At what point will it be officially appropriate to throw our hands in the air and declare True Detective a lost cause? The show’s second season only has three episodes left and I’m still waiting for it to begin. At this point in Season 1, the show was actually starting to wind down a bit from a series of consecutive highs, but with the current season, we remain stuck in this monotonous, low murmur. Maybe lightning can’t be captured twice, but True Detective isn’t even catching a spark this time.
Even deploying the time jump, the de rigueur shakeup move in TV these days (one that the show’s initial season, in particular, benefitted tremendously from), doesn’t help matters. It’s now two months after the previous episode’s climactic firefight, an adequately staged yet curiously non-riveting attempt to elicit some of the thrills of Rust trying to extricate himself and an informant from an urban warzone at the same point last year. That shootout left only our three protagonists standing, but now all three find themselves at even lower ebbs than before. Velcoro has left the force and now works private security as Frank Semyon’s permanent stooge. He’s off drugs (not booze, though) and has shaved that atrocity of a mustache, but remains locked in a losing battle for custody of his (possibly not blood-related) son. Bezzerides, as punishment for the sexual harassment suit brought against her, now works as the clerk for the evidence locker. And Woodrugh, while having been successfully made detective as promised, is still taking the fall for those allegations of soliciting favors from that actress in the season premiere, as well as having his postwar nest egg stolen by his awful harridan of a mother.
Frank Semyon doesn’t have it all that much better. He’s officially been reduced to returning full-time to workaday criminal activity, much to his wife’s chagrin. He’s still trying to go legit, comparatively, by clawing his way back onto the rail project that Caspere’s death cost him. He is told that he can get back on the horse for the price of locating the incriminating hard drive that was stolen from Caspere’s second residence the night that Velcoro was magically not killed by a shotgun blast to the chest. Frank dispatches Velcoro to start sniffing around, but doesn’t realize that evidence has come to light that has unofficially reopened the Caspere investigation, with our detective trio employed as an off-the-books task force to dig beneath the thick layer of corruption and get to the real truth behind what happened to Caspere and who is involved.
It cannot be overstated how inhumanly uninvolving every aspect of this case is from top to bottom. None of the detectives, none of the criminal figures, none of the case details are of any interest. True Detective has gone from captivating television to excruciating slog quicker than anyone could have guessed possible. As our heroes start kicking over stones and beating the streets for leads, it becomes a tedious chore trying to keep any of the peripheral character names or connections straight. We have burnout cops, fat-cat crooks, corrupt city officials and clandestine conspiracies, and it all feels horrifically rote. True Detective used to be about how tropes as old as the hills themselves could be made to feel fresh and vital again. Now it’s about wallowing sullenly in their staleness.
There are only so many times that I can praise Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson for their exemplary character work last season. They made those characters unique and distinctive, and gave them a complicated bond that felt lived-in and genuine. To say that our current cast is failing to do the same is to toil in gross understatement. Farrell is still playing a beaten-down schlep, McAdams a sentient furrowed brow and Kitsch a constipated brooder. There exists not one ounce of chemistry between any of these people and none of the actors are bringing anything to their roles beyond the single note that Pizzolatto has written for them to play (by contrast, every askance look and irked inflection that Harrelson fired at McConaughey said volumes about their partnership). None of these people are bad actors, but precisely none of them has the wherewithal to rescue their characters from Pizzolatto’s increasingly leaden pen.
If anyone is doing quality work on True Detective – no one is, but sake of argument – I suppose it has to be Vaughn. Semyon feels at once like an ill fit for Vaughn and the ultimate Vince Vaughn character. Something isn’t coming together there, and that glitch in the system is palpable with every tortured line Vaughn has to recite. What saves Frank to a modest extent is that, while he’s no fun, he’s not as aggressively morose as his co-stars. There’s a glint of that fast-talking slickster patois in the character that Vaughn knows how to lean into just enough to make him stand out, but not enough to make a true redemptive difference. Still, the character’s volatile irritation at a world that refuses to give him exactly what he feels he’s earned stands as the best True Detective has to offer right now.
How Semyon intersects with the detectives is perhaps the one moderately compelling card True Detective has left to play. We know he has no connection to Caspere’s murder and wants the parties responsible for it much moreso than anyone with a badge does, which could lead him to become as eventual ally of sorts. Plus, in the short term, there’s the fact that the rapist he fed Velcoro years earlier as the culprit in his wife’s attack was bogus, a means of purchasing Velcoro for future services rendered. And Velcoro now knows it, leading to a cliffhanging confrontation at episode’s end. I’m certainly not cursing the calendar for the amount of days left before this pot starts to boil, but for as dreary and lifeless as True Detective has become, you take whatever you can get.
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