True Detective, Season 2: "The Western Book of the Dead"

Dear Television,DEARTVLOGO

PHIL: I WATCHED THE PREMIERE of the new season of True Detective with my parents, which was appropriate since “The Western Book of the Dead” turned out to be a Very Special Father’s Day episode. If Nic Pizzolatto is an auteur, one of his trademarks now is a scene of a shitty dad beating the shit out of somebody on behalf of his child. (Remember #NoDads? I think this is what that was.) The Pitz — please, Twitter, let this nickname take off! — is very interested in fatherhood. Rust’s downward spiral into the “Philosophy” section of the used bookstore was precipitated by the loss of his daughter, and Marty the Monster’s lack of vision as a parent mirrored his lack of vision as a detective. And now we’ve got a whole new crew of bad dads — happy Father’s Day, everyone!

SARAH: Phil! First, can I just say I am very glad we’re doing this! Second, of course The Pitz loves fatherhood, because his great subject is Serious Men Looking Soulfully at Sad Things, and nothing makes a man sadder or more serious than fatherhood! Third, I was pretty disappointed in all these bad dads. None of them lived remotely up to Rust Cohle’s levels of seriousness or sadness, although Taylor Kitsch’s Paul Woodrugh approaches him in terms of hotness. Maybe Kitsch would have been sadder if he’d had a kid to look at, rather than being forced to gaze dolefully at the nubile form of a beautiful woman desperate to give him a blow job? In the world of The Pitz, even blow jobs are sad and serious, but they’re not fatherhood-level sad and serious.

PHIL: Too true. Then there’s Ani’s father, a spiritual leader who was apparently so busy helping Don Draper come up with “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” that he failed to prevent his wife’s suicide. And, to the extent that we know him now, he’s little more than a vending machine for vague, condescending advice.

SARAH: Also he named her! He named her “Antigone Bezzerides” (of course really it’s Nic Pizzolatto who named her that; ugh). Please, for one minute: Antigone Bezzerides. Who would name her such a thing? It’s really new depths of The Pitz. At least Rachel McAdams does a brilliant job conveying how annoying it is to be named Antigone Bezzerides, which is a credit to McAdams’s acting but not a credit to her decision to be cast in a Pitz production in the first place. If you are going to be the token character brought in to demonstrate that The Pitz does, indeed, think that women are more than the Sad Things at which Serious Men Might Stare, then being named after one of literature’s most famous sacrificial lambs is about the best you can hope for (I realize that’s an unfair reading of Antigone, but I also would put good money down that it’s The Pitz’s reading of Antigone, a play which in The Pitz’s mind is surely mostly about Creon). Speaking of: can we put some money right now on what happens to poor Ani this season? My money is on at least two scenes of attempted sexual assault, one moment of ugly broken tears, and a scene of metaphoric entombment brought to an end by some act of drunken Colin Farrell heroics.  

PHIL: I don’t know. I’m betting she either levitates or has a baby. One or the other. But let’s not get distracted. There’s still Ray Velcoro, the baddest dad of them all, drinking bourbon out of one of those little flask bottles that characters in gritty TV series drink bourbon out of (apparently the ski mask and bolo tie store was sold out of small paper bags), thinking up anatomically-confusing threats to whisper at his son’s bullies as he beats up their fathers with brass knuckles, moonlighting as a goon so he can buy his son a nice sleeping bag only to find out the camping trip was last week and get shown up by his son’s cool new dad who’s dressed like Nic Pizzolatto. Meanwhile, smooth criminal Frank Semyon and his vampy Lady Macbeth are desperately trying to conceive. Just wait until their daughter becomes a webcam performer or an anonymous topless actress on True Detective season 18, and let’s see what he thinks about fatherhood then!

