'True Detective' Discussion: Why Did the Season 2 Premiere Miss with Critics?

Season two of the HBO show is tracking very differently than its inaugural run
HBO

A year ago, True Detective spawned a cottage industry of close-reading viewers who pored over nearly every shot and line of dialogue in search of greater meaning.

This year? Unless it's a discussion of how the season two premiere doesn't live up to the previous season, there's precious little being taken apart after the first episode.

For a lot of reasons, that's due to the structure of the show. Right from the start of season one, there were at least a couple of mysteries at hand: the ritualistic murder of a young woman and the narrative puzzle creator Nic Pizzolatto was building with his two leads, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson.

Amid all the literary references and Rust Cohle's (McConaughey) philosophical bent, there were very real questions about whether the 2012 versions of him and Marty Hart (Harrelson) were telling the truth; if not, what were they lying about and why; and what had sent Rust off the deep end in the 16 years in between the two timelines.

Season two of True Detective, however, is tracking very differently. The premiere plays no games with time — there's one flashback, but it serves to illustrate the relationship between Vince Vaughn's Frank Semyon and Colin Farrell's Ray Velcoro — and the question of unreliable narrators is moot because the show takes an omniscient point of view. In terms of structure, it's like a lot of crime shows viewers have seen before, give or take the savage beating of a middle-school bully's father.

All that adds up to a premiere that underwhelmed critics and some fans, if not the audience as a whole — season two's debut ratings were the second-best ever for the series.

Part of the problem may have to do with the burden of expectations. Had this been the debut episode of the series, critics may have still noted the clipped way in which nearly everyone speaks, the relentlessly somber mood and the slow, exposition-heavy pace of the episode. But given its HBO pedigree and the (still) relative novelty of movie actors doing a TV series, criticism may have been of the more measured, wait-and-see variety.

Pizzolatto caught lightning in a bottle, however, in that first season (helped in no small part by the happy coincidence of True Detective premiering in the midst of McConaughey's Oscar run for Dallas Buyers Club). Short of him producing something on the level of The Wire season four, just about anything was going to be seen as a letdown.

That the character types and basic structure of the new season are all familiar ones didn't help either. Season one was still a crime show, but the alchemy of Pizzolatto's writing, McConaughey's magnetic performance (and Harrelson's more grounded one) and the less-familiar Louisiana setting popped as something more original than the tradition-laden Los Angeles noir True Detective is delivering in season two.

The good news? Starting with Sunday's episode, the actual case — the murder of a crooked city manager — comes to the forefront, and the cops played by Farrell, Rachel McAdams and Taylor Kitsch actually share scenes together. There's a sense of gathering momentum in episode two that wasn't quite there in the season premiere.

That should serve to get the Internet theory engines cranking again, and in a week's time we'll have much more to discuss than whether or how much the new iteration of True Detective is a letdown.

True Detective airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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