True Detective season 2: The serious drama that takes itself a little too seriously

The first eight episodes of True Detective had their moments of pomposity. True Detective 2 has no such comic relief, says Ellen E Jones

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The Independent Culture

The return of HBO’s True Detective next week has been accompanied by a Vanity Fair profile of the show’s writer, creator and all-round messianic cult leader Nic Pizzolatto. From this we glean that it’s not only the show which takes itself very seriously indeed, but also, apparently the showrunner: “He was 37 but somehow ageless,” writes journalist Rich Cohen. “He could’ve stepped out of a novel by Steinbeck…His manner that of a man who’d just hiked along the railroad tracks or rolled out from under a box. He is fine-featured, with fierce eyes a little too small for his face. It gives him the aura of a bear or some other species of dangerous animal.”

Fans of True Detective may recognise in this description of idealised masculinity something of Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, the lead characters from the first series. Those first eight episodes had their moments of pomposity - Rust’s nihilistic speeches, the laboured religious allegory in the finale - but these were all mercifully undercut by the in-car, buddy-to-buddy banter. True Detective 2 has no such comic relief.

Set in a fictional city in southern California, it tells a more convoluted story of civic corruption centred around hard-drinking cop Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), hard-talking detective Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) and hard-living highway patrolman Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch). A fourth character, mobster-turned-businessman Frank Semyon is played by Vince Vaughn, star of such broad comedies as Wedding Crashers and Old School, but even he has wiped the smile off his face for this role. Perhaps Vaughn is hoping True Detective will do for his career what it did for Matthew McConaughey’s and perhaps it will.

 

Still, the looming danger for Vaughn and everyone else involved, is that they encounter the silly/serious event horizon, the point on every TV show’s sliding scale of tone, where serious gets so serious it becomes silly again. Stare off soulfully into too many middle-distances, deliver too many lines like “I welcome judgement”, and eventually your audience will stop caring and begin tittering.

Arguably, this moment came for Pizzolatto’s show when the #TrueDetective2 sprung up on Twitter. Those tongue-in-cheek casting suggestions kept the series current, but also undermined its noirish sensibility; crucial, because with the original characters, actors and setting all jettisoned for season two, that sensibility has become the only consistent element. Moreover, whichever big stars were eventually signed up, they could never match the fantasy pairings. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen? If only…

And yet, come Monday evening, I’ll be watching, because if any show can get away with it, True Detective can. Nic Pizzolatto may not be “the best in the business today” as that Vanity Fair profile claims, but he is the unrivalled master at spouting grandiose nonsense with a straight face — and for that we adore him.

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