DVD Review– True Detective: The Complete Second Season
The first season of True Detective was a critical smash, with its fans bandying about praises like “best series ever,” and declaring that it deserved every award available. I had a more lukewarm opinion of Season One, appreciating the very strong performances by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey and the memorable and menacing atmosphere, while being unimpressed with several thematic elements and the ultimate solution to the mystery.
What a difference a year makes! When the second season of True Detective ran, many fans howled in protest, bemoaning a steep decline in quality. I maintain that while Season Two is no masterpiece, it is still a better production than its detractors contend.
In my estimation, the second season highlights the continued flaws from the earlier True Detective episodes while missing the opportunity to revisit those aspects that made the first season memorable. Most disappointing to me is the ultimate solution to the crime, which requires little actual detecting on the part of the viewer because it, like the first season, is not a “fair play” mystery so much as it seems that the screenwriter was thinking, “I need a killer…how about that random character?”
Part of what made Season One interesting was the shifting back and forth between the past and the present, as we saw versions of the characters at very different points in their lives, and gradually learned how they developed (or in most cases, devolved) and why. Season Two has no such time shift; we see all the characters in their present-day personas, and we simply receive information through dialogue as to how they became so damaged. The problem is, any fan of crime dramas has seen the basic archetypes before: the emotionally damaged cop with a dark past, the tough-as-nails female law enforcement officer with a disastrous personal life, the troubled guy with a Big Secret, and the criminal seeking respectability who winds up backsliding—and we’ve seen all of these characters developed better in other productions. Pretty much everybody gives solid performances, but none of the characters evoked any feeling of sympathy or likeability in me, save for one little boy, a good-natured kid who knows that the adults he cares about are seriously messed up but he doesn’t know why.
Furthermore, the aura of the Lovecraftian supernatural that gave the first season such ominous presence is completely absent. Except for an assassin with a bird mask and a sleazy mansion reminiscent of One Eyed Jacks from Twin Peaks, there’s no sense of the inexplicably mysterious or compellingly weird in Season Two, just ordinary corruption baked in the bland Southern California sun.
In terms of the plot, three different police officers are each in a different state of personal crisis, and a mobster is trying to go straight and become a legitimate businessman. Their lives intertwine throughout the investigation of a horribly mutilated city official that leads to more violence and destruction. I’d provide more details, but the plot becomes rather convoluted very fast.
Oddly, the most fascinating aspect of the series is the title song, a remix of “Nevermind” by Leonard Cohen. Each of the title credits uses a slightly different version of the song, substituting certain lyrics and thereby changing the message and tone. In the first episode, the song sounds like it’s the boasting of a villain, probably the murderer. In later episodes, the altered song comes across like the therapeutic musings of one of the damaged detectives. In yet another version, the song could potentially be speaking for the regretful victim. It’s an unsettling effect, and stylistically intriguing.
True Detective Season 2 is a watchable exploration of crime, greed, human frailty, masculinity, and heartbreak. It doesn’t deserve the venomous attacks it received in some critical quarters, though its many flaws are glaringly obvious, particularly when compared to the first season.