Overboiled and over it

The premiere of True Detective’s second series is a resounding, nightmarish self-parody: a pseudo-noir, pseudo-artistic, all-bullshit addition to the ‘slow crime’ genre.

You know what slow crime is, because it is everywhere. Beginning with Danish procedural The Killing (which rode in on the Scandinavian crime-fiction wave), some of the most talked-about shows in recent years have been slow-moving, morose crime dramas: The Bridge, Broadchurch, The Fall, Top of the Lake, Hannibal.

Then came HBO darling True Detective, an eight-episode mystery set in swampy Louisiana backwater so humid and burned-out it looked post-apocalyptic. Helmed by bonafide film stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, and housed in America’s mansion of ‘prestige television’, the show bolted from the gate daubed in credibility.

Whether True Detective managed to live up to the high praise it earned early on (before it was even deserved) depends on whom you ask. For the most part, though, it was universally acclaimed.

Creator Nic Pizzolatto is running True Detective as an ‘anthology’ series. Last season’s moody setting and hunky celebrities are out; season two is new hunks, new setting: this time the shimmering coastline, cross-stitched highways and drab oil refineries of Southern California – specifically fictional Vinci, which, according to Detective Velcoro (Colin Farrell), is ‘a town, supposebly’.

Was it an hour, this premiere episode? It felt unending, progressively folding in on itself like an origami of self-seriousness.

True Detective‘s season two premiere is stodgy and heavy-handed to the point of oafishness. It plays something like an end-of-times prophecy for slow crime; the whole thing is so done that any genuine new entry to the genre feels like a satire. True Detective is its own comedy sketch.

True Detective’s first season often felt like a parody of itself – one that frequently bought into its own bullshit – but it was also knowing, even with its silliest Nietzsche-groupie moments and its nastiest noirish pretensions.

Sure, Marty was a raging misogynist and hypocrite, but we were supposed to pity his narrow impotence – even as the show served up paper-thin female characters with a side of buoyant T & A. At times the show slid over on the sexism it was trying to skewer, but most viewers turned a blind eye.

It was also funny, thanks to the buddy pairing of Harrelson’s Marty and Rusty Cohle, a nihilist risen Christ garnished with Lone Star tinnies. Rust was silly, but McConaughey committed heartily to all the grandiose foolishness.

The story in season two – if you can decipher it through the hammy acting and the placeholder dialogue – is this: three grumpy cops are brought together to solve the case of missing city manager Ben Caspere. Or . . . maybe. The premiere is marred by a distinct lack of clarity, which must be deliberate because it takes work to be this supercilious and obtuse.

Ray Velcoro (Farrell) is a drunk cop attached to an absorbing moustache. He is sad, perhaps because his wife was raped 12 years ago, perhaps because he was never an astronaut. There are also niggling doubts about his son’s parentage. (There doesn’t seem to be much mystery there, with the gag casting of a chubby red-haired boy who looks rather like a lost Weasley brother, and nothing like any son of Colin Farrell.)

Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) is a tightly wound cop with a past – namely, a porn-performing sister, Athena, and a New Age cult leader father (David Morse and his distracting wig). Ani’s sexual predilections (extreme, judging by her partner’s response the morning after) are introduced as a way of marking out Ani’s personality – she likes her sex crazy, and her knives bolted to the kitchen wall, because she is a Strong Female Character™.

Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) is a permanently confused highway cop and war vet, suspended from duty for allegedly accepting a blowjob from a drunk-driving actress. A fun game to play when watching True Detective is to count how many times Paul is propositioned with a blow job (two, and counting!).

The shadow player is Vince Vaughn’s ‘reformed’ crime boss/casino owner Frank Semyon. Frank uses the traditional bad grammar of a crim and has a chequered past, which includes Farrell’s Ray. Vaughn’s pouchy eyes are put to good use staring across sticky bar tables at Farrell in scenes that are at once comically self-important and unwittingly homoerotic.

One hurdle this second season can’t quite vault over is Pizzolatto’s appalling writing. Apparently, when he isn’t channelling your undergrad philosophy tutor, as he was with the wandering dialogue of the first season, Pizzolatto writes like that Guy In Your MFA.

