It was August of 2015 the last time True Detective was on, so its season 3 return requires a bit of commentary on television, the history of the show, and some other things I’d want to touch on before I shift into a more reviewing/recapping/investigatory gear regarding the two-episode premiere last Sunday. Just in time for episode 3, which I will be reviewing night-of or on Monday morning, it’s time to talk about True Detective.
The first season of the show might be one of the most lightning-in-a-bottle instances of TV in history. Although HBO has undeniable cultural reach, I don’t think anybody had any idea how magnetic Matthew McConaughey would be in the role of Rust Cohle investigating cult murders in Louisiana with a cynical Woody Harrelson. The Yellow King/Crooked Spiral story came from a novel several years in development and it showed in the plotting, characterization, and dialogue.
It also came out at the same time as Rick & Morty‘s debut, and there are a lot of similarities between Rust and Rick as characters. Drunk, misunderstood genius white men, previously fueled by a passion towards their work acting as a mask to hide the personal tragedies that really drive them. Vulnerable nihilists just waiting for a little prodding to drop the facade, abusing substances, engaging in ultraviolence, and detaching themselves from meatspace’s reality to hide from their feelings.
They’re two characters that I feel get interpreted wildly differently depending on who is watching it, sometimes for the absolute worst, but for people with similar characteristics and outlooks, it was damn near jarring the sudden level of representation of not just the misanthropic outlook and behavior, but the philosophical frame of reference. Big-N nihilism is not something you see on television very often. “Losing your religion” without a church being involved, as both Rust and Rick have, and watching the fallout of failed idealism, self-destruction, the second-guessing, is something that I think hit the “No Child Left Behind” generation pretty hard. The bleak, post-Katrina Louisiana landscape, framed so well by season 1 director Cary Fukunaga, underscored why I think the series resonated with that coveted 18-35 demographic at the time. Despite the age difference and throwback to the early 90s as a setting, people saw a lot of Rust in themselves, or at least they thought they did.
To have to follow that up a year later was going to be a struggle. You’ve reinvented an actor in a way nobody this side of Tarantino can and ushered in a whole new phase of an underrated but arguably typecast career that they had to call it “The McConaissance.” Season 2 is met with middling reviews. Colin Farrell, in almost a rebuke to the soused superhero Rust Cohle, is even more broken, but not in a way anyone would want to identify with. Rachel McAdams, a good protagonist, channels the same coldness as the first series’s wife but it’s obvious creator Nic Pizzolatto might have listened to criticism that the female characters were too foil-y and thin (Taylor Kitsch is also the boys do cry anti-machismo CHP war veteran) and she’s (rightfully) criticized as a Mary Sue due to some hamfisted arc plotting. Vince Vaughn, running neck-and-neck with Farrell for the breakout, career-redefining role, comes across as wooden, but it’s integral to the story and character and I feel like he was unjustly panned.
It’s sophomoric and seems a little rushed, but once it ties together in the end, it felt a little unfair from a critical perspective. The week-to-week mystery solving pacing wasn’t there, Los Angeles didn’t have the swampy, nearly Eldritch-horror atmosphere of Louisiana, and a story about railway zoning, a dead city manager, and institutional corruption didn’t hold a candle to The Yellow King. It shouldn’t have had to, but with season 1 making such a splash, it was inevitable that in an anthology series, that second season had to be really strong. They tried to do something different with it, likely in an effort to prove they weren’t a one-narrative-gimmick show, and it fell flat with audiences. Standing alone, it’s very much watchable, well-acted and directed, but lacked the iconoclastic, page-turning clout that carried the first season.