But­toned-up ‘De­tec­tive’ now at work

Sea­son 2 is dif­fer­ent, and not just be­cause of the new cast. Why are things so cau­tious?

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - MARY McNA­MARA TELE­VI­SION CRITIC

“My strong sus­pi­cion is … we get the world we de­serve.”

This line from the sec­ond sea­son of “True De­tec­tive” got a lot of play in the many pieces writ­ten in an­tic­i­pa­tion of its de­but, and here’s hop­ing it won’t turn out to be self-ref­er­en­tial.

As the fine but far more du­ti­ful early episodes of Sea­son 2 sug­gest, if we’re not care­ful, we’ll get only the tele­vi­sion we de­serve.

No other art form, with the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of pro­fes­sional sports, is as crit­i­cally de­con­structed on a daily ba­sis as tele­vi­sion. Opin­ions see­saw week to week from over-the-top ad­mi­ra­tion to ab­so­lute dis­gust, and not just in a gen­eral way. By mak­ing it pos­si­ble for fans to send their thoughts di­rectly to the show’s cre­ators in real time, so­cial media have cre­ated what ap­pears to be a joy­stick men­tal­ity among crit­ics and fans: “Here’s what you’re do­ing wrong; don’t do it again.”

The first sea­son of “True De­tec­tive” pro­vided a primer to that alarm­ing new tele­vi­sion ex­pe­ri­ence.

From the mo­ment it was an­nounced that Woody Har­rel­son and Matthew McConaughey would star, all eyes were fixed. Even more im­por­tant, cre­ator Nic Piz­zo­latto be­came the TV au­teur du jour. He had writ­ten short sto­ries for the At­lantic! He wrote each episode his own self be­cause, as he told The Times last year, “I didn’t come to Hol­ly­wood to be sub­servient to any­one else’s vi­sion”! He said things like “I didn’t come to Hol­ly­wood to be sub­servient to any­one else’s vi­sion”!

Much of the HBO-view­ing na­tion greeted the show’s steamy Louisiana lo­cale, Cary Fuku­naga’s moody di­rec­tion and Piz­zo­latto’s mys­ti­cal phi­los­o­phy with some­thing ap­proach­ing ec­stasy. As Rust Cohle, McConaughey made ram­bling mono­logues leg­endary while Har­rel­son proved, once again, that he is tal­ented enough to steady even a crazy-boat made of dead women and antlers.

“True De­tec­tive” was, for a few min­utes, the best show ever, and then, wait, maybe it wasn’t.

Mid­way through the eight-episode sea­son, peo­ple be­gan crit­i­ciz­ing the role of women (sec­ondary, of­ten vic­tim­ized), the overblown na­ture of the supernatural

el­e­ments and Rust’s sweaty philoso­phies. By the time the se­ries ended, in a man­ner less than sat­is­fac­tory to many, even the ini­tially de­vout were hedg­ing.

So fast did the pen­du­lum swing that the sec­ond sea­son has been her­alded with trep­i­da­tion.

Some of the con­cern was in­evitable. Much of last year’s praise fo­cused on the per­for­mances, but the highly am­bi­tious an­thol­ogy na­ture of the se­ries re­quires a whole new story and a whole new cast. The rev­e­la­tion of which was treated as if it were a break­ing news event, and then pon­dered with pan­icked op­ti­mism for months.

Vince Vaughn? Well, it would be fab­u­lous if he could pull a Bryan Cranston. Colin Far­rell was cer­tainly great in “In Bruges.” Who doesn’t love Rachel McA­dams? And Tay­lor Kitsch was in “Fri­day Night Lights,” for heav­ens sake.

Some con­cerns, how­ever, re­flected a more wor­ri­some Con­sumer Re­ports men­tal­ity: Would this model in­te­grate the im­prove­ments sug­gested by pre­vi­ous cus­tomers? In other words, would there be non-vic­tim­ized women, fewer fey red her­rings and a crime that made sense but also the magic that made fans of so many?

Piz­zo­latto, hav­ing cre­ated a chal­leng­ing po­si­tion (even Ryan Mur­phy keeps a lot of his cast for “Amer­i­can Hor­ror Story,” and he’s been mak­ing TV for many years), made his life much harder by em­brac­ing his swag­ger-brand to the point that he re­sponded to some of last year’s crit­i­cism in a highly dis­mis­sive way.

So when an over­wrought pro­file in July’s Van­ity Fair seemed con­structed for scathing com­men­tary, no one held back. “It Doesn’t Take a ‘True De­tec­tive’ to See That Nic Piz­zo­latto Is a Sch­muck” was just one head­line in a con­ver­sa­tion about whether or not Piz­zo­latto had learned from his mis­takes.

So if you are won­der­ing just when the hell I am go­ing to re­view the show, well, that’s sort of my point.

In­creas­ingly, the ac­tual se­ries, or sea­son, or (heaven save us from the mi­cro-crit­i­cism of it all) episode, has be­come sec­ondary in im­por­tance. It’s not the show that mat­ters so much as our feel­ings about the show, its stars and its cre­ator. Not to men­tion our feel­ings about vi­o­lence and sex and the so­cial sta­tus of ev­ery de­mo­graphic that is not “white male.”

We say we’re talk­ing about tele­vi­sion, but of­ten we are talk­ing about our­selves.

