True Detective’s big shootout doesn’t make up for season 2 being pretty bad so far

20 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘True Detective’ Season 2 Needs Less Talk, More Action If It Wants To Live Up To The Hype.

In True Detective, Southern Gothic is a state of mind. The morning after HBO aired “Down Will Come,” the fourth episode of True Detective’s second season, Slate’s Willa Paskin wrote something of a mea culpa. Judging from last Sunday’s episode, which ended with an epic, bloody shoot-out, things are about to get way more insane in the industrial wasteland of Vinci, California.

In tonight’s episode, Ray (Colin Farrell) and Frank (Vince Vaughn) contemplate new life choices; Ani (Rachel McAdams) and Paul (Taylor Kitsch) follow a lead up the coast. It was, for all intents and purposes, a very slow-moving series with a questionable payoff, and it took some distance and reflection from it to fully appreciate its merit. Consequently, Paskin confronted an issue that’s become a bugaboo of modern TV criticism: the idea that critics should not pass judgment until they’ve seen an entire season of TV.

There you find hour after hour of spectacular, balls-out displays of the inherent incompetence, greed, and corruption of government—especially when it joins forces with crony capitalists. Show Summary: A bizarre murder brings together three law-enforcement officers and a career criminal, each of whom must navigate a web of conspiracy and betrayal in the scorched landscapes of California when TRUE DETECTIVE returns for its eight-episode second season SUNDAY, JUNE 21 (9:00-10:00 p.m. So when Season 2 was announced, this time with the likes of Rachel McAdams, Vince Vaughn, Taylor Kitsch, and Colin Farrell at the helm, I was intrigued and hopeful that this time around, there’d be a more immediate reward in terms of storytelling.

As has been too often noted, reviewing television shows based on a smattering of episodes is similar to reviewing a book based only on its early chapters. This is a complaint often trotted out by creators who think their show has gotten a bum rap (a cohort that overlaps significantly with creators who think a “bum rap” is anything less than a 100 percent approval rating). Colin Farrell (Golden Globe winner for “In Bruges”) plays Ray Velcoro, a troubled detective whose allegiances are torn between his masters in a corrupt police department and the mobster who owns him. Vince Vaughn (“Wedding Crashers”) portrays Frank Semyon, a criminal and entrepreneur in danger of losing his empire when his move into legitimate enterprise is upended by the murder of a business partner. It’s got all the mood and nuance you’d expect from a murder mystery, with lots of lingering shots in dank and depressing locales, actors giving sidelong and tortured glances as they are off into an unseen distance.

Rachel McAdams (“Midnight in Paris”) plays Ani Bezzerides, a sheriff’s detective whose uncompromising ethics put her at odds with others and the system she serves. Complacent, hypocritical good old boy Marty Hart got his wake up call when his long-suffering, fed up wife went femme fatale and forced change by wantonly screwing his partner and leaving him.

Indeed, the True Detective world, filled as it is with crooked cops and perverts in high places and massive, state-funded land grabs and billion-dollar high-speed rail boondoggles, seems ripped right from Ron Paul’s nightmares. Here is our review of True Detective’s lsat episode, “Down Will Come.” We also took a look at the preview for tomorrow’s True Detective, “Other Lives.” True Detective’s last episode featured a co-writer for the first time. Taylor Kitsch (HBO’s “The Normal Heart”) portrays Paul Woodrugh, a war veteran and a highway patrol motorcycle officer, running from a difficult past and the sudden glare of a scandal that never happened. Character development is key if viewers are meant to care about what’s happening on screen, but the age-old concept of showing rather than telling seems to have been ignored with this series, and the seemingly endless stream of dialogue that has filled the first four episodes of Season 2 has done little to illustrate who these people are or why that even matters.

