Note: Last year, I recapped True Detective on my own. This year, I'm delighted to be joined by Birth.Movies.Death's own Phil Nobile Jr. Let's just get straight to it.
Phil: You and I came to season two of True Detective from two different places - I was pretty excited for it, while you were…
Scott: I was skeptical, basically. I’d been a raving fan of season one, and up until that first teaser hit, I was completely onboard with everything I’d heard regarding season two. The cast didn’t set my world on fire, and I was bummed when we learned that season two wouldn’t be the work of one director, but everything else sounded good. But then: that teaser. And then: Pizzolatto announced they were dropping the “occult” stuff. And then: another middling teaser. I was hoping for the best, but I was more nervous than excited when I tuned in last night.
Phil: I guess I wasn’t exactly expecting occult stuff, since that ended up being background shading to a much more interesting character piece. The mystery was the mystery, but I came back every week to see another facet of these characters they’d created.
I think the other part of my excitement is my affinity for the 1950s “golden age of television” - hour-long anthology dramas that attracted really talented performers, looking to reconnect with their acting chops on live TV in a way movies didn’t let them. To me the concept of True Detective was spiritually descended from those kinds of showcases, maybe spliced with the season-long arc model from the 1980s cop show Wiseguy, which swapped out its entire supporting cast twice a season. I think that’s exciting, and maybe why I was pretty psyched for season two of True Detective before I’d even started season one. I’m a big fan of this show as a concept, and season one pretty much cemented my faith that this was going to be an exciting creative sandbox for different teams to come and play in.
Scott: Whereas the aforementioned occult stuff was what really hooked me during season one. That’s not to give short shrift to the performances (stellar across the board), the direction (pitch-perfect), or the writing (also a home run), mind you. But I really got caught up in that weird undercurrent, and I was really looking forward to more of that. Which, again, is why the wind was not in my sails when the premiere rolled around. Turned out there was plenty of weirdness, but we can get to that in a bit.
Phil: Let’s talk about that title sequence. I first came to know you as a connoisseur of design and layout, so I’m super-curious how you reacted to season two’s title sequence. It is most assuredly on-brand, maybe too much so? Very of a piece with the original, but working in a completely different color palette this year. I liked how it felt as though, if this was volume 2 on a shelf, volume 2’s “cover” definitely continues the aesthetic, so that the sets will match. And I love that they kept it under wraps until the episode began. I love that kind of showmanship. The song threw me at first, but it’s either growing on me, or I’m not secure enough to tell someone they shouldn’t be using Leonard Cohen as their series theme song. How’d you like it?
Scott: I just sat and watched the opening sequence twice in a row, and I like it better each time. The credits for season one became iconic (and rightfully so; they’re such a brilliant piece of design work), so I like that they maintained the same approach here while changing it up enough (presumably) to suit the story being told in season two. Your “volumes on a shelf” analogy nails it: they’re still hypnotic, still just the right amount of sleazy, still enjoyably unsettling. The song’s not as much an instant winner for me as The Handsome Family’s “Far From Any Road”, but...well, look: if you wanna set a mood, it’s hard to argue with Leonard Cohen. Betcha it continues to grow on me as the season progresses.
Phil: That’s about where I’m at. That first season song was out of nowhere, so it’s easy to be disappointed that there wasn’t a similar “discovery” for the theme song here. But points from me for NOT trying to repeat the formula.
So, the story. Season one kept you at arm’s length for the first hour - they gave you a crime scene and almost nothing else: who is that victim? Why are we revisiting the crime 17 years later? Who are these two guys, and why are they no longer in touch/being interviewed separately? Last night’s premiere felt almost like an inversion - here’s an hour of solid character background, clear scenes of just who stands for what here, along with a whisper of a plot, closing around the four main characters like a lasso - or a noose- scooping them up and pulling them together. Way less happened but it felt, to me, maybe more propulsive than season one’s pilot.
Scott: An inversion, and maybe a bit of a mission statement: if the format for the premiere holds, the lack of a layered timeline is a huge shakeup from season one’s format. And I’m cool with that! If it’s not integral to the story you’re telling (which it was in season one, particularly once we realized that Marty and Cohle were happy to play fast and loose with the facts), it doesn’t need to be there.
Phil: We’ll see how it plays out, but the flashback showing Semyon and Velcoro’s shared past - Semyon delivering the cop’s wife’s rapist to him on a plate - leaves that door open, maybe? If we need a character detail shaded in, the show’s not above time-hopping, which I like. But yeah, instead of pulling you along with the “past and present/timeline” device, the show is instead opening up that lane, so to speak, to let more characters in, and I’m excited to see the different ways their lives end up intersecting. I was initially surprised they were going with four main characters, and then I realized season one kind of did have four characters in Marty and Rust - they were just separated in pairs by 17 years.
Scott: What definitely carried over from season one is the density: this may be, at heart, a crime procedural, but it’s a crime procedural in the style of other classic HBO series. Which is to say, it feels more like a novel than it does the average crime drama. There were moments in the premiere that felt a little unclear to me - wait, who’s X character? What’re they talking about? - but during my rewatch, I had no trouble parsing everything out. I like the heft of this show, the attention that it demands. And good call on the “noose” thing: the moment where the characters we’d been following for the past hour all got a phone call summoning to the same location was one of my favorite moments in the premiere.
