'True Detective' is not a good show

Vince vaughn true detective Lacey Terrell/HBOVince Vaughn is really sad, and so is everyone on ‘True Detective.’

Warning: There are spoilers ahead if you’re not caught up with “True Detective.”
Are things finally picking up on “True Detective?”

The fourth episode of the turgid HBO drama ended with a stunning shootout that seemed to signal a sea change for the series. And yes, while last night’s episode, “Other Lives,” kind of got things moving with a time jump and a vague sense of purpose, there still really isn’t much to recommend in the way of quality.

“True Detective” is simply not a good show.

Of course, that’s a subjective statement, but it’s one made after five weeks of earnestly hoping that “True Detective” would come together, coming from someone who really liked the first season. After five weeks of following vague developments in the nonsensically elaborate story about the corrupt municipality of Vinci, California, it’s probably time to close the book on season 2.

Even if the final three episodes (and we only have three left in this story, which is over for good when this season’s up) end up being incredible, “True Detective” is still a television show, and television shows are judged by how much their individual episodes are worth watching, not how much their finales are worth the slog.

I’m not even sure what “True Detective” as a series is definitively about, other than just how hard it is to be a man, specifically a white one. It’s so hard, says “True Detective.” Don’t believe it? Look at all the scowling! In the world of “True Detective,” everyone is always trying to undermine your manliness. Observe:

True detective vince vaughnLacey Terrell/HBOEveryone is literally trying to upstage everyone else on ‘True Detective’ for the best scowl.

Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) is in danger of losing his money and his imagined dynasty — literally the only significant plot beat his wife Jordan (Kelly Reilly) is given involves a brief bit of jealousy over an associate’s advances and her infertility, and they’re both played for how much this hurts Frank.

War hero Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) is a man of action — he got hooked on adrenaline at war, and now resorts to high-speed motorcycling at night with the lights off to get his kicks in civilian life. This is all super manly stuff — the speed, the danger, the action, the fact that he’s played by Taylor freaking Kitsch — but there’s a problem. Woodrugh is gay. He hates this about himself, because he wants to be a man — and even gets a woman pregnant and asks her to marry him in order to cover it up, even though he clearly is not into being intimate with her. But he has this clear picture of what he’s supposed to be, and he’s sticking to it.

Burnout cop Ray Velcoro probably has the most tangible threat to his masculinity — his ex-wife was raped, and the paternity of his son isn’t certain. Velcoro
hates this, but doesn’t want to find out that he’s not his son’s father. This is probably the clearest plot thread of the bunch, giving us one of the few big moment’s of the fifth, most recent episode — Velcoro finds out that his wife’s rapist has been apprehended, and that his wife might now know the truth about their son’s paternity. (This is also a big moment because it reveals that Frank tipped Ray off to — and had him murder — an innocent man when they first crossed paths years ago.)

Existing as a counterpoint to all this is Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), who exhibits a litany of traditionally masculine traits: She drinks and gambles hard, doesn’t do commitment, is into porn and weird sex, and even balks at smoking her trademark e-cigarette once Ray compares it to oral sex with a robot. “True Detective” seems like it wants to make some kind of point about sexism with her character — she’s punished for fraternizing with a male coworker who doesn’t even get a slap on the wrist — but also seems blind to its own sexist attitudes, like the way it seems incapable of developing Bezzerides’ character in ways that don’t relate to her sexuality.

The fact that I could barely remember the actual character’s names when writing this speaks to how unbearably dull this all is.

What makes it worse is that this is all a retread. Putting aside its Southern Gothic aesthetic, season one of “True Detective” was also preoccupied with similar ideas about masculinity, and they were about as tired then as they are now. The only notable difference in its attitudes was the way it tended to veer to more outward extensions of masculinity — particularly with Marty Hart’s (Woody Harrelson) overreaching paternal attitude towards every younger woman he came across.

In fact, just about everything wrong with season two is there in season one: The overwrought, pretentious dialogue, the self-serious tone, and the slow pace. Presumably, this is due to the show’s only constant: Creator Nic Pizzolatto, who writes every episode.

As season two plods along, it seems more and more like the things that made the first season better were the work of the talented people Pizzolatto collaborated with — virtuoso directing from Cary Fukunaga, stellar performances from the cast, the novelty of its setting, and creepy texture added by referencing a fascinating work of weird fiction.

At its core, though, “True Detective” is just as lumbering and dull as it has always been, and we should have known all along.

I mean, it’s called “True Detective.”

What a silly title.

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