True Detective and showrunner Nic Pizzolatto are victims of their own success. In just a few weeks, the frightening, occasionally funny mystery/horror show went from a mere curiosity to the dominant cultural conversation, to the point where the internet was bursting with memes and fan theories. Then the season ended – some would argue in a perfunctory way – and everyone collectively realized Pizzolatto is kind of a jerk. Pizzolatto had two options with his second anthology: he could take criticism to heart, or double down on the show’s worst tendencies.
In a weird way, the season premiere “The Western Book of the Dead” accomplishes both.
The best thing about the pilot is how Pizzolatto and director Justin Lin recommit to the show’s dour, relentlessly bleak tone. It’s kind of admirable: the characters are miserable, the imagery is depressing, and shots of California’s impersonal highway system are imposing. Lin replaces Cary Fukunaga, who directed every episode of season 1, but here he proves he has the chops. Although he’s best known for the latest films in the Furious series, Lin also directed the terrific dark coming of age film Better Luck Tomorrow, so he knows how to compose a menacing shot. Through dim lighting and an attention to macabre detail, True Detective recaptures the atmosphere of season 1, even if the hellish Louisiana exteriors are more evocative. Plot and character issues notwithstanding, I’m eager to explore this vision of California.
But there are already several dark prestige shows that look great – The Knick and Hannibal have genuine formal daring – and Pizzolatto’s script is not as intriguing as Lin’s direction. The new season has four new main characters:
- Paul Woodrugh, played by Taylor Kitsch. He’s a highway patrolman who has a death wish, and is kept on paid administrative leave pending an investigation over whether he accepted a blowjob as trade for leniency. We know he’s innocent because, well, he’s impotent. Paul takes a shower before actually accepting oral sex from his girlfriend – I think she’s his girlfriend – and he pops a boner pill so he can perform. He finds a dead body.
- Frank Semyon, played by Vince Vaughn. He is a career criminal who, like Michael Corleone before him, has delusions he can transition into legitimacy through a big business deal. Vaughn looks a little like Pizzolatto, to the point where Vaughn’s pitch for the business deals sounds like Pizzolatto defending himself in the show’s dialogue. And when Frank hires someone to intimidate a journalist who threatens the deal, the sub-plot plays out like a sick Pizzolatto fantasy. The body belongs to Frank’s business partner.
- Ani Bezzerides, played by Rachel McAdams. She is a sheriff’s detective with conservative values – she hates her hippie father and her sex worker sister – and she has a gambling addiction (Ani’s sister is named Athena, and at one point Ani misidentified her namesake as the God of Love. I have no idea whether this is intentional). One legitimate criticism against True Detective was the subservient role women played in the first season. As mentioned earlier, Pizzolatto responded to that criticism, except here he took one step forward and two steps back. Unlike the other characters, Ani is her underwear when we first meet her. By sexualizing her before she speaks, the premiere never quite recovers from the misstep. The body is found at a highway rest stop, on Ani’s turf.
- Ray Velcoro, played by Colin Farrell. He’s a detective in Vinci, California, a Central Valley town no one has heard of. Ray is also Frank’s lackey: Ray is the one who beat up the journalist I mentioned earlier. Over the course of the episode, Ray also polishes off one and a half bottles of brown liquor, humiliates his son, and pounds on an innocent father with brass knuckles. The body belongs to Vinci’s city manager, so he’s on the case.
“The Western Book of the Dead” follows these four over the course of one day, and Pizzolatto abandons his show’s namesake in favor of brooding, solemn character moments. Unlike Rust and Marty, the two leads from season 1, there is no attempt here to indicate that the three cops are any good at their job. Since there is no procedural framework, Pizzolatto and Lin must rely on the strength of the performances and dialogue. The script attempts to strike a balance between hard-boiled language and eloquence, and accidentally veers into parody. Paul has a flaccid line about riding a motorcycle, while Ani calls her father a prick. This is all meant to sound edgy, I guess, as we’re invited to the tough playground of Pizzolatto’s mind.
Unsurprisingly, the best and worst lines in the show belong to Farrell, a charismatic actor who has his work cut out for him. The best line is early in the episode: while discussing a custody hearing with his lawyer, Ray admits, “I welcome judgment.” A simple sentence, perhaps, but there’s a disarming poetry to it, and Farrell delivers it as if he delivers the season’s central thesis.
The worst line happens much later in the episode. It’s the brass knuckles scene I mentioned earlier: Ray abuses his authority in order to intimidate his son’s classmate. His method is ruthless: he beats the classmate’s father, forcing the little boy to watch, and threatens him with the following:
I’ll come back and butt fuck your father with your mom’s headless corpse on this goddamn lawn.
Let’s marinate on that a moment. The logistics of the line are impossible: no asshole is big enough to accommodate an entire head, let alone a whole corpse. Maybe Ray means he’ll finger the dad’s asshole with the mother’s cold, dead hands? What does he plan to do with her head, anyway? Either way, the line is so vulgar and misogynistic that it took me out of the show (my fiancée responded with a well-timed, “Jesus.”) At his worst, Pizzolatto writes like a smug adolescent who just googled “Nietzsche,” and here he indulges his worst impulses. Many critics are already writing off True Detective, calling it “the embarrassing television show we deserve.”
I’m not quite yet ready to dismiss it. Sure, there is a lot to dislike, yet there is a confident moodiness here that I’m eager to explore. Given the show’s final image, the season premiere is all set-up without much payoff, so I hope Pizzolatto and Lin remember that they shouldn’t be above the genre’s procedural trappings.