Phil: It was an exciting moment. I actually sat up in my chair. (Sidebar: drunkest crime scene investigation ever?)
Scott: One of the criticisms I saw people levelling at the show last night was the dourness of the characters. Sure, this is a collection of hard-assed nogoodniks. Yeah, there’ll all a bit glum/appear to be situated at various stages of self-destruction. But I feel like that’s part and parcel of the True Detective world; I wouldn’t expect to meet an upbeat character on this show any more than I’d expect to find a sidekick delivering comic relief. The grim tone was a defining trait during season one, but now I’m seeing people openly mock the show’s “self-seriousness” and grit. Was this a problem for you? Note: I already know the answer to this question.
Phil: Ugh, the “people don’t really talk like that” crowd. True Detective made an impact because it had its own tone. It was dark, and it was ugly, and it was darkly funny, and its characters talked in weird, memorable ways. Season two: so far, so good on that front. If I want a grounded, realistic cop show, I bet there are a dozen on the air. And I bet there are even more on Netflix. And if you want 100% realistic, non-heightened dialogue, better stay away from Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, Rian Johnson, and Quentin Tarantino.
Scott: I’d like to get into the weirdness. For a show that’s allegedly “dropping the occult stuff”, there seemed to be a fair amount of occult-y stuff taking place: the dead city manager with a “heavy pelvic wound” (yo, did someone take this dude’s package?) and his eyes burned out with chemicals; the crime scene packed with pseudo-religious symbols and inexplicable artifacts (what was up with that miniature naked lady floating in a bowl of milk?); that freaky-ass raven mask riding shotgun in the murderer’s car. There was plenty of weird shit going on here! And just the right amount, too: enough to keep you on your toes/keep you intrigued, not enough to drag the whole thing into Lynch territory (side note: dig that cut from the bizarro bird mask to the Mulholland Drive street sign). I was expecting none of this, so it all felt like a pleasant surprise to me.
On a related note: during season one, I went straight down the rabbit hole on theories re: the Yellow King, and I expect I’ll be doing it again this year (it’s part of the fun for me!). First thing that caught my eye last night was the episode’s title, “The Western Book Of The Dead”. A quick Google search turned up, well, mostly links to hastily-written recaps of last night’s episode. But there was also a link to...whatever this is. I’ve had time to read it, but haven’t had the time to dip into what it is/if it’s legit. But color me intrigued. I showed this to you last night, and you were wondering if it might not be this year’s “King In Yellow”. Good question. I don’t have anything to add here at this time, but I wanted to make a point of mentioning it, just to make sure everyone else following along sees it, as well.
Phil: It dates to 1970. So weird! I think I’m going to dig into that stuff after the fact - I’ll let this show do its job telling me the story it wants to tell, and then dig into the annotations.
Scott: Can I still message you with stupid fan theories and weird bits of ephemera that may or may not have anything to do with the show as we watch it?
Phil: I would expect nothing less. I’m just glad you can’t watch these episodes before me. And as for the rest of the weirdness: last season played with weirdness most effectively in little flourishes - the slo-mo shot of the guy in his tighty-whiteys with a machete and a gas mask, etc. I expect more of that here. Certainly Caspere’s apartment suggests he’s into some weird shit that could get some bird mask-related violence visited upon him.
Scott: I'm hoping that, at some point, we see a ritual taking place with someone wearing that mask. #TrueDetectiveSeason2Goals.
Scott: Let’s talk about the reaction to last night’s episode: it was rough. I don’t need to catalogue the various ways people tore into this thing; suffice it to say that the majority reaction seemed to fall comfortably between “snark” and “sneering”. I feel like a lot of this was pre-ordained - people had written off the show based on casting decisions they didn’t like, a retroactive backlash to Pizzolatto in the wake of season one’s success, because they didn’t like those trailers, etc - but even if we account for the usual amount of “I already made up my mind about this, and my mind says fuck it” that happens online, the reaction still seemed largely negative. Quite frankly, this baffles me.
Phil: I think I’ve curated a more airtight echo chamber than you.
Phil: I perused some of the reactions and I know our pals Jeremy Smith, Jacob Knight and Britt Hayes all come down on the side of open-minded reason. I dug into one dumb listicle of “ridiculous things about True Detective’s season premiere", and it’s a lot of cynical, lazy sneering, and just about all the complaints could be leveled against season one. True Detective’s distinct flavor - a seedy, heightened, fatalistic tone, with grace notes of dark comedy - was maintained.
I love Colin Farrell’s Ray Velcoro so far. He’s dirty in a dozen different ways, but there’s some kind of cracked morality at work under the surface, and I’m excited to see that character fleshed out over the season. And I do hope we get to see him at Career Day at his (wife’s rapist’s) kid’s school.
