True Detective's first season was, for me, the stand-out of 2014. Leaving aside the clue-hunting madness that was the internet’s response to Carcosa, True Detective luxuriated in existential despair against a verdigris background of swampland and oil refineries in southern Louisiana. It was beautiful.
But it was also a slow burn. It wasn’t until the one-two punch of the fourth episode (which contained a six-minute tracking shot that went over a fence!) and the fan-generated excitement surrounding the discovery of the allusions to The King in Yellow that I began to understand the show’s strongest features: Cary Fukunaga’s exemplary direction, the dense literary allusions, the excellent lead actors, and strong writing.
Out of those four strengths, two are gone. Cary Fukunaga has gone on to other projects; creator Nic Pizzolatto has indicated that the second season, set in present-day Los Angeles, will not contain elements of the occult. So what does that leave us?
Excellent lead actors, decent writing. Direction that gets the job done, but doesn’t begin to reach Fukunaga’s heights. (Read this for a great dissection of the bar scene, which was very awkward.) A beige Los Angeles setting. A jazz score that sounds like a watered-down version of the Lost Highway soundtrack. And a handful of characters that I can’t even call “damaged”—a better word might be broken or even agonized.
“The Western Book of the Dead” functions as a pilot episode, introducing us to new people in a new place, but it also relies on our faith in Pizzolatto: the main characters do not come together until the end of the episode, and the core mystery plot—the death of a corrupt city manager from the fictional town of Vinci in the northwest Valley—is rather ambiguous. It seems to have something to do with land-development deals pertaining to a high-speed rail project up the coast.
As that sounds quite dull, I can only imagine/hope that soon bodies will start piling up. There are problems with city corruption in Southern California (see here and here), and the high-speed rail project is a real thing that nobody wants, but nobody can get rid of, due to the complex interplay of democracy, propositions, and the recession. That leaves us, so far, with the characters:
Colin Farrell’s drug-addled and short-fused detective Ray Velcoro intimidates his son and beats people up in an attempt to be a good father. A former LA Sheriff’s deputy, Velcoro is the closest approximation to Matthew McConaughey’s washed-up Rust Cohle, but without the thoughtful nihilism. He does have a killer moustache, though.
|Tu bigote te da fuerza y dignidad.|
Vince Vaughn plays Frank Semyon, a casino owner who wants to make it big—and make it respectable—with developments around the rail project, but has to rely on the mob to do so. Vaughn brings an interesting energy to the role; he reads some of the cheesiest lines (“Never do anything out of hunger. Not even eating.”) with a sort of ironic confusion that left me wondering if his character knew how stupid he sounded, or if he really thought that was a profound statement.
Taylor Kitsch’s Highway Patrol officer Paul Woodrugh has, so far, been saddled with a storyline that is almost laughable in its transparent symbolism: falsely accused of soliciting a blowjob from a woman he pulled over, he turns out to—OMG!—have erectile dysfunction. It’s hard for me to find the words to express just how much I hope that a medical condition is not being used as a metaphor for character here. That’s just silly. And probably really offensive to men who have ED.
Rachel McAdams’s LA Sheriff’s deputy detective Ani Bezzerides, on the other hand, was the highlight of the episode for me. She’s loaded with backstory, including a father who leads a so-very-California New Age retreat, a sister who does webcam porn, and a boyfriend who wants more emotional intimacy that she’s willing to provide. “Ani” is even short for “Antigone.” (Wow.) But McAdams communicates reserve, anger, and a strong sense of self even while everyone she encounters in the episode tells her about herself.
There’s a lot to interest me here. I love sunshine noir. I love detective stories and broodiness. Even after 10 years in LA, I get a thrill out of seeing familiar places on my TV screen. And a few scenes—like the opening shot of little wooden sticks marking a field for development as though it were a cemetery—seem to approximate some of the landscape porn that the first season gave us. Sure, there's cheesiness and perhaps too much reliance on sad-detective cliches, but those tropes can be fun. (Or funny, especially if you read Todd VanDerWerff's take on them here.)
But I’m not quite sure where this season is going. Will it be a murder mystery? A story of financial corruption? A character study set in a brutal “psychosphere” of present-day LA shot to look like it’s still the 1970s? It's hard not to read Velcoro's quote--"I welcome judgement"--as Pizzolatto's statement to the world: he knows we will judge present circumstances in light of past actions, and he defends those actions. Season One of True Detective withstands judgement. I hope this season will, too.
Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, True Detective, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)
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