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

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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