Review

The TV we deserve? 'True Detective' season 2 and the age of microcriticism

Mary McNamara
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic
Rachel McAdams lights up the early episodes of the returned 'True Detective,' but something has changed

"My strong suspicion is … we get the world we deserve."

This line from the second season of "True Detective" got a lot of play in the many pieces written in anticipation of its debut, and here's hoping it won't turn out to be self-referential.

As the fine but far more dutiful early episodes of Season 2 suggest, if we're not careful, we'll get only the television we deserve.

No other art form, with the possible exception of professional sports, is as critically deconstructed on a daily basis as television. Opinions seesaw week to week from over-the-top admiration to absolute disgust, and not just in a general way. By making it possible for fans to send their thoughts directly to the show's creators in real time, social media have created what appears to be a joystick mentality among critics and fans: "Here's what you're doing wrong; don't do it again."

The first season of "True Detective" provided a primer to that alarming new television experience.

From the moment it was announced that Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey would star, all eyes were fixed. Even more important, creator Nic Pizzolatto became the TV auteur du jour. He had written short stories for the Atlantic! He wrote each episode his own self because, as he told The Times last year, "I didn't come to Hollywood to be subservient to anyone else's vision"! He said things like "I didn't come to Hollywood to be subservient to anyone else's vision"!

Much of the HBO-viewing nation greeted the show's steamy Louisiana locale, Cary Fukunaga's moody direction and Pizzolatto's mystical philosophy with something approaching ecstasy. As Rust Cohle, McConaughey made rambling monologues legendary while Harrelson proved, once again, that he is talented enough to steady even a crazy-boat made of dead women and antlers.

"True Detective" was, for a few minutes, the best show ever, and then, wait, maybe it wasn't.

Midway through the eight-episode season, people began criticizing the role of women (secondary, often victimized), the overblown nature of the supernatural elements and Rust's sweaty philosophies. By the time the series ended, in a manner less than satisfactory to many, even the initially devout were hedging.

So fast did the pendulum swing that the second season has been heralded with trepidation.

Some of the concern was inevitable. Much of last year's praise focused on the performances, but the highly ambitious anthology nature of the series requires a whole new story and a whole new cast. The revelation of which was treated as if it were a breaking news event, and then pondered with panicked optimism for months.

Vince Vaughn? Well, it would be fabulous if he could pull a Bryan Cranston. Colin Farrell was certainly great in "In Bruges." Who doesn't love Rachel McAdams? And Taylor Kitsch was in "Friday Night Lights," for heavens sake.

Some concerns, however, reflected a more worrisome Consumer Reports mentality: Would this model integrate the improvements suggested by previous customers? In other words, would there be non-victimized women, fewer fey red herrings and a crime that made sense but also the magic that made fans of so many?

Pizzolatto, having created a challenging position (even Ryan Murphy keeps a lot of his cast for "American Horror Story," and he's been making TV for many years), made his life much harder by embracing his swagger-brand to the point that he responded to some of last year's criticism in a highly dismissive way.

So when an overwrought profile in July's Vanity Fair seemed constructed for scathing commentary, no one held back. "It Doesn't Take a 'True Detective' to See That Nic Pizzolatto Is a Schmuck" was just one headline in a conversation about whether or not Pizzolatto had learned from his mistakes.

So if you are wondering just when the hell I am going to review the show, well, that's sort of my point.

Increasingly, the actual series, or season, or (heaven save us from the micro-criticism of it all) episode, has become secondary in importance. It's not the show that matters so much as our feelings about the show, its stars and its creator. Not to mention our feelings about violence and sex and the social status of every demographic that is not "white male."

We say we're talking about television, but often we are talking about ourselves.

Stripped of all emotional baggage, including the often regrettable verbiage of its creator, "True Detective" is a sophisticated study of detective fiction that pits the genre's sensational and often lurid tropes against their very real uses, themes and larger meanings.

Where last season took on Southern gothic, this season goes California noir. We're in the Central Valley mostly, with (remarkably speedy) side trips to L.A. and the Central/Northern coastline.

As in Season 1, the landscape is an active participant in the story. Under Justin Lin's initial direction (unlike Season 1, there will be multiple directors), the topography of California shifts this way and that as if viewed from a speeding car — arid to lush, industrial pit to commanding coastline, with an emphasis on aerial views of the alarming patterns cut into the earth by freeways.

Set in the tiny fictional town of Vinci, the story rests on a similar web of corruption. Frank Seymon (Vaughn), once a small-time gangster, is now poised to hit it big and possibly legit with a complicated land development deal dependent on a new high-speed rail system. The title appears to refer to the other three main characters: Ray Velcoro (Farrell), a Vinci detective; Paul Woodrugh (Kitsch), a highway patrolman, and Ani Bezzerides (McAdams), a Ventura County sheriff's detective, all of whom come together to solve a requisite gruesome murder.

As has become standard, criminal and detective are equally complex and contradictory. Frank is just as haunted as he is menacing. Though essentially a good guy, Ray is drunk, corrupt and still brooding over his now-ex-wife's rape. Paul, a former mercenary soldier, is a clamped-down loner suicidally nursing at least two big secrets.

In the first three episodes, the men bring nothing more surprising than intensity to their roles, which are familiar to the point of banal. Vaughn infuses Frank with humanity that makes its tough to buy the menace, and Farrell's wounded eyes contradict his character's brutality.

But "True Detective" is, to a certain extent, an exploration of a literary genre, not just in tone but structure. More than any other show in an increasingly innovative arena, it's as difficult to review the series from three episodes as a novel would be to review from less than a third of its pages.

Ani, however, is something to watch from the get-go. McAdams is such a luminescent performer that she expands the claustrophobic nature of noir, flashing on its edges and furniture in a way that makes the returning dark seem both more and less dangerous. Pizzolatto has also given her a wonderfully insane back story, complete with a guru father (played by with delicious sincerity by David Morse), who now runs an Esalen-like enlightenment community that looks suspiciously like the one used in "Mad Men."

This may seem like an unfortunate coincidence or it could be genetic. For all its graphic crime and intentional potboiler homage, "True Detective" is the most obvious descendant of the recently concluded "Mad Men."

In both shows, the atmosphere and setting is more presence than background, the characters have been crafted to be familiar yet unknowable. "Mad Men" remained committed to restraint while the first season of "True Detective" reveled in abandon. But each used literary and cultural allusions to tempt the viewer into a more interactive experience.

Season 2 of "True Detective" appears to have abandoned abandon; it is careful and controlled in a way that seems highly self-conscious. That may be intentional or even satiric; one hopes it is something other than reactionary. Television is increasingly willing to concede patience as a virtue, but only if there's a payoff.

It's a dangerous game playing to audience obsession. Reference Chandler and Steinbeck and David Lynch and you beg comparison. And all the Easter eggs in the world can't conceal a ragged story. Highly engaged viewers may be the new gold standard, but the masses can easily tip from paying tribute to calling for your head.

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'True Detective'

Where: HBO

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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