‘True Detective’s’ ‘Huge Aura’ Creates Big Target for Its Critics

True Detective's Big Aura Creates Big
Lacey Terrell

Early reviews of “True Detective” season two were mixed, and many were positive. One suspects that a lot of critics (including this one) were reluctant to completely bury the series based on the three episodes that HBO made available.

Yet once the show was exposed to sunlight, the blowback has grown more intense — or at least, the real-time dissection and grousing on Twitter and in recaps more pointed. At this point, it’s possible to seriously dislike what series creator Nic Pizzolatto hath wrought, and still feel a tad sorry for it.

“Hate watch” is a rather ugly term, but it’s a fair appraisal of the feelings harbored by many who brought high hopes to the project. In the past, such a program would have been assessed and then dismissed, with critics moving on. Today, in an age where traffic considerations drive coverage, a show with such a high profile isn’t ignored but rather continues to be analyzed, until it risks feeling less like criticism than batting practice.

Anecdotal evidence is always dicey. But after a few weeks, a friend and a relative each asked, in near-identical terms, “Do I have to keep watching this just because I liked the first one?”

The answer, obviously, is that they don’t, but a lot of people — including critics and many who work in the industry — do feel such an obligation. And if you think about it, that’s an odd approach to bring to the TV-watching experience — the sense that you’re compelled to watch something that, frankly, you would have bailed out on in another, less-claustrophobic line of work.

Translated into social media, a good deal of “True Detective” viewing has thus gradually morphed into something that appears to be more collectively endured than privately enjoyed, deriving more entertainment value from the conversation it inspires than the program itself.


Part of that has to do with expectations, raised not just by the critically heralded first “True Detective” but the subsequent search for movie stars to populate the second. There was also the intrigue of behind-the-scenes drama involving the relationship between director Cary Fukunaga, who has since moved on; and writer Pizzolatto, whose prickliness in response to criticism has added zest to the coverage.

As some noted even before the premiere, comparisons to the first were inevitable, but probably unfair. Slate’s Willa Paskin questioned how “any sane person could reasonably imagine that season two would be able to recreate the most magical and essential aspect of season one on command: the alchemical pairing of an actor like Matthew McConaughey at the height of his drawling movie star powers with a character as substantial and singular as Rust Cohle.”

HBO has always reveled in its old “It’s not TV” slogan, but landing McConaughey at just the right moment and teaming him with Woody Harrelson yielded a rhapsodic response that made anticipation for the encore lofty. While having the world eagerly await your star-studded series is, generally speaking, a high-class problem, in critical terms the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

Ratings for the show’s Sunday-night airings have dropped but certainly haven’t cratered — from 3.2 million viewers for the June 21 premiere, per Nielsen data, down to roughly 2.3 million for the most recent telecast. With only two more episodes to go, those who have come this far doubtless would like to see how it ends. And with HBO’s portion of the TV Critics Assn. tour scheduled for later this week, network brass will likely have to express support for Pizzolatto’s creative vision (it’s the political thing to do) to a room tilted toward skepticism.

The series nevertheless remains subject to disproportionate scrutiny. Indeed, if a line from “True Detective’s” fourth episode sounded especially risible — “You have one of the largest auras I’ve ever seen” — it pretty accurately describes the program’s outsized media glow.

Based strictly on merit the latest “True Detective” would hardly warrant such abundant attention. As summer series go, it’s much less interesting than other new dramas lacking its premium pedigree, among them USA’s “Mr. Robot” and Lifetime’s “UnReal.”

Everyone has probably had the experience of meeting a pair of siblings where one is absolutely beautiful and the other looks similar but isn’t nearly as attractive. Chalk it up to a mystery of DNA. Viewed that way, “True Detective’s” second season is the homelier brother of the show’s first run — a case where the chemistry just didn’t work out.

College courses will no doubt be devoted in the not-too-distant future to contemplating why. But until then, we have only a couple of weeks until the big finish, and plenty of snarky tweets to keep us company. Because while a cable package with HBO can be kind of pricey, griping is free.

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  1. gonzo says:

    It’s bad because Piss-o-latto is a talentless hack. Season one was good, because they plagiarised Thomas Ligotti. Ligotti was the key. His writing is awesome.

  2. Pedro says:

    I have no idea what show the critics have been watching. In many ways I like the second season even better than the first. The first also had some big problems. It finished with a dumb shootout (after a season of philosophic contemplations), and featured yet another serial killer mystery. I was really affected by season 2’s finale. Collin Farrel, Vince Vaughan, Rachel McAdams: they started out blank, but by the final episode, I loved them. Semyon’s and Velcoro’s deaths had be nearly in tears. So much better than the eternal rubbish we have on TV. Who wants another inane romcom?

