For those still wondering what the second season of “True Detective” was about, the snarky answer would be, “It was about 8 ½ hours.” Despite rallying marginally at the end, the encore to the acclaimed limited series that paired Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson proved a major disappointment – not just compared to the original, but on its own turgid terms. It’s hard to say if the concept is mortally wounded – the beauty of self-contained series, beyond opening casting doors, is the opportunity to start from scratch – but ultimately, this was to film noir what bad imitation Hemingway is to Hemingway.
If the first “True Detective” had a fresh, bracing quality – putting old wine in a new bottle – this one felt stuffy, self-conscious and angst-ridden almost from the get-go. Frankly, even those inclined to give the show some latitude should have sensed there was trouble when all those overhead shots displayed a Southern California freeway system that appeared to be actually moving.
During its portion of the TV Critics Assn. tour, HBO expressed unqualified support for series creator Nic Pizzolatto and the show, insisting the final episodes would buck up those midterm grades. It was not only the polite thing to do but a wise move in terms of talent relations, although for a network that actually takes critical accolades and awards seriously as part of its branding efforts, the barbs hurled at the show have to at least smart a bit.
The death of Taylor Kitsch’s character in the penultimate episode potentially gave the finale a revenge hook, and ratcheted up the stakes for what was to come. Yet the 90-minute finish (and SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched) spent so long building up toward a fight that what ensued not only felt anticlimactic but telegraphed well in advance when Vince Vaughn’s Frank urged Ani (Rachel McAdams) to meet up with his wife in Venezuela if he wasn’t able to keep the date.
Even being charitable toward the absurdly convoluted plot – accepting at face value that our heroes and antihero were navigating a sea of corruption and vice – the payoff felt like a series of scenes featuring characters we either had barely met or hardly remembered. The raid on the bad guys’ lair by Ray (Colin Farrell) and Frank turned out to be a snooze: they just walked in and shot everybody. Frank then gets taken down by drug dealers who were a small part of the story. Ray faces off in a one-against-many shootout – after foolishly detouring to see his son – that frankly felt like a repeat of what happened in the previous episode.
In tandem, how those two deaths played out did serve one purpose, showing off the varied topography of California. But that was about it. The only moment that resonated, really, was the fact that Ray’s final message to his son wound up getting lost thanks to bad cell reception – one last indignity, in a life that had been filled with them.
Even allowing for the high and perhaps unfair expectations, this represented a misfire on almost every level. The only beneficiary might be “Fargo,” since the bar for second flights of dense cable crime shows has been dramatically lowered.
On the plus side, HBO looks ready to reload in the months ahead, with the promising-looking dramas “Vinyl” and “Westworld” in the offing. For now, though, it will take a while to banish the aftertaste from “True Detective,” which brought a big-name cast to the party, true, but couldn’t overcome writing and execution that was, throughout, fatally flawed.