Said partner, Rust Cohle, rethought his extreme philosophical nihilism after a monstrous reflection of his abysmal belief system gazed back and gutted him. The characters and the actors are incredible, especially Rachel McAdams as Ani—short for Antigone, the first great libertarian heroine who disobeyed the state in accordance with higher law—Bezzerides, the sexually haunted daughter of a creepy guru and sister to a webcam performer (whose studio is mistaken for a whorehouse by the vice squad in Episode 1). The cast also includes Kelly Reilly (“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows”) as Jordan Semyon, Frank’s wife, a former D-list actress who is a full partner in his enterprises and ambitions; Christopher James Baker (“Gotham”) as Blake Churchman; Afemo Omilami (“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”) as Police Chief Holloway; Chris Kerson (“CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”) as Nails; and James Frain (HBO’s “True Blood”) as Lt. Each of the show’s four main characters — Ani Bezzerides, Ray Velcoro, Paul Woodrugh, and Frank Seymon —have their own cross to bear and carry around a deep-seated angst and unrest that’s meant to hint at some deeper trauma they’ve yet to come to terms with.

Both walked away lame yet improved, born again humbled, with eyes to see hope for a better future in the darkness of the present. “My audience are the people who think God is dead,” O’Connor once said. “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” True Detective aspires to similar Pulp Revelation. It finally gets good around Page 200!” is only a recommendation for a book compared to “it never gets good.” You should read all of Paskin’s piece, which is great.

And in a world where leading Democrats such as Hillary Clinton want to strangle the sharing economy, keep fighting the drug war, and bring Edward Snowden to trial, and Republicans such as Donald Trump want to build walls on the Southern border, force employers to adopt intrusive worker-certification programs, and drop yet more bombs overseas, you don’t have to be Vince Vaughn to want join the conversation about just how far you trust the government to do what’s right. A few episodes back, Vaughn as Frank made a lengthy monologue while lying in bed about some childhood slight that was so boring, I can’t even remember the contents. But the key character is Velcoro’s paymaster, Frank Semyon, whose dirty fingers have been in every racket a town can offer, from drugs to gambling to booze—all of which flourish under the watchful eye and greased palms of law enforcement. (That Frank is played expertly by Vince Vaughn is kind of the cherry on top of all this. Best-known for comedies such as Old School and Dodgeball, Vaughn is an unapologetic libertarian who introduces Ron Paul to adoring crowds, praises Edward Snowden, and stumps for Second Amendment rights like nobody’s business.) From a libertarian perspective, it’s perfect that Frank’s big play to “go legit” is to use political connections to get in on the billion-dollar boondoggle that is Jerry Brown’s real-life high-speed rail project. Governor Moonbeam’s sad, never-to-be-completed legacy project is dependent upon huge amounts of federal and state tax dollars and eminent-domain abuse.

It has no chance of succeeding at anything other than filling the coffers of politically connected plutocrats and displacing thousands of regular people. The problem is that a character’s backstory is meant to make the audience understand that character better, to empathize and understand their motives and the baggage they carry in the present, and how that baggage informs the decisions they make. Founded by criminal enterprise, built on a landfill, and run by generations of greedy stewards and carpetbagger dreamer-schemers, Vinci exists to serve the wealthy, mostly white, and exploit the desperate, mostly not white.

Even lefties at outlets such as Mother Jones, who usually gush over rail projects like Matt Damon over low-flow toilets, are calling bullshit on the plan. Instead, the facts viewers have received about our four leads this season has been incomplete and without context, making it hard to even remember once the scene has past, let alone care about.

Instead, fans watch them meander about their days, half-heartedly attempting to solve a crime that seems to matter even less than the characters’ backstories. But if our biggest reason to care is the fact that Frank lost a bunch of money he’d recently handed over to the now dead man, I’m not quite sure what kind of big reveal could possibly be in store, and if the show’s writers actually expect us to be moved by it when it happens, given how little impetus fans have to do so even now. Actually, “employs” is the wrong word for what we’ve been told: Vinci is a giant sweatshop, and has fought long, hard and dirty to stay that way.

When the government controls who gets to build what where and what sorts of permission is needed to run a bar or a restaurant—not to mention a whorehouse—you end up building graft and corruption into everything. The series needs to imbue its characters with more spark and life if it’s going to ask them to carry such intense material, and outside of arguably Ani, it just hasn’t done so.

