We're three episodes deep in the new season of True Detective. What have we learned? We've learned to never do anything out of hunger (even eating). We've learned that seven's the same as ten, and you can't round off zero. We've learned Vince Vaughn might have to suck his own dick. Mostly, we've learned that, for all its bangs, whizzes, and Carcosas, True Detective has been a ridiculous show since the beginning.
If you need proof that series creator Nic Pizzolatto is totally, completely invested in making True Detective the most True Detective show it can be, look no further than Vanity Fair's recent profile of him, which reads like fan fiction for the entirety of the human race. He summed up the season by saying to Vanity Fair, "The detective is searching and searching and searching, and the culprit is him." No one should be allowed to say that. Except of course Nic Pizzolatto is allowed to say that. Only someone who says something like that in casual conversation is going to write True Detective, one of the more batshit-insane shows to hit TV in recent memory.
What made the original season of True Detective so great was its total and complete adherence to the principles of focused insanity. It took place in the hot, damp, real-life hell that is Louisiana swamp country, and between the setting, Nic Pizzolatto's bizarre inquiries into the nature of existence, and the absolutely phenomenal direction of Cary Fukunaga, it felt more in line with the greater Southern Gothic literary tradition than anything else on TV. Meanwhile, season two takes us to the postindustrial wasteland surrounding Los Angeles, a trick pulled from Raymond Chandler andChinatown.
I'm going to engage in some speculative fiction. It's almost like Pizzolatto sat at his Screenwriting Typewriter (he doesn't use a computer; computers are for the weak), took a swig of some brown, alcoholic liquid (he doesn't drink water; water's also for the weak), tightened his bolo tie (of course he wears a bolo tie; he lent Farrell his favorite one for the show), and said, "OK, I did the Southern Gothic thing. Let's do the noir thing." (Nic Pizzolatto fanfic ends here.)
And noir-it-up we have. After three episodes, all of us amateur sleuths have realized that True Detective season one and True Detective season two are totally different beasts. The source material—here, "source material" is defined as "the stuff that goes on in Nic Pizzolatto's brain"—is essentially the same, it's just that this time around, the material is being interpreted in a way that's totally dissimilar to the original. This is partially due to the fact that the actors aren't as strong this time around, and partially because we the audience have been conditioned to react to True Detective season two because of TD S1. We expect "True Detective stuff," i.e., grizzled people with dark pasts going around doing grisly things in an equally dark present, all the while investigating other grisly, dark things, blindly fumbling around for some sort of grisly, dark redemption.
For all of their grizzle and grit, it's pretty clear that Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams, the guy from Friday Night Lights, and Colin Farrell cannot even begin to add up to the True Detectives that Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson were.
What made TD season one sing was the pairing of Matthew McConaughey's scenery-gnawing Rust Cohle and Woody Harrelson's dead-eyed Marty Hart, whose idle banter about the state of the universe shitted on pretty much every other show's most dynamic scenes. Any time the show gave Must (their official TD/fiction couple name) anything fun to do, like infiltrate a biker gang or plant evidence at a crime scene, those conversations echoed back into the viewer's brain, and it was like the show was forcing your eyeballs to stay open so you didn't miss a single thing.
Even though all of season two's principles clearly signed on for the opportunity to do some capital- A Acting here, Vince Vaughn, playing a gangster turned businessman, is woefully, perhaps hilariously in over his head, delivering series creator Nic Pizzolatto's self-serious dialogue in the same voice he once used to tell Jon Favreau he was so fucking money and he didn't even know it. In Vaughn's best moments on the show, he comes across as the repressed dark side of the comedic yabbers he plays in movies like Old School and Wedding Crashers. This comes out a couple times in the show's third episode, especially when he engages in some impromptu bare-knuckle boxing with the guy he sold his old club to. But far too often, he falls short of the subversion he strives for and just seems like he's trying to deliver his lines so he can get the hell out of there.