SARAH: We need to talk a little more about this Frank Semyon TTC situation! Because: whoa man, mixed feelings over here. First of all, I think we disagree about the wife, who I admire for being age appropriate and selecting a dress with a fantastic neckline. Second, the parenting discussion bar scene was troubling to me. It was so over the top True Detective; it was the this-season version of all the earnest gazing at Mathew McConaughy’s cheekbones last year. I had a moment of really locking in, feeling that, with Vince Vaughn’s quiet gaze, we were really going to get somewhere! But then, the TTC shit? That was seriously The Pitz: not that Vince Vaughn is desperate to have a baby (fine) but that the script has him so unconvincingly trotting out this huge emotional deal to his hired thug, in a gross bar while a frail lady singer does an angsty folk version of Silencio. Would never happen. Poor Vince Vaughn. I felt badly for him, there was such promise but then it reverted back to unconvincing sad seriousness.

PHIL: I’m a little worried we’re making too much fun of this season. It’s been what seems like forever since last season, and I enjoyed the Rust and Marty show so much, but the backlash backwash has been weird. I was disappointed as often as I was dazzled, I admired the show’s ambition as much as I hated watching it fail to hit its own marks, and I felt as let down by the finale’s coda as I was delighted by its Carcosa set-piece.

But ever since we at Dear TV unloaded on that finale here at LARB, the internet has been a quagmire of shit-talk and defensiveness about a show everybody loved until they decided to hate it. Part of the problem is that Nic Pizzolatto has become a virtuosic Heel. The Matchbox 20 styling, the humorless interviews, the bristliness about criticism — neither Aaron Sorkin nor Matthew Weiner have shows on the air anymore, and The Pitz has enthusiastically taken over the mantel of TV’s premiere phallic narcissist. This isn’t unfair.

SARAH: “Virtuosic Heel.” I’m just going to admire that for a minute.

PHIL: It’s true! But The Pitz’s self-presentation, combined with the fact that season one stuck such a weird landing, has led a lot of critics and fans to act as if we were all glamoured by the sorcery of Matthew McConaughey into being obsessed with a show that we all now rationally know to have been terrible. The real answer is somewhere in the middle. As someone said on Twitter today, “‘I didn’t like True Detective Season 1’ is the new ‘I don’t own a TV.” Perfection is rare, and not every series can be The Americans. In other words, there’s a broad spectrum between a masterpiece and a total fraud, and it’s important that we all fight to preserve a critical setting between Rave and Hate-Watch. (That said, I fully understand and support those critics who’ve decided to publicly “quit” Game of Thrones after yet another raft of instrumentalizing depictions of sexual violence.) But we’ve all had a hard time being ambivalent about True Detective. Even if we were glamoured, there’s something to be said for a show that can glamour us all so effectively, or at least something to be said about the process.

SARAH: Phil, I agree with all of this, and want to say that I had been truly looking forward to this season. True Detective drove me up a wall but it was mesmerizing, especially the first few episodes, and it was also, again through at least those first few episodes, a spectacular story. The broad mystic scope of the central crime gave so much lush cover to Rust and Marty while they worked through their romance, and despite my mockery of the show’s Sad Seriousness, I really like a good male romance! And I love gothic melodrama (please: I’m a 19c Americanist!). I’ll also say that while I usually am completely annoyed by self-indulgent storytelling I was, in fact, hugely envious of the great Seriousness with which The Pitz endowed Rustin Cohle’s emotional life; I would give a lot for someone to consider my feelings that narratively interesting.

So I was really geared up for this season, even assuming that my response would be a mix of fascination and indignation. I was really not prepared to be bored. And, Phil: I was heavy bored.

Phil: Yes — Season One was a great romance, and the cryptic supernatural head-fakes made the show feel so rich and participatory. So is the problem with this season that we’re missing the mysticism? Are we watching Nic Pizzolatto attempt a shot-for-shot remake of Chinatown from memory for his MFA thesis? Are we missing Cary Joji Fukunaga’s steadying, swirling hand? How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop? It’s hard to say at this point. My parents and I agreed that “The Western Book of the Dead” was mostly on a table-setting, getting-to-know-you mission. It was intriguing, but I don’t know that it took us anywhere.

