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The problem with ‘True Detective’

By the numbers, “True Detective” is off to a strong start. Critically, the show seems to be over-writing and under-resolving its way into a corner from which few emerge. 

Rachel McAdams and Colin Farrell in a scene from "True Detective."

Toward the end of last week’s second season premiere of “True Detective,” the scene shifted to (shocker) a dive bar meet­-up between two of the show’s four lugubrious main characters.

Since the first season was a qualified hit, with Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey chewing up the fetid south Louisiana scenery, I, like a lot of HBO fans was primed for Round Two.

As Vince Vaughn, playing a Southern California mobster­going­semi­legit by baking himself into a land grab around a high­speed rail project, stared down Colin Farrell, doing duty here as a more or less crooked L.A.­area cop with a nasty drinking problem and a worse temper, a mopey, stringy haired singer (Lera Lynn) began a funereal dirge from a stool on dimly lit stage.

“This is my least favorite lie … ,’ she warbled, as Vaughn and Farrell continued their doleful stare-down.

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Coming as this moment did, after 50 minutes of set­up of this season’s tortured characters and plot, I turned to my wife and said, “The self-serious factor here is so high, another night like this and we’re talking an unintentional parody classic.”

Some improv group could have a field day with the material here.

By the numbers, “True Detective” is off to a strong start. According to Nielsen, the premiere pulled in almost 40 percent more viewers than last year’s, or 3.5 million. But judging from critical reaction other than my own, the show’s creator/driving force, a guy named Nic Pizzolatto, a one­time literature professor at the University of Chicago, is rapidly over-­writing and under-resolving his way into a corner few “artists” emerge from, that of humorless pretension.

“True Detective” Season One felt fresh and involving through six of its eight episodes, as Harrelson and McConaughey’s characters, battling their personal demons, kicked around a landscape generally ignored by Hollywood, the overlap backwaters off the bayou where petrochemical refining meets bat-[bleep] religiosity. So, okay, a truly sicko serial killer and two middle-aged cops with virility issues is no one’s idea of “fresh.” But Pizzolatto’s writing, especially in McConaughey’s long (and I do mean long) monologues cast a murky spell. In retrospect, the spell I think was far more McConaughey’s doing than Pizzolatto’s words, which read out loud in a creative writing class would play to a room of stifled snickering.

Eventually though, around episode six, it became obvious that “True Detective” was (and maybe will be again) yet another exercise in morose machismo with far, far less interest in plotting, an element we were set up to believe was of significant importance.

Pizzolatto has been taking flak for what seems to some to be pretty shameless plagiarism of one of his favorite writers, Thomas Ligotti. Personally, I apply the old Hollywood maxim in such cases. “Steal from the best.” The audience hardly cares where the lines, or the story come from, they just want everything to work. More to the point here, they do not want to be pulled out of the scene by the sense of someone working way too hard to be dark, deep and cool.

Frankly, what I’ll call “The Pizzolatto Pose” fits all too well with a cliché I bumped into over and over again interviewing folks in the movie business. I lost track of the number of guys — and it’s almost always men — who were way too cool to make a joke, or have a laugh, unless it had a maiming effect on some rival. Their macho quotient was based on not only being the smartest guy in the room, but also being the darkest, most cynical and cunning. “Chicks dig it,” I really think they believed.

“True Detective,” Season Two is a rolling bundle of notions from someone with ambitions toward classic fiction. The high-speed rail deal, involving a tortured and murdered city engineer whose improbably baronial home seems to have been decorated by the Smitten Kitten, has any number of nods to “Chinatown,” and the visuals (more refineries), neon and L.A. freeways is a pastiche of “Blade Runner,” “The Terminator,” a couple Michael Mann flicks, and the prose descriptions of Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy. Put another way, dystopia, Hollywood’s “serious-minded” cliché du jour, reigns. And here it reigns really hard.

Have I mentioned that one of his characters, played by Rachel McAdams, is named “Antigone”?

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All this said, all the self-conscious somberness, solemnity, humorlessness and morbidity withstanding, there’s enough going on here to let Pizzolatto walk a bit further into the deep end of his I’m­-as­-literary­-as­-they­-are pool. The caveat being that those of us restless with his more­-mood-­than-­plot style expect this adventure in anguish to both build into something and resolve itself in an artful way. We’re not going to be happy with a repeat of last summer, with that truly cliched chase in a backwoods charnel house and one of our “heroes” surviving more stab wounds than a Thanksgiving turkey.


While we’re talking about what used to be cable, please note with interest that according to a Hollywood Reporter story, within the next year Netflix, home of “House of Cards,” “Orange is the New Black” and other original series, will have a larger viewing audience than ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox.

Says Paul Bond, “Working from the 10 billion hours of streaming the company reported in the first quarter, FBR analyst Barton Crockett says that, if Netflix were rated by Nielsen as are ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox, it would have a 2.6 rating over 24 hours, already on par with ABC and NBC. Given that Netflix is growing its audience at about 40 percent a year, it should overtake the four networks some time next year.”

Finally, without comment, let me pass along this exciting news for you satellite radio subscribers. From Brian Flood at TVNewser: “Fox News Channel and SiriusXM have announced the launch of Fox News Headlines 24/7, a new national headline news service and full­time satellite radio channel produced by FNC journalists and contributors. The channel, which is part of a multi­year agreement, will launch to all SiriusXM subscribers in the fall of 2015 on channel 115. ‘By creating this new news offering, we’re aiming to provide Fox News viewers and satellite radio subscribers the opportunity to stay informed with the latest headlines and breaking news from the network they have come to rely on and trust,” FoxNews CEO Roger Ailes said.”