Characters don’t hint at their secrets and motivations so much as just spell them out; when Ani (whose full name, I’m sorry to say, is Antigone) fights with her father, he spits, ‘You’re angry at the entire world, and men in particular, out of a false sense of entitlement for something you’ve never received.’ Frank tells Ray that ‘a good woman mitigates our baser tendencies,’ articulating True Detective’s entire 2-D conception of women in one cringeworthy sentence. Paul can’t get it up, so he nearly kills himself in a high-speed motorbike crash.

It’s clonk-you-over-the-head obvious.

The other problem: Pizzolatto’s reliance on cliché and allusions (which some are choosing to call ‘plagiarism’). In True Detective 1 the mess of mawkish tropes and references hung together more easily. Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukunaga paid homage to crime drama with a giant stage wink.

The new True Detective is so derivative, so bloated with delusions of grandeur, it’s missing the levity that makes homage joyful. It seems embarrassingly unaware of itself, and so dated its first draft was probably a cave drawing.

The best slow crime excels when it’s freshening up mouldy material.

The Fall, the cool cat-and-mouse drama of a cop (the inimitable Gillian Anderson) chasing a serial killer (Jamie Dornan, sexier as a murderer than he is as Christian Grey), is the anti-procedural procedural. Creator Allan Cubitt removes the traditional tension – the whodunnit quotient – and still manages to create the most suspenseful thriller in recent memory.

Jane Campion’s masterful Top of the Lake, which is tonally similar to True Detective, interrogates women’s place in the noir drama. Campion casts Robin (Elisabeth Moss) in the same mould as McAdams’ Ani, then she rips the mould apart in a clever bit of genre bending. Robin is more than a cliché. Campion also revels in the most radical nudity on TV: the natural bodies of middle-aged women.

Hannibal, NBC’s avant-garde art project, needles the mythologising of serial killers and the ardour between a killer and his captor. Like Ray and Frank, Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter are a bad goodie and a good baddie who take turns romancing each other. In latter seasons, Hannibal entirely shatters the procedural template to meditate on more interesting pretensions of the crime genre.

In contrast, True Detective season two is laughably stale. To use some purple prose worthy of the great Pizzolatto himself, True Detective is like an egg that’s been over-boiled; you’ll eat it (maybe with a pinch of salt), but you won’t enjoy it as much as an egg with a runnier yolk.

Matilda Dixon-Smith

Matilda Dixon-Smith is a Melbourne-based freelance writer, editor and theatre-maker.

More by Matilda Dixon-Smith ›

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  1. Oh man, True Detective got destroyed. I had heard good things about season 1, but now…You are right, The Fall is great, and of course Hannibal (what’s the connection…Gillian!).

  2. Great show ‘True Detective’. I disagree with everything you said. This text tells us more about your prejudices than about the show.

  3. I’m unsure of where this review of True Detective leads other than the reviewer doesn’t like it and in casting a glance over it, makes assumptions. For instance I don’t think Paul ties to top himself because his pecker is flaccid rather that his sexuality is at odds with his perception of himself. Which surly is one of the tropes of our time in this era of identity assertion. I, for one saw Paul, take a blue pill when with the woman sprawled on the bed. Yet cast a eye (long and lingering) over Farrell’s character in the closing moments.
    One of the stand out aspects of the show is that the Working Class in all its beauty and ugliness is present. For all it’s failures the shows portrays a class that has has been damaged by ideology, poverty and most of deference. In contrast the boss class is bloated and crazed and impervious to the ‘evil’ they peddle.

  4. This is a very impatient , flippant and dismissive review, essentially damning the entire second season of True Detective based on the first of ten episodes. There is hardly any deep analysis of the episode and the way aspects of it may be linked and how they hint of things to come. This review shrieks at too high a pitch. If it was the first of ten in a collection of reviews by Matilda whats-her-name I wouldn’t bother proceeding with the other nine, yet I am still going to watch True Detective.

    1. “Matilda whats-her-name!” Kind of proving the point about the dismissal of women, dontyathink?

      I thought this was a terrific review Matilda and that you were “essentially damning the entire” show, first season too.

      1. Rani, my post was based solely on the written text I read, and the fact that I’d partially forgotten the author’s name reveals how little attention I was paying to gender.

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