this season, in that there was way too much of it. We knew what the characters were feeling from moment-to-moment because they wouldn’t stop yammering on about it, but that didn’t make us actually care about their emotional states.
3. Not Enough Weirdness
Here’s the thing about the first season of True Detective: its central murder mystery and overarching plot wasn’t all that great either. Fortunately, it made up for this defect with a large dose of Southern Gothic style and strange metaphysical elements that made it stand out from the pack. Pizzolatto made a big deal prior to the release of the second season about how he didn’t want to repeat himself by including overt references to obscure 19th Century works of fiction, such as the horror anthology “The King in Yellow.” Unfortunately, Pizzolatto’s comments fail to take into account that part of the reason True Detective received such a positive response from critics and audiences in its freshman year was because of these odd little touches, which helped differentiate the show from similar fare. By stripping practically all of these elements from the second season, True Detective ended up becoming a run-of-the-mill police drama devoid of charm and originality.
2. Too Many Characters
The main cast of season two already felt crowded with the expansion from two leads to four, but that was a minor issue in comparison to the dozens of minor characters that True Detective managed to fill the screen with over the course of a short, eight episode season. Whether it was the various police officers that were hardly ever mentioned by name, yet still featured heavily into the plot (Dixon, Holloway, that guy who killed Taylor Kitsch) or the half dozen gangs and criminal organizations that Vince Vaughn’s character seemed to make deals with every episode, it was way too difficult to keep track of who everyone was. Heck, the killer Ray, Ani, Paul, and Frank were hunting all season turned out to be a movie-set photographer who made the most minor of appearances early in the season. At least the first season’s Yellow King was on-screen enough that we actually recognized him when the reveal finally came. True Detective could have jettisoned about half of its cast this season and most viewers probably wouldn’t have noticed anything other than an uptick in overall quality.
1. Extremely Over-Complicated Plot
How convoluted was Season 2’s plot? This 4,000 word summary from Slate doesn’t even cover everything that happened. Much like the first season, the show started with a fairly-straightforward premise: a city manager was brutally murdered and it was up to a team of detectives to solve the case. Pretty soon though, that central plot device became just one of many tangents and side-stories that were seemingly introduced in rapid succession with each new episode, to the point where it was really difficult to latch onto anything that was going on. Instead of one compelling central mystery, à la the Yellow King, we had a totally decentralized plot that built in too many layers of political corruption and shady double-dealings to the point of near-total incoherence. Nobody cares about the power struggles and debauchery of characters we can hardly remember anyway; we just want to be told a good story and True Detective came up short in this regard.