    Season 2 was very very good quality.

  3. L-Train says:

    I have decided to stop ‘hate reading’ critics who cite social media in their analysis. I don’t care what @hashtagtroller thinks about True Detective 2, and I have less time for lazy journalists who do.

  4. Carol says:

    True det 2 is Great love all the Characters wish the Audience would just sit back and enjoy a well written and Directed series . Each character is complex and interesting .love the LA location just like the First Location:)

  5. Mary says:

    Kind of tired of all the Season 2 bashing. I think it’s fantastic! Biggest difference between seasons? He doubled the cast. Viewers have to get to know and care about twice as many characters in only eight episodes. Best scenes of the season so far? IMO, both occurred in episode 6. Frank consoling Stan’s son and Ray talking to his ex about custody. She called him Sweetheart. So tragic. Anyway, loved season 1 and loving season 2.

  6. Frankie says:

    How can this many talented people come together to suck so bad?….. Vince Vaughn use to be so money and now he is just so sad!

  7. Rob says:

    I don’t see much discussion about this being a modern, committed update to stylized noir. I find it rich and bold in that respect with best performances by the three protagonists. Not pretty, but a new classic noir.

    • Adam Hannah says:

      There’s nothing new about this noir. It’s a beat-for-beat James Ellroy rip-off. LA underbelly, shady politicians, hookers cut to look like movie stars, three cops from different walks of life overcoming their baggage and joining together to solve a murder mystery with seemingly disparate strands coalescing… sound familiar? Who wants to bet one of them dies just after making a crucial discovery, but leaves a clue the other two follow to solve the case? Final, bloody showdown. Politcal shenanigans ensue and the involvement of key players is hushed up. We won, but did we really?

  8. briegirl says:

    I love True Detective. I loved the first season and love this season as well. The show is not for the faint of heart and I think it accurately depicts a true investigation. The episode with the shootout was phenomenal. It showed how quickly you can go from serving a search warrant to watching people get their heads blown off. Colin Farrell is phenomenal as Ray. Everyone knows that person who is really genuinely good but somehow always ends up on the bad side of the road and after a while just gives up. Stop comparing it to Season 1. No the same era, not the same detectives, not the same type of crimes.

  9. cjvirnig says:

    I suspect that the second season of True Detective will be far more enjoyable after a second viewing. Once the viewer is no longer required to allocate a majority of their cognition to keeping up with the plot, they can then begin to revel in the layers and the details. This is exactly why Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar ended with mixed reviews last year, despite the fact that after a second viewing, it is very arguably the best film of the year. To that end, is it a demerit if a film or TV series requires a second viewing in order to elicit its full power and effect?

  10. SD says:

    If there’s one bright spot it’s Rachel McAdams. She’s compelling and focused more on her, the female tragi/anti/hero would have made this much better.

    • TTH says:

      Agree that she is the only character worth watching, the only performance carrying the show. However they could also write her a little bit better. The female characters continue with cliche’s…didn’t they hire any female writers?

  11. Thank You Detective says:

    Who the hell cares about comparing the two seasons? TD Season 2, on its own, sucks big time. Regardless of anything former. I don’t need to compare to know that it sucks. It just sucks. The end.

  12. Samm says:

    The reason for the ridiculous and completely absurd over reaction from critics and social media is because it has been in the cards since season one ended and a heap of criticism started crawling from under every rock on the internet. “Misogyny”, “Plagiarism”, Casting, this, that, this, that. It is not wrong at all to say that this season has not been looked at by hardly any critic or any of social media with any real analysis or honesty like any other show on earth would usually get, It just is not so. Way before this season ever aired, There were people and critics just waiting to hate it, Already dying to hate it before they knew anything about it, That is all this is. If this was some random show made by some random guy and it just premiered, I would bet my life that it would be getting acclaimed for the most part for how unique it is, etc….I decided long ago that I would not take anything said by anyone about True Detective seriously again, Because it is too hard to say if they are speaking honestly about the show itself and what it is and nothing else, Or if it is just more bandwagon jumping backlash, or criticism influenced by things that should not influence an opinion of the show itself. I feel like most critics now are not even beginning to give this a real chance anymore, If they did they would see it is plenty good season and they would see the things that are really great about it, Instead it seems they wait anxiously week to week to rip the thing to shreds the minute it hits the screen, Hating every aspect of it before they even see a second of it.