Colin Farrell, meanwhile, has the hardest job on the show, since he's the one who has to play the de facto McConaughey "unhinged wack-a-doodle seeking redemption (or whatever)" role. Farrell plays a cop whose career is complicated by the fact that Vaughn has had him on the hook for years, ever since Vaughn nudged him in the direction of the guy who sexually assaulted his wife. So far, Farrell has suffered the ignominy of having: beaten up a journalist while wearing a ski mask; chugged whiskey while driving; assumed some kid shat in a pair of Nikes (it turns out he just cut them up); beaten up said kid's dad over the aforementioned shoe shitting/cutting up; looked at a dead body missing a dick; had his car set on fire; compared vaping to sucking robot dick (presumably not related to said dickless corpse, but hey, True Detective has done weirder); been offered $10,000 by his wife just to "go away"; had an innuendo-heavy conversation with a beautiful woman with scars on her face; had a doctor tell him he had such bad health problems he wondered if he actually wanted to live; and died.
OK, well, as the beginning of episode three informs us, he didn't actually die. Still, Farrell was definitely shot in the stomach by a guy wearing a bird mask, which made us all think he had died, but killing off one of your main characters three episodes in is an incredibly cheap move. Instead, Pizzolatto decided to send Farrell through a Twin Peaks–y dream sequence full of bizarre symbolism we'll figure out later, only to wake up and realize he was still alive.
Here are just a smattering of the lines Farrell has been asked to deliver without giggling:
"You ever bully or hurt anyone again, I'll come back and butt-fuck your father with your mom's headless corpse on this goddamn lawn."
"Maybe it's just a little too close to sucking a robot's dick."
"I support feminism. Mostly by having body-image issues."
"Twelve years old my ass. Fuck you!"
"And what? What? Shit in 'em?"
"A good beating promotes personal growth."
"Booze tends to take the edge off. I wanna stay angry."
"I ain't ever exactly been Colombo."
That he has had to do all of this while wearing a bolo tie and sporting a mustache so thick it could filter an Irish coffee is admirable, if not superhuman.
Farrell's character seems to be Pizzolatto's primary vessel for proving that life is cold, and only the coldest—those who are willing to assault a man because his kid shit in a pair of Nikes (or cut them up, whatever)—get to wear this wind-beaten leather jacket we call manhood. By episode two, Farrell's ex-wife is straight up telling him, "You're a bad man." When Farrell visits his ex-cop turned pothead dad, watches a John Wayne movie with him, and then fishes his dad's old police badge out of the trash, it doesn't take a false detective, let alone a true one, to recognize that Pizzolatto is waving some gigantic flags full of symbolism in our faces.
Still. This season is beginning to pick up steam, and may even transcend the realm of "hot mess" soon enough. The investigation starts going in some sort of coherent direction—there's a bunch of sexy sex stuff going on, and some boring other stuff involving crooked business deals—which means we're finally starting to get some bites on the plot lines Pizzolatto has cast out for us. By the time the third episode wraps, it's overwhelmingly clear that McAdams, Kitsch, Farrell, and Vaughn are all acting as emissaries for forces greater than themselves—some literal, some spiritual.
Pizzolatto's real skill as a showrunner is delving into the complex psychologies behind his characters, establishing motivation, imbuing every step each takes with a greater purpose. At this point in the season, we've come to understand what's going through each character's head during every scene, the context governing every decision. Each scene both explains a character and adds more mystery to them, making the characters themselves the real case to crack. This slavish dedication to cause and effect is what made True Detective's first season endure, and, for all of its goofiness, what just might mark its second season's salvation.
Just as there's more than one way to interpret a song and Romeo and Juliet can yield both close readings played for high drama and Leonardo DiCaprio hopping out of a convertible to shoot John Leguizamo in the chest, True Detective can in one iteration offer gravity, while in the next season pull a 180 and go totally off the rails (even if it's not doing it on purpose). Do not damn True Detective season two because it doesn't live up to the template established by True Detective season one. Instead, if you look at the thing as its its own, eccentric beast, and if you open yourself up to it, it just might charm you.
True Detective airs on Sundays at 9 PM on HBO.
Follow Drew on Twitter.