Blue Balls in Your Heart
The incongruous, incomprehensible second season of True Detective.
Chris McEwen and Emmett Knowlton are childhood friends who grew up yelling at each other about movies. Not much has changed, except now they do it over GChat.
Chris McEwen: Emmett, I’m showing up to work today in my trademark low profile stakeout uniform of a cowboy hat, a jean jacket, and a rolling voice memo of coked up life lessons. Was the True Detective finale as disappointing for you as it was for me, or was this about what we should have expected from a show that likes to get wet from a number of bad (writing) habits?
Emmett Knowlton: And I’m definitely NOT making a scene by dramatically discarding my WEDDING BAND in the middle of UNION STATION because I, too, am trying to be inconspicuous. Man, what a fucking bummer this season was! I loved the first season, even if the finale was a little disappointing and at times the dialogue was a little too Life Is Meaningless, Man freshman year of college gibberish.
But Christ, at least that first season was comprehensible. If you had to ask me what happened in the second half of this season, I’d basically say there was Molly spray, corruption, and like 2,500 casualties, most of which were civilian.
Chris: I’d channel the beloved Mrs. Semyon by telling you that you’re a shitty actor, but you’re speaking the truth right now. (Sidenote: Poor Ani, man. Can you imagine how miserable it must be to go abroad with Jordan “Ambien Queen” Semyon as your lone companion?)
The first couple episodes of this season had me cautiously optimistic. Sure, not everything was tying together, but there seemed to be an endearing sleazy vibe percolating, equal parts James Ellroy and Michael Mann. Yet no matter how much coke and Cuervo my man Ray Velcoro pounded, the artistic ambitions of the series felt as tenuously defined as the core mystery itself. What was missing? The unifying vision of a sole director? A distinct sense of place? A plot that anybody could follow? All of the above? Because it sure wasn’t a lack of Johnnie Walker Blue. Caspere knew this.
Emmett: Honestly, I think all of the above. But hang on a sec, poor Ani? Poor Jordan Semyon! Can you imagine being married to the World’s Worst Gangster? If you’re going to marry a gangster, at least marry a semi-competent one. Wouldn’t you constantly float around looking and speaking like you’d just taken a few too many bars of Xanax if pillow talk with your husband included fond childhood memories of being locked in a basement and killing rats with your bare hands?
And poor Kelly Reilly, too. She’s probably a good actress under different circumstances. But the only thing I could think about was that whenever she was listening to Frank speak, she kind of looked like she could be Donald Trump’s daughter. That I’m thinking about The Donald while watching Reilly’s scenes probably means I’m not deserving of having a legitimate opinion about this show, but come on: don’t you kind of see it?
Chris: I do. Any attraction I once had towards her is now as dead as my avocado trees.
Emmett: I also think Vince Vaughn just seemed out of his element. He certainly tried his hardest, but imagine this season without the entire Semyon plot line. I don’t see how the show does anything but improve. You could dedicate way more time to the three detectives, all of whom I liked and thought did the best they could given the script, and you could disentangle some of the nonsensical corruption railway stuff.
I’m all for complicated shows and making the audience really work, but this was a different beast entirely — at least for 8 episodes. There wasn’t even room for any of the bad guys! Those twins, who I guess killed Caspere? Who were they? Tony Chessani, the character that I guess was the puppet-master of the whole freaking rail deal orgy ordeal, was only on screen for about 90 seconds. This season tried to do everything, and couldn’t really do much of anything.
Chris: I’d agree, in that the whole thing has the frazzled, incoherent rhythm of a first draft that I would have written in college the night before a Freshman year Creative Writing assignment was due. Sure, there’s motifs and symbolism and all that shit (Exhibit A: the world’s most depressing bar), but all executed in the most slapdash and obvious way.
For me, the best moments of the season were when it committed to the history of a single character, got crazy, and went for it: Ray Velcoro’s drug drop-off for his pop, Ani’s Hitchcockian orgy trip, Woodrugh (can I call him Riggins?) raiding Ray’s glove compartment of party favors. Imagine if he’d really focused on one or two of these people? And yet, for every one of these, we got three scenes of Frank bemoaning the loss of our man Stan — perhaps the most inconsequential character to ever serve as an emotional nexus in television history. Emmett, did you prefer Frank when he was in a state of mourning, or when he was in a Mexican standoff with actual Mexicans?
Emmett: Honestly I think I’d have preferred if Pizzolatto had written a character for Vince Vaughn that was more like the lovable douche he played in Wedding Crashers. Couldn’t you see Vaughn’s character in Wedding Crashers divorcing Isla Fischer and moving to LA to become an opportunistic club owner? It all works: he’s got a thing for red-heads and Johnnie Walker in both movies, Chris!
Chris: I would watch that movie. Which I can’t say about that movie where he’s everyone’s dad.
Emmett: But I’m serious about a version of Frank Semyon that’s a lot funnier but not any less slimy. That’s the Vaughn we know and love. And that character would have brought some humor into the show. Season 1 certainly wasn’t, I don’t know, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but it did have Marty’s eye-rolling skepticism to counteract Rust’s unrelenting nihilism. Marty’s interplay with Rust, I think, allowed the audience to take a much-needed deep breath and laugh every now and again. Pizzolatto didn’t seem to want his audience to laugh once this season. (Which is extremely ironic, because I laughed a lot.)
Pizzolatto clearly fancies himself too high-brow of an artist to include unsophisticated concepts like “Humor” and “Normal Dialogue That Doesn’t Sound Like Poor-Man’s Cormac McCarthy” anywhere in his writing. You can have Rust’s overwritten musings, fine, but only if you have Marty, too. I’m tempted to make some sort of sports analogy here to drive my point home, but let’s be real: Nic Pizzolatto doesn’t give a shit about sports. All he cares about is Suffering and Truth. Which is fine, I like Nietzsche as much as your average white dude on the Internet, but a lot of times when I settle in for an hour of TV on Sunday night I’m not hoping to come away wanting to throw myself out my window. Maybe that’s just me.
Chris: You’re onto something in the sense that our favorite Branzino munching writer seemed to have full authorial control over this season, and we can safely assume that had a large part in how this season seemed to so assuredly go off the rails. With an accelerated production schedule and carte blanche earned from (justifiable) critical and commercial acclaim, there was no one there to tell Nic that we don’t care about Caspere’s diamonds, that Frank and Jordan’s theatrics felt like a missive from a completely different show, that there’s a difference between a good mystery and an overly convoluted backstory that is parceled out at random.
Simply put, he went full Shyamalan. And perhaps the greatest sin of this season is that both visually and editorially, there was no unifying directorial voice to tie all this chaos together. Because just as easily as McConaughey’s big monologues could have seemed silly and overwrought under the hands of a hack-for-hire, a good deal of what we saw this season could have work under the guidance of a Denis Villeneuve, an Andrew Dominik, or a Steven Soderbergh.
Emmett, any final thoughts before I upload this voice memo to email@example.com?
Emmett: This season was flatter than a flat circle, man.