Without benefit of McConaughey and Harrelson, drama paints especially bleak picture of police
If you did not realize how extraordinary the performances of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson were in Season 1 of "True Detective" last year, you will after seeing the start of the second season June 21 on HBO.
Rachel McAdams, Colin Farrell and Taylor Kitsch all deliver acceptable performances as law enforcement officers trying to solve a gruesome murder while surviving their own deadly psychological demons and a deepening swamp of civic corruption in Southern California. Vince Vaughn does even better as a gangster who gets overextended financially when he tries to move into the noncriminal business world.
But as hard as the four might try, their characters are still far less compelling than the detectives played by McConaughey and Harrelson — to the point that I simply couldn't get engaged in their lives or the mystery crafted by series creator Nic Pizzolatto.
The failure here is more complicated than Harrelson and McConaughey having set the bar so high.
For all the keen insights and fine writing Pizzolatto delivered last year, this season he seems content with borderline stereotypical depictions of emotionally maimed, out-of-control, angry cops that have unfortunately become a staple of TV drama. Instead of creating original characters, he simply deepens the darkness of the stereotypes to the point where I became numb to their pain.
McAdams, Farrell and Kitsch are not able to transcend that kind of material. The decline in characterization and writing from last year is instantly apparent when you compare scenes featuring two detectives driving and talking.
Last year, as the detectives were shown on a bleak back road in Louisiana, McConaughey's character launched into a mad, dazzling, operatic rant, saying, "I got a bad taste in my mouth out here. Aluminum, ash, it's like you can smell the psychosphere."
When he went on to describe Earth as a "giant gutter in space" and man as a "tragic misstep in evolution," his new partner had enough.
"I wouldn't go around spoutin' that stuff if I were you," Harrelson's character said. "People around here don't think that way. I don't think that way. … I got an idea: Let's make the car a place of silent reflection from now on, OK?"
In Season 2, you have Farrell's character, Detective Ray Velcoro, in the passenger seat questioning McAdams' character, Detective Ani Bezzerides, about the e-cigarette on which she is taking a deep draw. After pausing to think about it for a moment, he compares it to having oral sex — with a robot.
There is nothing dazzling, operatic or even interesting about his statement or her reaction. The fall-off is so great that I went back to the credits to make sure Pizzolatto wrote the episode.
Like rural Louisiana in Season 1, Southern California is more than just a setting; it's a full-blown character. And that's a good thing.
Season 2 plays out against a sun-scorched, apocalyptic backdrop. It's centered in the blighted municipality of Vinci, where Velcoro is employed as a law enforcement officer even as he's doing bad things for pay for Frank Semyon (Vaughn), the businessman-gangster trying to take control of this dirty little gerrymandered community of industrial polluters.
But for all its California-uber-noir texture, anyone who has seen "Chinatown" has been there and seen it done far better.
What Pizzolatto knows better than anyone else working in television is the way some people are maimed in childhood and spend the rest of their lives trying to survive the scars. He knows it as well as playwrights Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill knew it. With him, it's bad fathers doing most of the damage.
But in Season 2, it's as if that is all he knows, and he overdoes it.
I love TV shows that explore the dark, scary, lonely edges of existence. I love them in part because so much of the medium is filled with false sunshine, lollipops and holiday-greeting-card versions of family.
But by the time Vaughn's gangster character gets through telling his wife in great detail how his alcoholic father used to lock him in the basement and how he once woke after days of being abandoned in that prison to find a rat eating one of his fingers, I had enough. Really, I didn't need the part where he explained in even more detail what he did to the rat.
And the cops are just as maimed. Kitsch's Paul Woodrugh, a highway patrol officer assigned to work with Bezzerides and Velcoro, is a veteran tormented by his time in Iraq. He has intimacy and sleep issues. He gets on his cycle at night and rides at a reckless speed as if trying to outrace his demons — or die trying.
"Whatever happened to you, I can't fix it," the woman with whom he shares a bed says. "You're not right."
Velcoro, whose wife was raped, can't sleep either. So he drinks himself into oblivion, passing out in a dive where a performer who sounds like she wandered over from "Twin Peaks" sits on a stage by herself playing a guitar and singing some of dreariest songs I've ever heard.
"This is my least favorite life," is the refrain in one of my least favorite songs by her. She appears in multiple episodes.
The cop characterizations are so uniformly bleak in "True Detective" that it feels as if they signal a shift in TV depictions. From "Dragnet" in 1951, to the debut of "NBC's "Hill Street Blues" in 1981, law enforcement officers were mainly on the side of the angels. They were often a variation of the honest, work-oriented, virtuous lawmen of American Westerns.
"Hill Street" gave us more complicated and even troubled cops, like the angry Officer Andy Renko (Charles Haid), but they were all under the control of the fundamentally decent Lt. Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti), who put service to the community first.
Flash forward to 2002, and for all their demons, even Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) and Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce) of HBO's "The Wire" were still functional as detectives and operated with a sense of social conscience — especially McNulty.
Maybe all of the characters in Season 2 of "True Detective" will be redeemed in some way by the end of the eight episodes, but I wouldn't count on it.
Such fictional depictions do matter in the way they help shape our perception of real-life cops. That's especially relevant these days following several deaths of African-American men during interactions with police, including that of Freddie Gray, who died in April in Baltimore after suffering a severe spinal cord injury while in custody.
As I heard Woodrugh being told that he wasn't "right," I thought about CNN show host Brooke Baldwin suggesting while in Baltimore in April that military veterans who become law enforcement officers might be to blame for incidents like Gray's death because they return home "from war" and are "ready to do battle."
Baldwin later apologized, but her original statement says the perception exists of damaged cops carrying guns in American cities.
In the wake of Freddie Gray and the long-overdue, larger discussion about police-community relations, maybe we should include some reflection on the images of police in series like "True Detective" and how they might affect what we think of the real cops in our communities.