Stripped of all emo­tional bag­gage, in­clud­ing the of­ten re­gret­table ver­biage of its cre­ator, “True De­tec­tive” is a so­phis­ti­cated study of de­tec­tive fic­tion that pits the genre’s sen­sa­tional and of­ten lurid tropes against their very real uses, themes and larger mean­ings.

Where last sea­son took on South­ern gothic, this sea­son goes Cal­i­for­nia noir. We’re in the Cen­tral Val­ley mostly, with (re­mark­ably speedy) side trips to L.A. and the Cen­tral/North­ern coast­line.

As in Sea­son 1, the land­scape is an ac­tive par­tic­i­pant in the story. Un­der Justin Lin’s ini­tial di­rec­tion (un­like Sea­son 1, there will be mul­ti­ple di­rec­tors), the to­pog­ra­phy of Cal­i­for­nia shifts this way and that as if viewed from a speed­ing car — arid to lush, in­dus­trial pit to com­mand­ing coast­line, with an em­pha­sis on aerial views of the alarm­ing pat­terns cut into the earth by free­ways.

Set in the tiny fic­tional town of Vinci, the story rests on a sim­i­lar web of cor­rup­tion. Frank Sey­mon (Vaughn), once a small-time gang­ster, is now poised to hit it big and pos­si­bly le­git with a com­pli­cated land de­vel­op­ment deal de­pen­dent on a new high-speed rail sys­tem. The ti­tle ap­pears to re­fer to the other three main char­ac­ters: Ray Vel­coro (Far­rell), a Vinci de­tec­tive; Paul Woodrugh (Kitsch), a high­way pa­trol­man, and Ani Bezzerides (McA­dams), a Ven­tura County sher­iff ’s de­tec­tive, all of whom come to­gether to solve a req­ui­site grue­some mur­der.

As has be­come stan­dard, crim­i­nal and de­tec­tive are equally com­plex and con­tra­dic­tory.

Frank is just as haunted as he is men­ac­ing. Though es­sen­tially a good guy, Ray is drunk, cor­rupt and still brood­ing over his now-exwife’s rape. Paul, a for­mer mer­ce­nary soldier, is a clamped-down loner sui­ci­dally nurs­ing at least two big se­crets.

In the first three episodes, the men bring noth­ing more sur­pris­ing than in­ten­sity to their roles, which are fa­mil­iar to the point of ba­nal. Vaughn in­fuses Frank with hu­man­ity that makes its tough to buy the men­ace, and Far­rell’s wounded eyes con­tra­dict his char­ac­ter’s bru­tal­ity.

But “True De­tec­tive” is, to a cer­tain ex­tent, an ex­plo­ration of a literary genre, not just in tone but struc­ture. More than any other show in an in­creas­ingly in­no­va­tive arena, it’s as dif­fi­cult to re­view the se­ries from three episodes as a novel would be to re­view from less than a third of its pages.

Ani, how­ever, is some­thing to watch from the getgo.

McA­dams is such a lu­mi­nes­cent per­former that she ex­pands the claus­tro­pho­bic na­ture of noir, flash­ing on its edges and fur­ni­ture in a way that makes the re­turn­ing dark seem both more and less dan­ger­ous. Piz­zo­latto has also given her a won­der­fully in­sane back story, com­plete with a guru fa­ther (played by with de­li­cious sin­cer­ity by David Morse), who now runs an Esalen-like en­light­en­ment com­mu­nity that looks sus­pi­ciously like the one used in “Mad Men.”

This may seem like an un­for­tu­nate co­in­ci­dence or it could be ge­netic. For all its graphic crime and in­ten­tional pot­boiler homage, “True De­tec­tive” is the most ob­vi­ous de­scen­dant of the re­cently con­cluded “Mad Men.”

In both shows, the at­mos­phere and set­ting is more pres­ence than back­ground, the char­ac­ters have been crafted to be fa­mil­iar yet un­know­able. “Mad Men” re­mained com­mit­ted to re­straint while the first sea­son of “True De­tec­tive” rev­eled in aban­don. But each used literary and cul­tural al­lu­sions to tempt the viewer into a more in­ter­ac­tive ex­pe­ri­ence.

Sea­son 2 of “True De­tec­tive” ap­pears to have aban­doned aban­don; it is care­ful and con­trolled in a way that seems highly self-con­scious. That may be in­ten­tional or even satiric; one hopes it is some­thing other than re­ac­tionary. Tele­vi­sion is in­creas­ingly will­ing to con­cede pa­tience as a virtue, but only if there’s a pay­off.

It’s a dan­ger­ous game play­ing to au­di­ence ob­ses­sion. Ref­er­ence Chan­dler and Stein­beck and David Lynch and you beg com­par­i­son. And all the Easter eggs in the world can’t con­ceal a ragged story. Highly en­gaged view­ers may be the new gold stan­dard, but the masses can easily tip from pay­ing trib­ute to call­ing for your head.

Lacey Ter­rell

COLIN FAR­RELL por­trays a brood­ing, cor­rupt de­tec­tive in Sea­son 2.

Pho­tog raphs by Lacey Ter­rell HBO

VINCE VAUGHN en­ters Sea­son 2 of “True De­tec­tive.” With him is Kelly Reilly.

TAY­LOR KITSCH por­trays a high­way pa­trol­man join­ing the hunt af­ter a grue­some mur­der.

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