SARAH: And what’s more, I’m not sure where they can go! Part of my ambivalence here is that I just fundamentally prefer gothic to noir; noir is just so depressed. I would rather be terrified. And, more to the point, there is very little suspense about what this story can unfold. Some horrible corrupt politician will be found to be collaborate with some horribly violent banking interest or some shit: is that supposed to be new or interesting? I live in California; I’ve already heard this story. The only possible question is the degree to which these already damaged characters will incur greater damage in the process of discovering which particular horrible politician is involved.

But my boredom is from more than sensibility. The pacing was off; the characters all seemed to be dealing with the same problem (depression) in the same way (drugs and avoidance); it was completely one note. It’s interesting to compare True Detective to something like Terriers, which covered a lot of the same ground (literally and narratively), but encompassed a much wider spectrum of human experiences. Or to compare it to another very gloomy show also about frustrated hopes and grim political violence: Game of Thrones. Say what you will about Game of Thrones, but people in Westeros enjoy getting blow jobs. Nic Pizzolatto! Please let me introduce you to my friend Tyrion!

PHIL: That the final shot is the first in which we see our protagonists together — with the Meryn Trant of SoCal holding Semyon’s proxy — is telling. Where last season’s first episode spent time simultaneously building a relationship and mapping out the trajectory of its dissolution, this episode spent most of its time establishing a set of coordinates. This might just be a logistical issue, but it might well give us a clue as to the particular structure of whatever fresh hell it is The Pitz has dug up for us. One of the biggest surprises — and disappointments, at least according to this slice of the critterati — of season one was its ultimate optimism. Will Ani meet a new, different family member in every scene? How many different stimulants does Velcoro carry on his person? Is Frank Semyon money, and does he even know it? Can these crazy kids come together in the City of Vinci before they fall apart?

But I won’t speculate. If there’s anything the first season did, it was surprise us, for good or ill, so I’m willing to ride with this for a minute. Instead, let’s each list something we liked and something we didn’t like from the episode. I, for one, like this cast!

I was as bummed as anybody that The Pitz apparently had to expand the main cast to four separate leads in order to figure out a way to incorporate a lady person, but, we get the world we deserve, so this is our gender spread. That said, this is some fun casting. I wouldn’t call it stunt casting, but, just as it did last year, the show’s doing something interesting with charm, as a quality. Matthew McConaughey, for instance, came to True Detective to rehabilitate a career that was cursed by his ability to provide a charming, empty foil in romantic comedies. Part of the genius of Rust Cohle as a character-to-be-played-by McConaughey was in the fact that the actor’s charms were not turned off but perversely redirected. What if Matthew McConaughey’s gift of gab were put in the service of freshman philosophy-level nihilism? I keep getting older, but time is a flat circle.

This season is working in a different, but no less canny, key. Colin Farrell, Vince Vaughn, Taylor Kitsch, Rachel McAdams — this is a charming group of individuals. Farrell’s rakish wit, Vaughn’s ingratiating bullshittery, Kitsch’s twinkle-eyed hulking innocence, McAdams’s magnetic intelligence. These are big assets for these actors, and they’re all being tamped down to various degrees here. The uncharitable way of seeing this is that Pizzolatto has assembled a stunning ensemble of gifted actors whose talents are being ignored or subordinated to the show’s aesthetic. The charitable — and, I’m betting, right — way of seeing this is that these qualities are being skillfully managed. Is McAdams playing against type, or is she drawing power from a hidden reservoir of magnetism? Is Vince Vaughn deadpanning, or is he letting us feel the absence of his famous verbosity? What happens if Colin Farrell doesn’t become lovable when he gets drunk?

Kitsch, for his part, is playing this dynamic in the most visible way. His character’s duality, complexity maybe, only exists because we get a moment of what we expect from him in the midst of a performance that largely denies the charm offensive with which Riggins (his Friday Night Lights character) is identified. After doubling down on motorcycle-based intensity for much of the hour, he enters his apartment, and all of a sudden there’s our guy, Riggs! Wily smile, sexual confidence, the human embodiment of a wink — this is who we think Taylor Kitsch is. That what we perceive to be this actor’s actual default setting is immediately revealed to be a performance within the show is a clever bit of work, if not also a clever bit of commentary about celebrity culture (#SaddestBlowJob). This would not work the same way if a more self-serious actor like Sam Worthington, for instance, were in the role. The only reason his intensity works is that we briefly catch a glimpse of the absent presence of its opposite.