It’s a practice in slow burn, but creating that dynamic is a fine art that not everyone can master, and that this series seems to be on the verge of failing on. Based on real-life Vernon, California (memorably called “a criminal enterprise posing as a city government” in the pages of the Los Angeles Times), Vinci is the bastard offspring of Dashiell Hammet’s “Poisonville” from Red Harvest and Ayn Rand’s Galt Gulch in Atlas Shrugged.

Hammett’s first novel, which inspired the films Yojimbo and Fistfull of Dollars, is set in a figurative ass-crack of the Rocky Mountains (“an ugly notch between two ugly mountains”) and is populated almost exclusively by lazy, on-the-take cops and civic leaders who are beneath contempt. Unlike last week’s random shootout in which (rather unbelievably) pretty much every single person was shot and murdered besides our leads, viewers need a little less conversation and a lot more action — and hopefully, action that will mean something. As the city’s few children play in industrial waste, Vinci’s mayor hangs his hat in one of the most expensive homes in Bel Air, where his son orders around hot and cold running prostitutes.

Given its dark view of human nature and government malfeasance, it makes sense that True Detective is sharing Sunday nights with The Brink, the foreign-policy comedy starring Jack Black and Tim Robbins. Sure, the aftermath of the shootout could end up being worthwhile — but, again, that won’t excuse the pointlessness of nearly everything that preceded it. Whatever Robbins’s general leftward political commitments may be, The Brink plays like a darker, post-9/11 version of Get Smart, with American fantasies of controlling the world routinely dismissed. (If there’s a more damning way to mock American diplomacy and spymanship than casting Don Adams as a secret agent, it’s to cast Jack Black as a bumbling State Department employee who pimps for Robbins’s satyr-like secretary of state.) The Brink is the foreign policy equivalent of Veep, another HBO series that shows government at its highest levels as thoroughly unredeemable.

You could answer all the questions I listed above with a little creative blank-filling, but the bones of a detective story are often best served by crystal clarity on what motivates the characters involved in the case, which affords the puzzle at the center more room to play out. Julia Louis-Dreyfus may have helped Los Angeles pass its plastic-bag ban back in 2012, but she’s far more effective in pushing confidence in government to historic lows as Selena Meyer, the laughably incompetent title character in Veep who accidentally ends up in the Oval Office itself. Never in lockstep or unanimously, of course, but surely it’s no coincidence that after decades of major fuck-ups and dissemblings by politicians (from Vietnam to Watergate to the Church Commission to Iran-Contra to the Clinton impeachment to WMDs and torture to the Snowden revelations), trust in government is not so high. Except when they are denying any responsibility for social ills, Hollywood honchos have forever been insisting that their movies and shows effectively program viewers like robots and make us better human beings. Garry Marshall, the legendary creator of Happy Days, continues to falsely claim that when Fonzie got his library card, local libraries were overwhelmed with new applicants.

Joe Biden—arguably the real-life model for Veep’s Selena Meyer, though she is more likely an amalgam of every vice president in U.S. history—got closer to the truth a few years back when he said that Will & Grace “did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody has ever done.” Popular culture—especially zeitgeisty shows such as True Detective—reflect and inform where we are as a society. Shaped by the sins of their parents, warped by a wicked world, and damned by past choices, their madness manifests in the form of hard-boiled personas that undermine intimacy, muffle their virtue, and rob them of authenticity.* They yearn to be old fashioned tough guy heroes, but it’s a way of being that has no place in the modern world and keeps them alienated from it (see: Velcoro’s outrageous action against the father of his son’s bullying persecutor in the premiere; Paul Woodrugh, realizing last week that his want to be a simple minded G.I. Sometimes the conversations run away from the intentions of creators—David Simon is a self-described socialist yet some of the biggest fans of his masterpiece The Wire are libertarians who see in it an argument against virtually everything Simon himself holds dear—and I’ve got no idea what (if any) politics Nic Pizzolatto, the creator of True Detective, has. Will they find the courage to peel them off and deal with what they see? “I don’t know who the f— I am anymore,” said Paul last week after a shit-faced sexual encounter with a former Army buddy. Instead of wrestling further with the matter of his true orientation, Paul, confused and ashamed, jumped deeper into closet by proposing marriage to his pregnant girlfriend.

