What could save ’True Detective’s third season

AUGUST 2ND, 2016 — POST 211

Never in recent memory has a television series’ first season been so universally loved and its second season so universally hated as True Detective. We all tried. We all wanted to believe that actors like Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn could wax poetic about the universes fabric with the same gravitas as Matthew “Alright, alright, alright” McConaughey. But between the clunky construction of the “case” our “detectives” were following, or the cult layers — raven heads, corporate orgies — that seems smeared on like fake tan, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that Season 2, on the whole, sucked.

Over the weekend, recently-appointed head of programming at HBO Corey Bloys gave the most concrete indication of the series’ future. Speaking at the TCA, as Birth. Movies. Death. reports, Bloys said:

“It’s not dead. … We are hoping for a third season. It’s a very valuable franchise for us.”

Where news of renewal would normally be met by manic anticipation and excitement by a loyal fanbase — Stranger Things’ predicted renewal will soon show just how excited people can get — I have to admit Bloys’ words fill me instead with a mild anxiety. The first season is often spoken about as one of the best seasons of television ever. And if the franchise is valuable to HBO as Bloys says it is, it is because of this cachet, a cachet that was undermined by what showrunner Nic Pizzolatto was able to deliver in a second season. To continue into a third season feels a little bit like trying to reclaim thunder we’ve acknowledged has passed.

Unlike most TV series, True Detective is uniquely positioned to turn it around, however. Pioneering the “8 hour movie” form — where a single story is resolved during the length of a season — each new season is a decided departure from the last. There are no running storylines to maintain, no characters (and as such actors) to keep happy. If any series can turn on a dime to become a critical and fan darling again, it is True Detective. But this freedom of starting fresh ought not to be squandered.

By comparing the two seasons, we can reach conclusions as to what a third season should do if it wants to strive for the impact of the first season. Immediately, one thing comes to mind:

Pick one director

It wasn’t just the single story that made the first season of True Detective feel like a giant movie, it was the way it was shot. Shot out of sequence — almost never done in episodic television — and under the direction of one person in Cary Fukunaga, season one was cohesive. It’s easy to look at the general tone of the season as a whole as Fukunaga’s sole contribution, but it is my contention that his influence was as much felt in the stellar performances of McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. Working with notoriously ridiculous dialogue — a style Pizzolatto has an uncontested monopoly on — season one is arguably testament to the working relationship of Fukunaga and the two leads. When I wrote about Fukunaga’s next project Maniac, I wrote

The same kind utterly confused madness that was the story for season two seems a cosmotic construction of brilliance in season one. On paper, they’re not that different.

True Detective has proven it demands a singular directorial voice. Given the questionable status of the success of a third season, and the possibility of Pizzolatto playing more of a supervisory role, a single director might be hard to lock down. There are other things that could stand a third season in good stead.

Keep a tight cast

Four characters proved frankly too unwieldy in Season 2. When the impulse of the series is to layer in complex backstory, we just weren’t left with much room to manoeuvre with four leads. Story threads that ran backwards, promising to have monumental payoffs just didn’t, fizzing out when it came down to actually solve the season’s case.

The impulse for a larger cast is understandable — McConaughey and Harrelson left big boots to fill, a daunting task for any actor and for a series more generally to manage. Keeping a tight two kept the whole thing surmountable. As an audience we were better able to hold Season 1 in our heads. When a series’ scope is “reset” with each season, playing tighter and as such smaller makes sense.

Play the long game

The Birth. Movies. Death. piece alludes to recent statements made by McConaughey, saying he’d be keen to reprise his role as “Rust” Cohle from Season 1. If there’s a story for Rust to carry, it seems like the right kind of safe choice to put McConaughey back in the driver’s seat. This would hopefully do some work of “righting the ship” that is True Detective — winning back those that wrote of the series. With a Rust-led third season, the series could be stabilised for fourth, fifth, and sixth seasons.

We all want to love True Detective, and obviously HBO knows that. A third season should be packed with compelling reasons to keep on loving it.

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