William Faulkner’s name is among the canonical writers of American fiction, but his success as a novelist did not pay dividends of the monetary kind — which is why he took a $500 a week contract with MGM to pen screenplays. The money was good, but the work was…well, it wasn’t all that literary. The job did pay the bills, however, and the money kept him comfortably alcoholic Los Angeles where, as he wrote, “everything is too large, too loud and usually banal in concept…the plastic asshole of the world.”
Faulkner wasn’t the first novelist to write scathing prose about L.A., nor was he the last.
Indeed, the novelist turned Hollywood screenwriter is a bit cliche, but it’s one where a writer with a love a deep and complex narratives runs up against simplistic and formulaic stories that often end on maudlin note. Hollywood still churns out that kind of product with efficient regularity, but now with Netflix, HBO, Showtime, AMC, and FX taking more chances on complex narratives, a novelist’s touch is in demand for some TV shows.
That’s certainly the case with “True Detective” on HBO. The incredibly popular critically acclaimed first season starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson was noted for it’s novelist flourishes, complex characters, and sprawling narrative. It’s a compelling crime drama that takes its time, isn’t afraid to go down some dark roads, shifts from the past to the present in an alluring way, and keeps viewers wondering how it’s all going to end. Season One of “True Detective” is some of the most powerful television created — and a good deal of the credit goes to two people: series creator and scriptwriter, Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukunaga. Yes, McConaughey and Harrelson did a fantastic job acting, but if it wasn’t for the strong story and a director whose vision for the series was compatible with it’s creator (Pizzolatto), the actors (no matter how talented) would have struggled in their roles.
And then came Season Two…
A great deal of proverbial ink has been spilled to rip apart the second season of “True Detective,” and some of it is on the mark. I’m going to pile on with my fellow critics and viewers to note that this story has an unnecessarily diffuse plot, borrows some of its style from David Lynch, and can’t rise above its own sense of self-importance. It seems everyone in this show speaks as if everything they say carries with it the weight of great significance. But when one sits back and processes what’s being said, it’s…well, to quote Gertrude Stein, “there is no there there.” Like Stein lamenting the loss of her childhood home in Oakland, California by noting it’s not there anymore, “True Detective” evokes a similar lamentation of loss — that is to say, the loss of the greatness of its first season.
The plot of season two centers on nefarious dealings in the development of high speed rail in Los Angeles and the mysterious death of the city planner from the town of Vinci (Latin for “overcome”). The city’s name evokes an Italian connection, and true to boilerplate form, the characters have a kind of mafioso vibe to them. The mayor is a drunken goodfella, one of the lead characters Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) is a goodfella, his goombahs look like they are from central casting, and the whole “shady people who deal in shady things” storyline about L.A. is so stereotypical that it’s not even revelatory to equate L.A. and the people who live there to purgatory. And because all the characters are in state personal, emotional and even financial purgatory, they are all striving to overcome that which imprisons them. The detectives in this tale are Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), Ani Bezzireds (Rachel McAdams) and Paul Woodrough (Taylor Kitsch) whose job it is to solve the murder of Ben Caspere (the city planner). In a nod to David Lynch (and there are more than one in this series), Caspere was found by the side of the highway by Woodrough. Later, it’s revealed that Caspere had his eyes burned out and his testicles shot off. Why? Well, that’s the mystery. Was it because he crossed some shady people and they wiped him out? Most likely. Are there layers upon layers of corruption that Caspere was in the center of? The short answer is yes. Are city politics involved? Of course! Are people warped by money, power, drugs, and all the other trappings of being a big shot? What do you think? Oh, and because it’s L.A., it’s an ominous place where everyone (no matter where you go) reacts to one another with suspicion, dread, and thinly veiled threats.
Haven’t we seen this movie before?
Sometimes three’s a crowd, and so it is with the detectives. Velcoro and Bezzireds are the most interesting of the three, while Woodrough seems like dead weight. About the only thing that’s paining this character is his struggle with his homosexuality. Bezzireds has a porn addiction and, as it was revealed late in the season, was most likely molested as a child. Velcoro is just a mess. A cop on the take, who has substance abuse problems, an ex-wife whose child is not his (but he accepts as his son), and divided loyalties between Semyon and doing his job. Is it any wonder the guy can dress himself (much less do police work)?
As a sketch, these characters could do interesting things, but that’s the problem. They don’t do much that’s all that interesting (though they constantly act like they do). Vince Vaughn is in over his head with the character of Semyon. The character wants everyone around him to think he’s an incredibly smart (yet tortured) mob boss trying to go straight. Yet, the dialogue he’s forced to spout is laughable at times. If it weren’t for his money, his henchmen, and the fact that he doesn’t think twice about popping a cap up someone’s ass, he would be some loser in a bar whose booze-filled observations are supposed to be deep, but are more head-shaking for lack of substance. Indeed, all the characters are required to speak dialogue that is so unnatural at time you can hear the writer typing at his desk. Moreover, the plot itself moves at a glacial pace that I keep thinking, “Just hang in there. There will be a big payoff — or so I hope.”
If this were a novel, I’d be skipping whole chapters to see if the conflicts resolve themselves in a satisfying way. However, since Pizzolatto is a novelist, and “True Detective” wants to play out as one, I can say that he’s failed to make me care about the “mystery,” the corruption, and whatever conflicts the characters are trying to overcome. Simply put, the people in the “True Detective” universe mask the shallowness of their lives by speaking as if there’s real gravity to them.
In other words, there is no there there.