Is Ani ever going to wonder if the increasing number of links between the mystery she’s investigating and her painful past might be more than just coincidences? Perhaps last week’s brush with mortality – that terrifying shoot-out that brought the first half of the season to a close – is just the catalyst she needs to start asking the right questions about herself and her world. *Put another way: Ani, Ray and Paul are dangerously addicted to these identities the way we’re addicted to pulp archetypes, be it the badly broken anti-heroes of cable TV or the superheroes on the big screen. He’s making news this weekend with his denunciation of the culture’s romance with superheroes which he helped to supercharge, much to his chagrin. “It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by DC or Marvel Comics. I would also observe that is it, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to the times.” I see something of this alarmist perspective expressed through this season’s over-boiled toughs and certain scenes layered with knowing subtext. Example: When Ray visited his retired-cop father and suffered his racist, wrongheaded harangues about a world he no longer understands, if he ever did at all.

During the scene, Dad was geeking out on the black and white flick on his TV: Detective Story, starring Kirk Douglas as a square jaw tough guy with a morally simplistic code of justice. Detective Story was actually about questioning and subverting the archetype Douglas was playing. (Papa Velcoro is basically the Watchmen fanboy who missed the point that Alan Moore was satirizing nihilistic vigilante Rorschach, not celebrating him.) That irony goes unstated in the Ray-Dad scene, thought that irony is the entire point of the Ray-Dad scene: We are left with the impression that Ray is seeing his dad — and by extension, himself — with enlightened eyes. Pizzolatto might’ve been spelling out his philosophy of characterization in the third episode of season 1 when he made a traveling preacher preach “You are a stranger to yourself, and yet He knew you” and “The world is a veil, and the face you wear is not your own.” (If Paul Woodrugh was working that detail and hearing those words, he’d be shivering and ordering doubles.) My tangent-prone brain redirects to C.S. He’s been slowly spiraling upward ever since – staying sober, playing straight with Ani, following her lead, reflecting on his flawed father’s imprint, risking his life to chase the truth.

When we met Frank Semyon, the casino owner and would-be land baron had divested himself of all his illicit enterprises, although it was almost impossible to tell, thanks to the dubious company Frank keeps and the scuzzy places he haunts. In doing so, Frank has re-embraced his bad self, which is arguably is most authentic self, even though he’s living out the antithesis of his golden rule: “Never do anything out of hunger, not even eating.” I find Frank’s ironies within ironies fascinating, but miscalculations in storytelling have sabotaged his power and potential. Frank’s attempts at talking fancy are one more way he’s trying to better himself, transcend, go legit; the erratic execution and phony sounding-ness speaks to the buggy, fraudulent nature of his redemption scheme in general. Regardless, the show has failed to properly stage his arc from the start, and thanks to Vaughn’s too serious, mostly ruthless tenor (there have been a few, striking exceptions), there doesn’t seem to be much of an arc at all, just a flat line of ruthlessness.

It’s watchable, and not in a hate-watchy way, but in a hope-watchy way; I keep waiting for this engrossing but frustrating story to go next level, engage my emotions and not just my head, and find a groove of sustained, artful drama. I tend to overthink things (see: this essay), and I usually justify it as an expression of enthusiasm for a well-told story that is capturing my imagination.

But there’s another kind of overthink, the kind we do when we’re trying to make sense of something that’s confounding us, when we’re trying to make something work that doesn’t. But I’m worried that the show actually agrees with her dad’s critique of her choice of profession and man-eating proclivities, that she’s basically stuck in a rut of never-ending rebellion against her him and punishes the men in her life with her unreasonable father issues.

The show’s depiction of Southern California makes for a great character — it’s the best character on the show! — yet paradoxically, the more I learn how profoundly corrupt it is, the less I care about it. It certainly makes a compelling argument for that violent grace idea: Maybe the Birdman conspiracy should just firebomb the place and make everyone start over.

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