What about you? What did you like?

SARAH: I see what you’re saying here, Phil, though I think you are profoundly underestimating the centrality of Dark Torment to Tim Riggins’s appeal. But as one argument in your favor, I must tell you how much I loved this season’s trailer! It features Sad Serious Staring almost entirely, but it did a fantastic job of making these particular people, and the sadness they would experience, a source of riveting attention. I was dazzled to think about all the ways they might stare at each other!

But now that this cast has moved from theory to practice, I’m less optimistic than you about where it’s all going to go. I know I’m supposed to say what I liked here but, truly, I’m having a hard time. I liked looking at Vince Vaughn’s face. I like Rachel McAdam’s haircut. I liked the sense that Ray Velcoro seemed truly like a loose canon, a source of complete instability and narrative mobility. I liked the final shot. I like thinking about what might come next, when Rachel McAdam’s and Taylor Kitsch stare at each other. I like imagining scenarios that might add a bit of camp to the situation, such as if, in addition to showing all of Rachel McAdam’s knife books, we got a shot of Taylor Kitsch’s bookshelf and it was all Hemingway.

PHIL: Right! Which takes us to my dislike: maybe this is just my above praise reframed as a complaint, but, Dear Television, this episode was not funny. Or at least not intentionally so. One of the things I assumed was part of the True Detective anthology aesthetic was a bonkers sense of humor, a comedy of details and mismatches amidst the ruin of humanity. Rust making stick figures out of beer cans, the Big Hug Mug, the Broccoli Monster — the thing that made all the Seriousness bearable for me was a kind of cosmic whimsy about the whole thing. To that end, the first season actually made me think — Broccoli Monster forgive me for giving this to Nic Pizzolatto — of the films of Paul Thomas Anderson. You can only get as dark as he wants to get if you are also willing to get very very goofy. (I’m thinking of the Alfred Molina firecracker scene in Boogie Nights or the milkshake monologue in There Will Be Blood.) There’s a cathartic derring-do to pulling off deep sadness on film that bears a similarity to deep silliness, and a lot of great writers and directors exploit that tonal rhyming. For whatever else it was, the first season of this show was a pretty engaging balance of these two orientations. But either this season is pointedly less invested in the yuks, or the jokes aren’t landing. (Was “Ass-pen” supposed to be a joke that we found funny or a joke we didn’t find funny? Are dildos in a man’s home supposed to be inherently comical? This one time? At band camp?) Part of me thinks that the comic feel of the first season was part and parcel of its setting: Louisiana folk culture made manifest as nutsy eccentricity. So, is this episode’s seriousness a counterbalance to the assumed frivolity of Southern California? Or is there something weirder and harder to spot afoot? I was encouraged by the Forrest Gump-like placement of our corpse at the end, with his sunglasses on, staring at the sea, but I don’t know where this is going. More grim absurdity, please! Let Vince Vaughn go off the rails!

What about you, Sarah? What was your favorite whiff?

SARAH: Look, I’ll just say it: I disliked how the show was clearly crafted in response to the criticisms of last season, specifically around gender, and how its response was basically a kind of narrative poutyness. Watching True Detective trot out its female characters, watching it try to inject them into a narrative world still finally only concerned with virility and paternity, felt a little like watching four-year-olds break their toys when they’ve been told to clean them up. I’m hopeful about Rachel McAdams, but frustrated by her, too (of her first scene, my friend Pete writes “I watched that and was like, Shine On, Nic Pizzolatto, you diamond of self-serious douchery!”). So my take away is that this show still gets a failing grade in the “fun to watch while female” category. Perhaps what I finally dislike about True Detective is that I’m here writing about it, rather than about season two of Top of the Lake.

Gurus and Kings!

Phil and Sarah