I don’t think anyone was ready for the whirlwind success of True Detective’s first season. Nic Pizzolatto seemed to come out of nowhere to craft a narrative no one could stop talking about. Gorgeously shot by another relative unknown (to me, anyway), Cary Fukunaga, and anchored by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in some of their best-ever roles, True Detective’s rookie season took the world by storm and had everyone talking about The Yellow King and the man in the gas mask.
But its success proved to be a double-edged sword. It left Pizzolatto (now without Fukunaga following some bad blood) with the loftiest of lofty expectations. We were all left wondering, “Who will this season’s true detectives be?!” When the casting announcements began rolling out, I loved the choices of Colin Farrell and Rachel McAdams, and I was optimistic about Vince Vaughn and Taylor Kitsch. The internet was less-than-pleased with most (if not all?) of these casting choices, especially Vaughn. “I just won’t be able to take him seriously him in a drama!” the dumb internet cried out. “He just makes me laugh!”
Between these inconceivably high expectations, unconventional (?) casting choices, and bonkers amount of pre-judging, it was clear True Detective’s sophomore season would have a lot to live up to.
So what happened? Pizzolatto hit us over the head with one of the most complicated and twisting noir stories in recent years. It landed like a ton of bricks on most of the show’s fanbase, mine included. Poor sound mixing/mumbly line deliveries didn’t do the convoluted narrative any favors, and I only began to have a sense of what was going on when I re-watched the first two episodes before the third episode’s premiere.
But once I understood what was going on, and as the actors became more comfortable speaking like Pizzolatto (like Tarantino, a lot of Pizzolatto’s characters wind up just sort of sounding like him), the show began to click with me. I admired the total badass that McAdams played, Antigone Bezziredes (yeah, I know, get over it). I reveled in how “too old for this shit” Farrell’s Ray Velcoro was. I was in awe of the quiet volcano that Vaughn’s Frank Semyon was, a man rapidly reaching his boiling point and ready to blow at any moment. I sympathized with Kitsch’s Paul Woodrugh, and wished he just embraced who he truly was.
Then we got to the thrilling action sequence that ended episode four.
Then we got to the tremendously well-written episodes six and seven, where our true detectives began to piece together the season’s core mystery.
Then we got to the season finale, which concluded in one of the most satisfying bits of TV of the year, and the perfect ending to the story Pizzolatto told this season.
I think people are blinded in hindsight at the show’s first season. I can’t deny the greatness of McConaughey waxing poetic about whatever he had on his mind, the third episode’s end (WHO IS THAT MAN IN THE GAS MASK AND WHAT IS HE DOING AND WHERE IS HE AND WHY IS HE SO TERRIFYING), or the jaw-dropping six-minute single take that ended the fourth episode. But I also remember how slow the first few episodes of the first season were, and I remember the internet’s lukewarm reaction to the end of the first season. (Just like with season two, though, I thought the first season’s end was great.)
That’s why this widespread disappointment toward True Detective: Season 2 is so frustrating to me. While the second season didn’t have McConaughey or Alexandra Daddario (!!), I think it’s (relatively) easy to argue that its ending is more narratively satisfying and realistic.
It’s also worth noting that few shows have engendered such conversation as this season. Whether we were parsing out plot details or talking about how badass Bezziredes is or trying to figure out who that man in the bird mask really is, True Detective’s second season was a lightning pole for discussion.
It’s not flawless. Few shows are. But True Detective: Season 2 is worth your time because it tells a story in a way that few other TV writers would dare to touch. If you stick with it, and you pay attention closely enough to understand the (intentionally) complicated storyline, you’ll be rewarded.