When an athlete gets cheered for his efforts or his mere appearance, the euphoria can be palpable for those watching, or it can simply reveal itself as infectious warmth inside that man or woman. When an athlete gets booed or jeered, the result is often a flood of energy, even if negative, that can inspire or drive that person to something greater…or to the “I’ll show you” effect. But, when an athlete elicits no reaction whatsoever, it just sucks for everyone involved.
It isn’t just an analogy for athletes. Think of anything one could do, and consider the three reactions others might have to those actions. Positive, negative, or indifferent; those are the trio of possible outcomes. And, in the case of the second season of True Detective, it’s that third option that continues to emerge from the ether.
In my review of the first three episodes that were presented to critics prior to the season premiere, I didn’t bury the show. Instead, I said I wasn’t fully invested in the proceedings and that it was still somewhat early and I trusted in the brain of creator and show runner Nic Pizzolatto. It wasn’t a fun three hours to watch. The acting was fine, nothing significantly standout and nothing embarrassing, but it wasn’t an issue. Aesthetically, it was gorgeously drab and effective. Leonard Cohen was my favorite part of the first three installments, which isn’t a slight, as I’ve loved Cohen for many years. But, the fact remained that True Detective was just sitting there, but nobody was getting out of the chair to invite me into the show’s world this time around.
At the end of last night’s episode, I was simultaneously impressed with the way the final few minutes played out, and completely disinterested in anything that led up to that moment. The shootout sequence – filled with blood and head wounds and innocents being murdered as the detail and reinforcements advanced on a lead in the Caspere case – was shocking and viscerally powerful. In some respects, it reminded me of the insane conclusion to last season’s excellent “Who Goes There,” which featured an ultra-violent, mega-nuts long-shot sequence that was among the best scenes on any television program in 2014. Unfortunately for Season 2, that’s pretty much where the comparison stopped.
The problem is still the same: I just don’t care about these people, although Velcoro is growing on me just a bit. I don’t care about the crime. I don’t care who killed Ben Caspere. I don’t care whether Paul comes out of the closet or not or whether Ani stops engaging herself in poor relationships or whether she ceases the hero complex that drives her decision making or whether Frank succeeds in returning to the life of a mob boss or whether his gorgeous wife ends up pregnant or not. You see, I noticed all these things and have watched them play out, but I lack any true sense of investment in any of it.
Season 1 was all about the people, with two leads in Martin Hart and especially in Rustin Cohle, who were compelling from the first second the show was on the air and whose aura continued to grow, both individually and collectively. It wasn’t a supernatural element that drove it, although that was fun to toy around with mentally. What drove the show then was an eerie sensation that accompanied the heinous and horrifying criminal acts, a terrifying criminal, and two detectives who were damaged but dynamic. Oh, and Miss Daddario, who makes literally everything better in this world. Thus far in season two, while the cops and robbers are more defined, they’re less interesting. It isn’t for lack of trying, because every one of them has a backstory or a screwed up family or god knows what else, but it feels less than genuine.
It’s been argued that comparing this year to last isn’t fair to this year. I disagree. True Detective, the franchise, quickly rose to the top of water cooler chats and held the attention of the drama-watching world from beginning to end. When I see what a show can do at its best, right out of the gate, there’s an expectation there. I’m grading it against itself. It would be difficult to duplicate the first season, which was unique and special and felt one of a kind even as we watched it each week. Nic is working an anthology series and, unlike for example, Homeland, which would have been much better off trying something similar and just keeping Mandy Patinkin around, it’s good that the two seasons are different.
To the specifics of “Down Will Come,” we saw Frank Semyon attempting to cure his version of the yips. He’s back attempting to negotiate lucrative drug deals, reopening and taking control of clubs and properties, and throwing his weight around a bit. Incidentally, for some reason, Vaughn felt off in this episode. I noticed almost every sentence he spoke was with a cadence and his mouth partially open as he finished, before moving to the next line. It was like watching a tall, evil metronome. We see Velcoro beginning to shift from the asshole of week one to a self-aware jerk trying to make better choices, at least in some of his affairs. He turns down Frank’s idea of leaving the force and joining his empire. He sneaks to his ex-wife’s house to see his son, giving him his father’s badge and in effect, saying goodbye and also letting the audience know he wouldn’t be the overbearing vindictive ex-husband in a custody dispute, even if he had no alternative. Ray’s evolution is the one piece of the puzzle that did work well last night and it was an encouraging sign.
