When you achieve success with your first novel, movie or other artistic endeavor, it is often difficult to replicate that same level of quality in the next thing that you do. Part of that has to do with raised expectations; the first time you do something, it comes as something of a surprise when it does well. Afterward, people suddenly expect more of you and their standards are higher. If you could do X, then surely you should be able to keep that up in perpetuity. There’s also the issue of time – many artists struggle for years to get their first project released and if it is successful, there is a push to quickly release a follow-up to satisfy an audience that is now hungry for your work and to cash in on the success of your initial offering. With the potential for the increased distractions that fame brings and the shorter timeline, in addition to the unrealistic expectation that you will replicate your initial triumph, the likelihood for disappointment is pretty high. This happens so often that they even have a term for it – the sophomore slump. It doesn’t happen to everyone, but it happens to enough people that it is sort of expected. The good artists bounce back from the slump and eventually go on to produce more quality work; others never recover and become what we like to call one hit wonders.
To say that the second season of True Detective suffered a sophomore slump would be putting it mildly.
Now, I fully anticipated that it was going to be difficult for Nic Pizzolatto to match the success of the first season of his HBO series. For one thing, he was extremely lucky to cast Matthew McConaughey at the height of the “McConaissance” when the actor was arguably doing the best work of his career. It didn’t hurt that there seemed to be a perfect pairing of character and an actor’s persona; McConaughey’s Russ spouted the sort of mystical musings that you might have also expected the actor to say while playing the bongos naked in real life. Pizzolotto also had the advantage of working with the same director for the run of the entire series – the very talented Cary Fukunaga. That ensured that at least visually speaking, there would be some real continuity for the entire run of the first season and there would be a consistency in vision that a lot of other shows are not as blessed to have. The second season didn’t have that luxury. And, of course, there was the aforementioned expectations; the first season of True Detective kind of came out of nowhere and became something of an obsession. There were theories and fan speculation and message boards galore devoted to trying to decipher what was going to happen and who the Yellow King was. Even I, who generally does not have the time or interest in this sort of deep-dive conspiracy theories, got caught up in the speculation. I had my own pet theories (involving Marty’s father-in-law) and though none of them came to fruition, some of the fun was the wild speculation that the internet engaged in. Once you have an audience that has conditioned themselves to overanalyze everything, they become a more difficult collective to satisfy. So I went into the second season of True Detective accepting that it probably wasn’t going to live up to the hype.
I did not expect it to just be flat out terrible. I watched last night’s season two finale not with the giddy anticipation with which I viewed the previous season’s culmination, but with the burden of obligation that I might as well see this story through since I’d already invested two months of Sunday nights. Even with the bar that low, I was still disappointed. What had been a half-cooked and underdeveloped season culminated in a finale that made little sense; no matter how closely or inattentively that you watched the second season, you had the exact same reaction – “WTF is happening?” The overarching mystery of this season was who killed Caspere and while that was ultimately resolved – it was that guy that we saw that one time – it turned out to have pretty much nothing to do with anything else that had been going on. It was just a happy coincidence that led the characters to discover all these other conspiracies and backstabbing that was going on around them. So ultimately, it didn’t really mean anything. I’m glad we spent so much time on that.
The second season of True Detective had problems – many, many problems – but I think chief among them was that so much of the plot hinged on secondary characters that the viewer spent little to no time with. Pizzolotto’s story was overly complicated and convoluted, but was made even more difficult to navigate because so little time was spent on who all the minor characters were that apparently were pretty important. I am not a dumb person and I watched every episode fairly attentively, but if you offered me a million dollars right now to tell you who Stan was on this show, or even pick him out of a lineup, I’d be lost. I have no idea who the hell Stan is, yet his death was supposed to be a big deal. That’s a problem. I don’t mind complicated stuff – I am a big Game of Thrones fan after all – but there has to be some logic or some effort in establishing the characters. The fact that I spent a lot of time going back to re-watch parts of episodes because I assumed I missed something, only to discover that I hadn’t is a problem. You could have told me that the full script has been blown away in a hurricane and that they filmed only the pages that they recovered and I would believe you. Everything this season felt thrown haphazardly thrown together. I don’t know if Pizzolotto’s writing has gotten worse or if the performances of Harrelson and McConaughey and the direction of Fukunaga masked it, but it was just a mess.
It didn’t help that poor Vince Vaughn was terribly miscast; I’m always rooting for Vaughn, as I think he is capable of more than he is usually asked to do, but he just wasn’t the guy to play Frank. It didn’t help that he was asked to sell some particularly shitty dialogue – I don’t know if anyone could have delivered “it’s like blue balls….in your heart” and had it not sound terrible – but they were also asking him to play against all of his natural strengths. Vaughn’s wheelhouse is quick banter, so asking him to be a quiet and still man is just not what he is built to do. Colin Farrell and Rachel McAdams were able to overcome the terrible writing to a degree, but Vaughn was unable to rise above and shine (I’m leaving Taylor Kitsch out of this completely out of respect to Friday Night Lights). It didn’t help that the actress that was Vaughn’s frequent scene partner (Kelly Reilly) gave a performance that made me question whether she was heavily medicated. Vaughn wasn’t the right guy for the job and that should have been apparent to Pizzoloto; it was obvious to the audience after the second episode.
The second season of True Detective had an occasional moment where there were flashes of what they achieved in the first season, but it was mostly an unmitigated disaster. I’m not really sure where they go from here; the advantage of the anthology nature of the series is that they start from scratch next season (assuming there is one). I might recommend that they clean house completely – not only bring in new actors and a new story, but a new writer. When it comes to Pizzoloto, the emperor may have no clothes and it would be wise for HBO to find a new writer with a different vision for the show – one that might involve a coherent plot and decent writing. Somethings got to give – HBO might be putting on a brave face about this season, but I’m sure that they are more than aware that critics and viewers alike were not loving what they were seeing. I tweeted this out shortly after the finale and it got more attention than my normal tweets (which isn’t saying a lot):
If you haven’t seen True Detective, I’d still recommend checking out the first season. Just pretend that the second season never happened and carry on with your lives. There’s still hope for future seasons – that’s one of the benefits of rebooting every year – especially since the monkey of high expectations is off their back. But the sophomore slump has definitely claimed yet another victim; the mystery for season 3 (if there is one) will be whether the show can recover.