    • William Goldman Jr. says:

      @Samm “Hating every aspect of it before they even see a second of it.”

      But we now HAVE seen it…and it sucks. If it was great and people were still hating on it, then your point would be valid. But it’s not great. It’s terrible. In comparison to Season One and in comparison to any other cop show. Lazy, rushed, terrible crap.

      There are seriously scenes in this show that would not pass muster on Law & Order: SVU. Not that SVU is a bad show; I watch it and it’s great for what it is, but we know that it’s not realistic or high art. Here, they are aiming for an intelligent, neo-noir, “literary” approach and it has utterly failed.

      There are so many Screenwriting 101 mistakes made every single episode. Show don’t Tell…each scene should advance the story…avoid repetition…basic sympathy for your main characters…coincidence…the list goes on. Maybe Pizzolatto should take a UCLA Extension course in screenwriting.

  13. Larry says:

    I love season 2 and it is just another case of critics unfairly judging something, I believe in time it will be looked at fully and honestly, Like many things that initially got mixed reception has, and it will be seen as a perfectly fine season of TV, Which it is. It is actually pretty damn great often times, This recent party scene being a shining example. That scene is up there with ANYTHING from the first, and I do not say that lightly. This season has gotten a WAY overly exaggerated reaction from everyone and their mother, Mostly because of a backlash that has grown since even season one was airing, and the creator of the show being some kind of easy target. This season is well above average and very entertaining, One day when all of the stupid over the top hype, backlash, social media crap, and gossip dies down, It will be seen as such, No doubt in my mind. It is a fine hard boiled, heavy as hell Noir story that is half Michael Mann and Half David Lynch, and it is pretty unique and very well directed and acted. Shame it has gotten the treatment it has overall, Since it seriously does not deserve it. Even though it does seem like a lot of viewers are already coming around, With each episode it seems like more and more people start to warm to it. I know Reddit anyways, Is full of theories galore, and a lot of people seem to be appreciating what this season is doing, I know I am, Regardless of what anyone else thinks, I commend this show and it’s creator for making exactly the show they wanted to make, Not the show that anyone else wanted them to make. Can’t wait for season 3.

  14. Joyce Hobson says:

    I liked season 2 have 2 more episodes to go ….okay I said “like” not “love” I was obsessed with Season 1 soooo much I bough the DVD set !! Colin Farrell is superb in this performance So is Rachel MacAdams

  15. Jeremy Grey says:

    I think Vince Vaughn does well in a drama.. Shows he had more versatility as an actor than most people thought. So the criticisms of him I don’t understand… What were people expecting jokes?? The real star of Season 2 is Ritchie Coster… I loved him in Luck. He always hits it out of the park with every scene he is in. His meltdown at the Vinci PD office because McAdams went to his house and interrogated his family without his permission was a classic…The only issue I have with shows like this is we are so in the dark with loose ends after every episode you have to wait for the last episode to understand what is what…

  16. Ivan says:

    Too much coverage in the criticizing, how about those of us who like it?

  17. Michael says:

    Hate watch only gives something rating, and makes people who hates it, support.

    Most of the hate is just bias. They’re biased because they expected something just like season 1, they’re biased against Vince Vaughn returning to his roots as a dramatic actor, when McConaughey was mostly known for romantic comedies, and they’re kissing his ass when season 1 came out.

    The second season brings a different universe, with different characters, and another atmosphere. If anything, there’s more character and plot development than in season 1 (which it got helped by the tracking shot from episode 4, and McConaughey and Harrelson’s performances). California looks different from the one we see on hundreds of films and shows. And the self-references proof that Pizzolato can make fun of himself.

  18. Steve Denney says:

    I like season 2.

  19. John Hardin says:

    Seems like its a critic’s punching bag. I love it and my friends are watching. I have not heard anything negative about the show except when I go to read what a critic thinks.
    I like that there is not one light scene in the series. No laughs no levity.

  20. chickagirl says:

    yes true detective isgoing t lot a different directions but i am hooked. i love the deep gritty.tortured characters.i cant wait to see how it ends

  21. if6ws929 says:

    Perhaps it wouldn’t be getting so much hate if they’d have named the show something other that True Detective! Every negative review compares season one to season two. I’m taking it in as something unrelated to TD1 and on its own I think its a damn good show.