Ani’s in hot water because she’s beating the grass to startle the snakes in Vinci and because she hasn’t broken up well with previous flings. She’s also dipped into company ink, or maybe she’s allowed a pen to…you get the idea. The visit to the commune to see her father led to the Chessani reveal, which was intriguing in that the feds might be just as dirty as local officials in Vinci, which Ray makes clear to Ani shortly thereafter. Her story continues to be almost entirely uninteresting. Rachel McAdams, meanwhile, continues to be quite good.
Then there’s Paul, who wakes up in a man’s apartment, and doesn’t remember much, but finds out sex was a part of the evening. He then runs into a media circus, then runs away from it, as they’re asking questions about a military operation in Iraq. This cat has all kinds of issues. Finally, he finds out his girlfriend is pregnant and jumps head long into it, more than likely to try and, pardon the phrasing here, swim away from the gay. Through all of it, he discovers the pawnshop lead that first connects a prostitute and later, the pimp that serves as the direct catalyst and main warrior in the gunfight.
The sieged building turns out to be a meth lab and an anti-rail project demonstration rages nearby (sorry Frank), just to make sure we’re going to get plenty of unnecessary carnage and also to show the true villain against the skullduggery of the “good guys.” Vinci PD leaned heavily on the “close this damn thing fast” pressure and the raid was perhaps not fully thought out. Ani and Ray did what they could, but they had no clue what kind of Lisbeth Salander hornet’s nest that awaited them. The pimp crashes into a bus in his SUV, opens fire along with his cohorts, killing bystanders, protesters, and several police, including Woodrugh’s partner from the detail, who helped with the pawnshop lead. After Paul takes the final thug out, the three detectives mentally and physically break down as backup and other rescue personnel arrives.
So here’s the deal. It was action packed in the closing minutes to say the least, but much of the lead-up was dull, if we’re being generous. We got a bushel of heavy-handed dialogue without much behind it, although the story was logical, systematic, and sensible in its own way.
The key to the entire episode, or at least the takeaway, was the conversation between Ray and Paul as Velcoro picked the disheveled, hung-over Woodrugh up and got him away from the media. Paul remarks that he doesn’t know how to “be in this world.” Ray quickly tells him, “Look out that window. Look at me. No one does.” Woodrugh is screwed up. Velcoro is screwed up. Bezzerides’ personal life and family situation is kind of a mess. Frank went from attempting to clean his life up to telling Ray “sometimes our worst self is our best self,” a reaction to repeated recent failures. Everybody is corrupted in some fashion. Not one soul on this show is happy or well adjusted, including the lounge singer who haunts with every strum or every syllable. Maybe she’s a bundle of joy, but the version we see is the one we remember.
We’re halfway through the season. There were a few glimpses last night of something to hold onto and build upon, but unquestionably, that feeling from 2014 that had us checking our watches (or smartphones, let’s be honest), counting down to next week’s episode — that’s gone. I didn’t watch the show live. I had no impetus to do so. I watch. It ends. Other than the sheer violence of the final minutes, I didn’t watch with the intensity or passion of someone affected by the show’s characters.
I didn’t cheer. I didn’t boo. I just watched. When it was over, I started Last Week Tonight and moved on with my evening, virtually unblemished and certainly unaltered from what I’d just witnessed.
It’s not bad. It’s just not, well, you know. It’s not THAT True Detective. THAT’S the show I need right now.
I’m @GuyNamedJason. Sure wish you’d follow me, because my self-worth is increasingly determined by my Twitter statistics. Indeed, we get the world we deserve.