When True Detective aired its first season in the first few months of 2014 I thought then, and still do now, that I had just watched the best season of a TV drama, perhaps ever.
Created and written by author Nic Pizzolatto, the crime drama followed the story of two mismatched detectives, family man Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and the nihilistic loner Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), and their investigations into a brutal murder that spans decades.
The episodes fit together more like chapters of a novel rather than instalments of a TV drama; tracking Hart and Cohle’s lives throughout a 20-year span, which sees their personal and professional lives fall apart in front of a seemingly unsolvable case.
Part film noir, part labyrinthine murder mystery, the show represented the best of both worlds for TV fans. The writing – elegiac, almost poetic at points – elevated the characterisation of the main cast. And in turn, the characters themselves – complicated and three-dimensional – couldn’t help but elevate the writing. It was the perfect symbiotic relationship.
There were so many high-points; McConaughey’s monologuing, Harrelson’s snide aside to said monologuing and the epic, now infamous, six-minute long tracking shot from the series’ sixth episode, expertly crafted by director Cary Joji Fukunaga (who is also helming the next Bond film, No Time To Die).
In eight episodes, it went from strength to strength, ending it an rapturous meeting between the two detectives and the elusive, mythical murderer they had been hunting for 20 years. It was framed now not just as a murder mystery, but a battle between the forces of light and dark themselves.
The only question that remained at the end of the first season was – how the hell do they top that?
The answer – they didn’t. They couldn’t. Following the lead of American Horror Story, Pizzolatto revealed that subsequent seasons of True Detective would follow the structure of an anthology; each season would bring a new story and a new cast of characters with it.
At the time, it seemed like the best idea possible, given that the first season had been such a success. And if each new run of the show delivered stories as engrossing and characters as gripping, what could go wrong?
Well, it turns out, nearly everything possible. With True Detective season two, I’ve never seen a show so confidently and consistently make the wrong decisions, episode by episode, week by week.
Everything that had made the first season so watchable seemed to dissipate on the second go-around. Losing its director and core cast, the show retained Pizzolatto as the dominant creative voice, and recruited an equally A-list cast, with Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn joining Rachel McAdams, whose character many saw as an effort to correct criticism of the female characters featured in the inaugural series.
I think there are several reasons why the second season failed. The characters, for whatever reason, just didn’t click this time around. The central mystery of the drama (which I still don’t think you can sum up anymore succinctly other than a bunch of people are killed for some land) didn’t carry the weight or mythos the previous one had.
There was also the change in location – from the gothic Americana heartland to the modern urban decay of Los Angeles. The first series seemed almost timeless in its location, the second couldn’t help but feel too rooted in the here and now, and thus aged much quicker.
There was, at least, one central, shining light; McAdams tried her damn hardest to carry True Detective season two, and at so many points she almost quite succeeded, only to be let down by the cast of men surrounding her.
The best, most visceral part of the second series belongs to the former Mean Girls star, playing damaged detective Ani Bezzerides. In a nightmarish sequence, the undercover Bezzerides has to escape a sleazy party in an isolated mansion with a valuable witness, after they’ve both been drugged.
She single-handedly takes down both a powerful businessman harassing them, and a guard trying to stop their escape. There’s some deft knife work involved and a lot of blood. It’s the high point of the entire second season, the only time where the tinge of horror that so often smothered the first season is let back in.
I think it’s fair to say that, despite McAdams’ best efforts, nothing could be done to help True Detective season two. What can be done for a crime drama whose best asset is its lead actress’ hair?
I think it’s also safe to say that True Detective has still not recovered from its sophomore series. There has been a follow-up, albeit one several years in the making. Starring recent Oscar winner Mahershala Ali, it followed a similar trajectory to the first incarnation and tracked a detective duo – this time over three separate time periods – investigating the murders of several children in the American South. It was good, sure, but it couldn’t help but feel like a poor imitation of past glories.
I like to put the second season of True Detective down to a failed experiment, of sorts. All kudos must go to Pizzolatto for trying to change the formula up, to find everything that worked about the first series and try it in a different way. It may have failed, but it was an admirable try.
But it is sad to see, at the end of the televisual decade, True Detective become overlooked in favour of bigger and brighter new hits such as Watchmen or Succession. Because it still stands that the first series of True Detective is among the finest TV ever made. And it did, truly, feel like this show could change the world of TV as we know it, even if its second season did go a long way to ruining its own legacy.
As far as the future goes, HBO and Pizzolatto have remained coy on a possible fourth run, and it may yet be years before we find the anthology drama back on our screens.
But no matter what, we will still have those first eight perfect, fully-formed pieces of television. And Rachel McAdams’ hair. That’s good enough for me.
True Detective seasons 1-3 are available to stream via NOW TV.
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