  22. Michael H says:

    I read a review of season 2 before I started watching it . I was going to watch it anyway. I agreed that the first 3 episode’s were kind of slow an hard to get into. I stuck with it and have just watched episode 6 which I thought was excellent. I has gotten better with each episode. I am looking forward to watching the last 2 episodes. The acting by Farrell and McAdams is excellent. McAdams steals the show. I Am glad to see that most if not all of the comments are positive.
    I also thought that the first few episodes of Season one were strange. I continued to watch season one because of McConaughey and Harrelson and the interaction between them.
    I though that it would be difficult to follow Season I, but I think it works. There are far worse shows on TV and I cannot understand all the negativity.

  23. dji says:

    i really like true detective last year. this year it sucks. i only watch it because i pay for HBO. this show is uninteresting and draggy. no monentum at all. and really the actors are dull. just my 2 cents.

  24. Sally says:

    Like Leila, I like season 2. I liked season 1 but for different reasons. I find the story line in season 2 a little convoluted (for my taste), but the actors are wonderful. I do not find Vince Vaughan’s character “flat,” and Farrell is amazing. Let us all live and let live – we can agree to disagree.

  25. Christopher says:

    Mr. Robot is pretty awful. It’s easily as laughable if not less entertaining than this season of True Detective. Not to mention really corny!

  26. Willy Shakespeare says:

    Rumor is that the second season of “Fargo” this Fall is not going to suffer the the abysmal sophomore slump that “True Detective” is going through now. It supposedly is an equal to the original in terms of tone and content.

    “True Detective” (HBO) thought it could compensate for a weak script with the halo effect of the first season and “buy” viewers with (so-called) movie talent as Farrell, Vaughn, McAdams, etc.

    It always starts with the writing.

  27. Slothman says:

    Given how Season 2 is panning out, I think there’s a distinct point in the middle of both seasons that changes the tone of the show. I wasn’t enjoying the second season that much, but after the shoot out the stakes changes and it becomes much darker. The latest episode in which Rachael McAdams goes undercover is probably the best episode of the show so far.

    However, Vince Vaughn is awful. He kills every scene and is frustratingly flat. Poor, poor casting choice.

  28. Alley says:

    I patiently watched the first 3 episodes out of devotion to Season One (and maybe hoping Rust & Marty might make a surprise cameo? Damn, I miss those guys. I hope they’re alright.) The first 3 episodes were boring. But things picked up at the end of 4 and the latest episode was very good.

    So, I’ll stick it out to the bitter end, hoping it continues to improve. It ain’t that bad. True Detective One it isn’t, but then most things aren’t.

  29. DLL5 says:

    I love Season 2. I was reading this article waiting to find a reason why “the actual show” is bad but all you did was point to some twitter wisecracks and talk about how bringing in movie stars and a “prickly writer” were bad signs and then “…much less interesting than other new dramas lacking its premium pedigree” (cough! pretentious! cough!). What is wrong with it? Can you write an article that explains that? Or can any of these twitter critics? Instead of pulling an “aura” remark way out of context? The dialogue flows beautifully, the story line is unique, the characters are worth caring about, it’s wonderfully acted, shot and full of great surprises. The dream scene where Colin Farrell is with his dad and the scene at the end of season 6 are unbelievably haunting and expertly crafted pieces of film. I seriously don’t get the hate, unless it’s by people who need their dialogue spoon fed to them like on Breaking Bad, me need to think, me switch off.

  30. I’m curious why Bryan Lowry doesn’t like the second season of True Detective, other than thinking it has an outsized (oversized?) aura, doesn’t have McConaughey, and isn’t the attractive twin.
    I’d love to hear examples in story, plot, auteur, mise en scene, character development, acting, etc…

    I did not like the first season as much as season two because of the dark, slow paced style of the setting, pacing, and details of the scenes, like the images we were exposed to of bizarre mutilations which the camera held on too long for me to not look away, and the slow, drawn out dialogue of McConaughey in his multiple monologues.

    I also found the interaction and chemistry between McConaughey and Harrelson claustrophobic, forced, and contrived. I know that’s not a popular opinion, but it how I felt in every scene between them, and each episode made me feel like I was seeing a copy of the episode before it with new details coming to light, or new ideas about details… since we were hearing the story from a point of view in a retelling of a crime that happened in the distant past. I feel like the characters in True Detective season 1 were more depressing and annoying than in season 2.

