Warning: Light spoiler alert.
The ending of Game of Thrones, TV's most-talked about and most pirated show, this month prompted a horde of think pieces about how unrelentingly brutal and dark the show had become. Why would anyone want to watch a show so devoid of light and hope?
But Game of Thrones is, in this respect, right in line with the prestige-TV zeitgeist. From the unceasing apocalyptic horrors of The Walking Dead to the chilly murder mystery of The Killing, the dark serial-killer thriller The Fall, and—the best of the bunch—the surreal nightmare world of Hannibal, prestige-TV land is a dreary country. At least Tyrion gets drunk and tells some witty jokes now and then. And into this dimly-lit landscape, chewing on a bottle of whiskey while stabbing itself in the eye to try and see if it can still feel, True Detective strides in, determined to be the grimmest of the bunch.
If you missed the first season of True Detective, it's hard to convey the excitement it caused at the time. The show churned out more think pieces and message-board debates than any show on TV sans dragons. Although the show landed with a sentimental plop, season one was genuinely thrilling and stood out among the other gloomy serial-killer dramas thanks to its eerie Southern Gothic atmosphere, the nihilistic monologues of Matthew McConaughey's Rust Cohle—which were largely cribbed from cult horror philosopher Thomas Ligotti, the creepy mystical elements borrowed from weird fiction legends Robert W. Chambers and H. P. Lovecraft, and the knockout cinematography of director Cary Fukunaga, who helped make it one of the most beautiful-looking TV shows ever.
'True Detective' season two trailer. Courtesy of HBO
However, in season two, all of that has disappeared, like so many corpses sunk into the Louisiana bayou. The only things carried over are writer Nic Pizzolatto and the sense of self-seriousness. Forgoing the good cop/existential-despair cop buddy formula of season one, this season follows four leads played by four notable actors.
Colin Farrell is Ray Velcoro, a grim, serious corrupt cop ravaged by his divorce. Vince Vaughn is Frank Semyon, a grim, serious gangster trying to turn straight. Rachel McAdams is Ani Bezzerides, a grim, serious tough-as-nails female cop who is "angry at the entire world, men in particular." Taylor Kitsch is Paul Woodrugh, a grim, serious motorcycle cop haunted by his army past. All four are hard on their luck, probably alcoholic, have unsatisfying sex lives, and spout Chandler-lite hardboiled lines that don't necessarily make any sense ("Never do anything out of hunger—not even eating," is Vince Vaughn's diet/life advice).
McAdams's Bezzerides in particular feels added in as a response to the (quite fair) criticism that season one focused on the corpses of young women without giving us any fleshed-out female characters. Bezzerides is certainly as fleshed out as the other leads, although she comes from the Strong Female Character school of writing where "strong" means "really likes whiskey and stabbing things with knives" and "female" means "played by a woman."
If those four characters sound like they were generated by a Crime Screenplay Generator Algorithm, well, they more or less feel that way through the first three episodes. This isn't the fault of the actors, who play the roles as moody and brooding as they can—although Vince Vaughn is less convincing when he moves from impotent businessman to intimidating crime lord. But the show as a whole feels like a collage of LA noir tropes, as though someone watched Chinatown, LA Confidential, and The Big Sleep, and thought, You want hardboiled? I'll quadruple-boil this bad boy ! In the first episode alone, we get corrupt cops, orange groves, pornography, a swanky gala, grungy dives, a ditzy actress, and a neo-hippie commune. The central mystery involves shady land deals, corrupt politicians, and a mutilated corpse. Yet divorced from the weird fiction and horror-nihilism atmosphere of season one, none of these elements stand out from their use on any other dozen noirs.
It doesn't help that the dialogue ranges from unmemorable—"I welcome judgment," "It worries me, you talking so stupid," "I'm not good on the sidelines"—to memorably ridiculous. When Ani fights with her sister outside of her sister's porn gig, she is told, "When you walk, it's like erasers clapping!" Sick… burn?
Also, have I mentioned how morose the show is? In case it isn't clear to you from every single scene, the show provides audio cues that range from industrial clanking to waifish singers crooning lines like, "This is my least favorite life!"
Things do pick up in the following two episodes—the first three were made available to reviewers—in part because Pizzolatto starts injecting some real creepiness into the central crime, along with some weird sequences that feel like cutting-room-floor scraps from David Lynch's majestic Mulholland Drive. (Second-tier Lynch is still miles above most TV.) The four leads also become more defined by episode three, as Pizzolatto can move from the archetypes to the atypical once the basics are set up. And there is enough mystery to the central crime to pull the viewer back. Plus, this is still HBO, so the overall production values and quality remain top-notch.
Even if True Detective's second season doesn't stand out among the crowd, it definitely sits comfortably within it. The show is dark, the dialogue laborious, and the scenes pretty in that cool and cold way that increasingly defines "serious" entertainment. Today's film and TV is either a sanitized corporate toy commercial or monochrome misery. Joylessness is treated as a fundamental requirement for artistry. Even TV shows that are lighter on the body count, like the Netflix hit House of Cards, are filmed in an almost unrelentingly cold way. Hell, even a goofy alien superhero in bright spandex gets turned into a gritty anti-hero in an environment where "no jokes" is an actual film-making rule.
There is nothing wrong with fictional misery, and I for one am a sucker for blood, death, and despair in my art. But what is missing from so much of the prestige TV these days is tonal variety. A sex scene is filmed as coldly as a murder; a brunch order growled as coldly as a break-up. As dark and tragic as great shows like Breaking Bad, The Wire , or The Sopranos were, they weren't only dark and tragic—they had humor, absurdity, weirdness, and love. Even True Detective season one knew this, allowing for some genuine levity between Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. The show's creators knew to film horrific sex crimes and buddy-cop dialogue in different ways. True Detective's second season is by no means a singular culprit in the—gulps whiskey shot—"Boy, I'm so gloomy and sullen and tinted blue" entertainment climate, but it follows the Snyder/Fincher/Nolan school of cool too closely to the letter. In a field where everything is filmed in dark blue, it can be hard to distinguish one scene or even one show from another. I mean, should a superhero show, a murder mystery, a serial-killer thriller, a fantasy, and a domestic drama all really look and feel identical?
So while True Detective is a well-done crime show that should whet your appetite between seasons of your favorite dark murder shows, here's hoping the rest of the new season adds back in the weirdness—or at least a joke or two.
Season two of True Detective airs on HBO on Sundays at 9 PM.
Lincoln Michel's writing appears in the Believer, American Short Fiction , Buzzfeed, Oxford American, and elsewhere. He is the online editor of Electric Literature and the coeditor of Gigantic magazine. His debut story collection, Upright Beasts, is forthcoming from Coffee House Press. Follow him on Twitter.