“I welcome judgement”. So utters Colin Farrell’s Ray to the police interviewer. It remains to be seen whether writer and director Nic Pizzolatto will share the same sentiment after Series Two of True Detective. Farrell’s record with Vinci state police is under fire. So too, it seems is Pizzolatto’s untarnished reputation after the superb first series. It was always going to be a question of script versus cast. After the magnetic McConaughey and harried Harrelson made the first series of True Detective a rarity in television. It found itself both critically lauded and publicly applauded. Of course, this being HBO, the home of such success stories, another series was commissioned sharpish.
McConaughey and Harrelson are reduced from the executive product to executive producers. The writer and director, Cary Fukunaga, return alongside the top notch T Bone Burnett whose masterful sonic wizardry helped shape the onscreen dystopia (a Nick Cave cover of All the Gold in California heralds the credits) . Though Brad Pitt and other unlikely actors were hailed as potential protagonists, the series found itself two minor A-listers in Farrell (Ray) and Vince Vaughn (Frank). True Detective came at a peak time for both McConaughey, almost simultaneous with the Academy Award for Dallas Buyers Club, and when Harrelson had cracked Hollywood. They were big names at the right time. Farrell and Vaughn seem to need True Detective as much as the series requires their famous faces. They are undeniable billboard one man brands to broadcast and build hype. Both crave the delights of a return to the highway of the mainstream alongside a sprinkling of critical stardust. It is a question of whether they need the series or the series needs them. Series One was a perfect synthesis of cast and script. Series Two has less of a balance.
True Detective went off road for Series One. The cops were scrabbling in the undergrowth down the lengthy lanes of Louisiana. Here we see these unoccupied, detached spaces of non-entity swapped for the suburban urbanity of California. The fictitious town of Vinci links Vaughn to Farrell. California is awash with lanes that look more Detroit or Dallas than the sea drenched beaches of the west coast sun. One character surmises the situation with the epigram: “The Highway suits me”. True Detective finds roads, but, never, in any circumstances sought light. It was a universally dark world, devoid of hope and an unending sense of futility dripping with Nietzsche nihilism. A sadistic series, not naturally California. But director Fukunaga maintains a certain colourlessness in the ring roads of the conurbation, the only light the reflective mists of the oil refineries that occupy the cityscapes. These add a new flavour to the seedy palette of dank dungeons and dive bars that shape the interior spaces of the series.
The locations give a pallor to the scenes. But everything has become a little black and white. The intricate nuance and mystery of Series One seems to have gone up in the refinery smoke. While the eyes see an underworld, the ears hear a softer script. There are attempts at comedy. Rule one of True Detective was never add a light touch. The final scene of the first series, as the detectives bonded beneath the stars and, whisper it quietly, even had an optimistic outlook, was against the grain of the tree of depression that had been so carefully cultivated. Its sweeping shadow gave a gloomy doom to the drink, drugs and detectives that gave the series its name. Vince Vaughn, a character actor more known for his light, deftness of comedic touch is the reason for the fracturing of this shade. His one liners seem surreal in this setting. They also suffer from being terribly written. No one truly tuned into True Detective for a laugh. He voices his desire to unceremoniously boot his size thirteen shoe up Casper’s ass, only for his sidekick to add the riposte: “You have spare shoe laces.” Vaughn seems an unnatural fit for the dour dress code. His attempt at launching a whiskey glass into a wall is more fumbler than tumbler. A line about IVF: “I ain’t looking forward to jerking off in a cup.” The final semen stained seal of the deal. The series suffers as a result.
As for the deal, this concerns Frank (Vaughn) securing the financial support for the sexily titled California Central Rail Corridor. A kind of HS2 for the sunshine state. The writer’s ambition has shifted from the cult, southern religious practices of the zealots to the face of corruption, capitalism and the corporation. True Detective was inspired in its innovative approach within a field of myriad competitors both good and bad. The creators and writers rebooted the genre with the focus on character and the dissection of America. Here, they step seriously close to stereotype. It is very difficult to avoid traipsing over sterile ground when the corruption is set in a small town casino. Suddenly, the mask of innovation slips and the characters are just depressive, drugged and drunk. The mirage soon loses mystery. There is a disappearance in every other scene, whereas Series One had the confidence to stick with a single storyline of the manhunt. “You don’t need to fake anything, you’re better than that” are the words of Ray to his unlikely looking son. This episode of True Detective feels fake. Then the customary bathroom mirror realism scene takes place. Without even waiting for the eye contact between Farrell and Rachel McAdams. A sure sex segue. You feel right at home. In the warm arms of lazy writing. With seven episodes to go, it is too early to condemn the series, but at first glance, perhaps one was enough. It takes two to tango, and True Detective was never about the dancing.