Scott: Farrell’s got the showiest role, and I thought he delivered. There were moments where I was rooting for him, moments where I was recoiling from him, moments where I pitied him...the premiere gave him a lot to work with, and I thought he nailed all of it. He certainly seems to be the most broken of the four main leads, which I suppose makes him this year’s Cohle. Side note: I liked that both he and his partner make questionable choices in regards to ties. They make quite the pair.
Phil: Speaking of pairs, that scene at the bar near the end - the most stereotypically "True Detective Moment”, with the Saddest Bar Band Ever - had me thinking that this season supplants the cop partnership angle with a more Mann-ly cop/criminal story. To that end, Vince Vaughn’s Frank Semyon: also a surprise! People have written him off, but he can be interesting and even exciting when he wants to be. And they’re deliberately playing against his chatty bro persona, which is intriguing to me considering Pizzolatto says he wrote the part with Vaughn in mind.
Scott: Agreed. It’s not easy buying Vaughn as the Heavy, but he’s doing a good job of it thus far. Reigning in that chattiness was wise (I can imagine a motor-mouthed take on this character that’d be like nails on a chalkboard; I’m picturing Ricky from Made, only pure evil). And god bless him, Vaughn seems to be giving this thing his all. I’m rooting for him.
Phil: Rachel McAdams’ Ani Bezzerides - this one will be interesting. People criticized season one for not having fully-developed female characters. I wrote a long piece (that I shelved) about whether or not Pizzolatto owes anyone “well-drawn” female characters - what if he’s bad at it? What if he’s not interested in it? Do artists have to do what we tell them? How hard should we force their hand in the name of progress? If McAdams is a deliberate response to that pressure - I’m excited to see how that shakes out. Specifically because of the phenomenon of audience pressure to make Pizzolatto create a female character, I’m kind of most curious about her.
Scott: I understood why the complaints were happening during season one, but I also felt a little like you did: maybe that’s not the direction Pizzolatto wanted to go. Maybe season one was designed to be a story about broken men and the trail of wreckage - both emotional and physical - they leave in their wake, and that was how Pizzolatto wanted to go about telling the story. And when I say “maybe”, I mean “that felt obvious to me.” I like the idea that Ani may be a response to that criticism, and I’m also interested to see where he goes with her. McAdams is selling it, too.
Phil: Second sidebar: what was the sex act that spooked her sleepover guest? I joked on Twitter that it was a rorschach test - you could see it as rough trade, butt stuff, pegging, furry cosplay - but what an intro.
Scott: I feel like speculating on this is only going to get me into trouble, so I’m gonna let the show do the talking on that front (but, yeah, rough trade was my first thought).
Phil: Taylor Kitsch’s highway patrolman Paul Woodrugh is the weak link so far, but only because someone has to be. Too early to say one way or another. More than anything else, he’s the one that has me wondering whether, with four characters to play with, we’re going to lose one of these people well before the end of the series.
Scott: I’m not a Kitsch fan, but I liked him a lot here. There’s an inherent woodenness to the dude that seems like it’ll work for this character, and I’m interested to learn more about him. I sorta rolled my eyes at him happening upon Caspere’s dead body along that stretch of highway- and via pure happenstance; he didn’t even have his lights on to see that body coming - but I’m willing to roll with it.
Phil: That’s fair, but to me (and this could be me reaching) his happening upon that body ties into that cosmic noose that pulls them all together.
Scott: It’s no more coincidental than, say, Ani busting up a cam-house where her troubled sister just happens to be working.
Phil: Right. And Ani gambling at Semyon's casino, and Velcoro being assigned the murder of the city manager in Semyon’s pocket. I don’t care. Weave that web, Pizzolatto. I’m not watching a Herzog nature documentary.
Scott: I also agree that it’s unlikely all four leads will make it to the season finale. The obvious pick for “Character Most Likely To Bite It” has to be Velcoro. I mean, you don’t operate that recklessly without running into some serious consequences sooner rather than later, right? But it’d be interesting if that recklessness kept him alive, too. I dunno. As you said, it’s a little early to be calling plot developments. All in all, I like these characters, I like the performances attached to them, and I’m very curious to see where Pizzolatto goes with them.
Scott: Let's try this: what didn't you like about the premiere?
Phil: It’s easy to point to David Morse as Exposition Hippie, but I dunno, it’s David Morse. I love that guy. That scene was a big ol’ info dump, though. Stuck out a bit. Him and Lady Macbeth as Semyon’s wife seem the most wobbly bits of last night’s foundation, but I was so in love with season one that there’s enough earned goodwill here to take me all the way to the season two finale. I think.
Scott: Well said. I'm trying to think of anything that bothered me outside what you've already noted above, but I'm coming up snake eyes. For the most part, the premiere really won me over. I'm immediately intrigued, and back onboard the True Detective hype train. Bring it on, Pizzolatto and company.
Meet us back here next Monday, folks! We'll be recapping/rambling True Detective all season long. Until then: you feeling season two, or not so much? Hate the new theme song, or are you open to change? Got any recklessly premature theories you'd like to share? And most importantly: what the hell was that lady doing in the bowl of milk? Sound off in the comments below.