    Perhaps it’s because I relate to the difficult head spaces that each of the characters in season 2 are in; the PTSD cop who doesn’t know how to deal with his sexuality, a traumatized woman who can’t grapple with her past and wants revenge of some sort, but probably isn’t even aware of that. The burnt out alcoholic cop who lost his way, and kind of knows it, and isn’t sure what to do about it. direction and scenes let us see inside the characters and see the choices they make and how they deal with what they experience, think, and feel. Was Rachel McAdams character molested as a child, and by her very believable, realistic characterization of a new agey Californian deeply seeped in their neo hippy commune culture mindset? Can Colin Farrell’s character dig himself out of the hole he’s gotten into by doing something, anything good and thereby, redeeming? Will Taylor Kitsch’s’ troubled war vet get into a sham marriage or come out, or will he end up self-destructing and taking people down with him? The tension in the character makes me feel like it’s the latter. Can Vaughn’s angsty real estate crook con, manipulate, and strong arm all the players in his story to get out on top without too much blood on his hands and guilt in his heart? Will his wife leave him or stay the course?

    I didn’t wonder these things about the season 1 characters, nor did I care. And this was the fault of the writing and direction, not the acting. I simply didn’t like the story or the directing style of season 1. And that’s a matter of taste. I’m not saying that true detective season 1 is bad art or bad tv, along the lines of something like a soap opera or “reality tv” or weirdly popular dramas like Revenge and Madame Secretary. It’s just that season 1 of True Detective is not the style of storytelling that I like.

    The chemistry between the actors and the characters in season 2 is rich and satisfying to me; the earnest – are they breaking up or does this make them closer- tete a tetes between a rare Vince Vaugh in and underappreciated Kelley Riley, or the complicated. I’m not sure anyone can look at Vaughn’s performance in season 2 and honestly say this is not one of the best acting roles he’s had. He exudes a complicated, troubled man who wants to be good and grapples with his childhood abuse/neglect and sense of injustice smacked head on with the discomfort of what he has to do to survive in the world he’s gotten himself into. Watching the existential crisis on his face, in his posture and his voice makes me forget he’s the character actor from a dozen comedies in which he’s the same guy.

    I’ve appreciated a lot of the cinematographic and directing choices in season two, like
    True Detective season two has a poignant subject and a tapestry of deep, complicated characters, more akin to a Tolstoy story than the cloistered suffocation of a 2 character stage play that Season 1 was for me. The music in season 1 really bothered me and I constantly had to mute or turn it down. I was often looking away from the screen to avoid the Hannibalesque displays of gory collage art, and would fast forward through boring monologues, which are nothing like the interesting monolouges that smacked true of what many of us think about and have going on in our psyche’s like Vince Vaughn’s character, but boring masturbatory shams of pretentious narration that Mcconnaghay’s character spewed week after week.

    The way shots are framed, the editing, the pacing of season 2 are much more aesthetic and pleasing to me, like the way the three main cops meet at the crime scene of the main murder victim in this story, Caspar, and the long, single take shoot out scene in episode 4. Beautifully choreographed and shot.

    I also enjoy the dialogue and non-verbal communication between the many characters of season two, banter, glances, tilts of heads, squints of eyes, stares, shrugs, and the overall body language. In season 1 it felt like Harrelson and McConaughey were stiff, standing or sitting in front of the camera, delivering lines in close, still shots. Season 2 has a dynamic, fluid camera, shifting frames and moving, observing the characters from many angles and depths of field. The interaction between the characters feels natural and unforced, the way real people would communicate and behave instead of the pretentious stiltedness of season one’s hyper self-aware characters.

    I guess it comes down to taste – what we like in a shot, how a scene is orchestrated, dialogue and line delivery, acting styles, writing (the action, the story, the dialogue, the plot points, the arcs), lighting, music, pacing, tone, overall direction, the auteur of an episode or the series in general, the final product that is the compilation of all these things…
    I know I’m in the minority when I say I like season 2 immensely and season 1 just wasn’t my style.

    • Will says:

      You can write all you want, but there are so many examples of things you’re ignoring in season 2 that completely contradict your points. And Vince Vaughn is so bad it hurts. He adds nothing to the bad writing

    • Paul D Ryan says:

      Add me to your minority; I also prefer Season 2 but then again I also love Ray Donovan for it’s similar capacity to focus on the inner turmoils of its caste.

    • AL says:

      The reply I sent to Wade was meant to you.

      “Perfect description!”

      • Ruth says:

        Thanks for the amazing comment. I’m relieved that there are viewers who admire the second series and simply don’t understand the hate campaign. Kudos to Colin Farrell for a truly amazing performance and also to Vince Vaughn, not one of my favourite actors, who is mesmerizing in the role.

  31. Wade says:

    Is it illegal to sincerely enjoy the new season of True Detective? I think it’s quite a bit of fun, but so many critics are just trashing it.

    Those are opinions for you, I guess.

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