May 25, 2016

Why I'm Confliced About the Cancellation of "True Detective"

Scene from True Detective season one
There are few TV series that live up to the opening line of "A Tale of Two Cities" quite like True Detective. Season one was the best of times; prompting a phenomenon that lead to the rise of miniseries as well as reviving Matthew McConaughey's career. It was a series that captivated the internet, creating a mystery around the Yellow King along with some of the most uncomfortable car conversations imaginable. Season two was the worst of times; choosing to take the story west to Los Angeles county and cover a story that is so convoluted that it makes its mediocre prose of lines like "Blue balls to my heart." sound intelligent. Today marks an announcement that will likely forever keep the series at odds with fans. Season three isn't happening. As a result, the series will remain in limbo as to whether it's actually a masterpiece or grease fire.
True Detective isn't the first series to take a nosedive after a strong first season. Even fans of The Wire have debated on the quality of its second season, which took out a lot of the good and replaced it with new and grating characters working at a dock. However, that series at least bounced back with phenomenal seasons, including the much revered third and fourth seasons that focused on the drug epidemic and school systems. The idea of a show failing isn't new. However, there's something that still remains curious to the short lived phenomenon that was the first season of writer Nic Pizzolatto's show. It was concrete and managed to be about more than the mystery. It was about the conflicted nature of the detectives, played by McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. It was about director Cary Fukunaga's  excellent work - specifically in "Who Goes There" and its impressive closing scene.
Maybe it's why the anticipation for the series was almost too high for the second season, and why it didn't seem to click. Speaking as it retconned the universe, there was a good chance that it could go either way. The promise of Colin Farrell and future Oscar nominee Rachel McAdams chewing on Pizzolatto's pulpy dialogue. Even the idea of Vince Vaughn doing work as the villain had some appeal, despite being closer to Fred Claus than Clay Pigeons. However, going bigger didn't mean better, and anyone who could figure out what was going on deserved a medal of honor. Considering that the second season was also more of a collaborative effort, it makes sense why it feels like several ideas were merging together incongruously. Despite its failure, Pizzolatto blamed HBO rushing season two. It's not too abstract of an idea, but it still suggests that maybe the writer was more of a one trick pony. After all, the hotly debated comparison to Fargo left many wondering what was the best TV miniseries of 2014. Noah Hawley's Coen Brothers take eventually won, if just by having a second season that surpassed the first in quality. Also, those Emmy wins don't hurt either.
One of the tragedies now is that it will be difficult to assess the legacy of True Detective without a ton of foot notes. The 'Pro' could say that it was one of the best TV series of the decade, but the 'Con' can suggests this is true only if you acknowledge the disparaging drop in season two. For me, the answer lies somewhere in between. As an apologist, I was willing to give the second season a chance to unravel and prove itself. By the end as Vaughn embarrassingly sways across a desert, I knew that it was garbage. Even the magic of witty lines were fading, save for Vaughn's strange monologue about his fractured ceiling. It is a question as to whether Pizzolatto was a genius at all when in fact he was just like everyone else and had one good idea.
For many, there is a desire for something to remain pure and good. Breaking Bad and Mad Men managed to do this with barely any scars. The Wire bounced back after a rough second season. There's something endearing about a show that learns from its mistakes. Then there are those like Lost, which feel relegated to fan criticisms for botching the ending entirely. While the stories are unrelated, True Detective shares that massive size of disappointment. It's not because the series was shifted into someone else's hands, but because it made us doubt that the writer who captivated us only a year prior may be a hack. 
Many feel that way about Lost writer Damon Lindelof. Of course, his movie scripts (Prometheus, Star Trek Into Darkness) add weight to this argument. He can easily be seen as a convoluted writer, at least in the realm of sci-fi. However, he has at least proven himself with a phenomenal follow-up series called The Leftovers, which is as heady as a drama centered around grief can be. It's also possibly one of HBO's best series of the past decade after two seasons. The thing is that Lindelof has proven himself as a legitimate force, whereas Pizzolatto hasn't done much with his TV writing career beyond True Detective. All he has done is write one of TV's best seasons, and one its worst.
Maybe the tragedy of everything is that I am unable to think of him as neither a genius nor a hack. Bad seasons of TV are inevitable, even to the brightest forces. However, season one connected with me so much that I still occasionally think of how concrete and entertaining it was. Nothing can take away the magic of guessing week to week who the Yellow King was. Those kooky conspiracies are the stuff of wonders, and generally what makes Game of Thrones so appealing. However, there was no hook in season two, nor were there any defining performances on par with McConaughey or Harrelson. Maybe it was the shock of something new and exciting, but even that doesn't explain how it couldn't be halfway decent. Season two felt like a bad parody of L.A. noir down to cheesy bar bands. There's not much to sustain that is positive.
As much as the rafters are giving their loudest applause for this cancellation, I come away with a mixed feeling. Maybe it's for the best. Maybe Pizzolatto will do something better with his time away. Maybe it was the pressure to deliver on a sequel to a masterpiece that did him in. There are signs that suggest that True Detective season two was always going to be underwhelming. However, I still wish that there was a third season, if just to shift the balance in one direction. Even a mediocre season would show promise of Pizzolatto's voice as a writer. Instead, I feel the need to resort to "A Tale of Two Cities" and that opening line. Who knows if we'll ever get an answer to the question "Is Pizzolatto a hack?" All I know is that even if he delivers another gem, it will be met with the same skepticism that The Leftovers did, despite it being such an assured series. Maybe it's best that True Detective ended here and not in a less distinguishable place. Who knows. I just wish there was a more convenient way to talk about its legacy.

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