At the end of 2018, Vox critic Todd Vanderwerff wrote about the role and purpose of cultural criticism, a profession the value of which is easily spoofed but nonetheless important — inasmuch as cultural products are sign posts on the journey toward understanding the world and ourselves. To illustrate his point, Vanderwerff brought up the widely reviled second season of HBO’s True Detective, which he called an “almost unwatchable misfire.” But, he said, “it’s also one of the more insightful series of its particular generation when it comes to questions of how broken capitalist systems turn people into literal spare parts, exploitable cogs that can be hammered into place and treated like shit because they have no real value as human beings, just as pieces of the larger system,” and thus worth thinking about.
I’m not sure I’d go as far as Vanderwerff, but the second season of True Detective has stuck with me much longer than seasons of more acclaimed shows. And it’s not the stuff about “broken capitalist systems” that have stayed with me, but more throwaway scenes like the one below, from halfway through the show. In the clip, Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) is a crooked cop who’s experienced a change of heart due to a near-death experience in a shootout with a career criminal that he and the other True Detectives (Rachel McAdams, Taylor Kitsch) had pursued in conjunction with a murder. But his sudden enlightenment isn’t enough to rewrite years of being a shithead, and he’s still about to lose a custody battle for his son. Though he’s made an attempt to be relatively sober, his angst over the situation leads him to go on an outlandish, coke-fueled bender:
Now, the sight of a long-haired Colin Farrell snorting lines, chugging whiskey, and angrily shadow-boxing to the New York Dolls is obviously ridiculous (especially following a half-season’s worth of nonsense koans and aggravatingly macho behavior written into his character). But this was the point, however unsubtle. A verbal commitment to the straight-and-narrow couldn’t erase years of playing the heel; beneath all his words was the same juvenile, pathetic party hound needing chemicals to deal with his feelings. You could laugh, but you were supposed to.
Such is the duality of a show about how traditional masculinity is diseased as demonstrated by insufferable men. Pizzolatto’s protagonists are bad husbands, shitty friends, corrupt policemen, and war criminals; they are men who feel so strait-jacketed by their lives and roles that they have no choice but to act out. Men behaving badly is the hallmark of much prestige television, but the characters of True Detective suffer for their inability to change and grow. They lose wives, lovers, children; their careers sputter out and they are left drifting in a sea of booze and solitude.
The true detective, then, if you consider the show’s title in context of the show’s events, is the one who never stops working a case until it’s put down properly, no matter what the bosses and career politicians say. But the cost to such a detective is everything, and the rewards are few. The real villains slip into the shadows; the lost families remain at a distance. All this dogged true detection only brings you closer to the secret heart of life, and the way the world works, but with no resolution or connection to the things that matter. You’re still a burnout, shadow boxing alone in your apartment to punk rock.
So that’s the show. In season one, it was magnetically rendered by Matthew McConaughey (the mysterious, pretentious true detective) and Woody Harrelson (the horny, everyman true detective), and Pizzolatto received overwhelming acclaim for his brooding spin on the cop show, the evergreen genre of American television. But the second season, which aired in 2015 barely a year after the first, went off the rails. Absent the direction of Hollywood darling Cary Fukunaga, and revolving around a mostly incoherent multi-levered plot necessitating four main characters, the thinness of his thematic preoccupations felt particularly obvious. Who cares about the shittiness of men if the men we’re spending time with are boring, and the plot is impossible to follow without reading an endless Reddit thread? The direct gestures at profundity were often embarrassing, and the show was literally drab, too: Set in Los Angeles, it offered endless skyward shots of nondescript highways and cars, compared with the lush backdrops of season one’s Louisiana setting.
An artful spin on a cop show only works if the genre elements still provide a recognizable payoff, and the slight joys — Velcoro going on a bender, the camp pleasure of seriously delivered lines like “I welcome judgment” or “everything is fucking” — couldn’t shine through the fog. Pizzolatto became the worst example of a swaggering-white-male-writer-bro as the culture continued to lean away from valorizing such figures (as exemplified in this absurd Vanity Fair profile, the pleasures of which must be really experienced firsthand).
In interviews, Pizzolatto explained that the second season’s misfires were due to an accelerated release schedule — the classic problem of rushing to meet the hype without the product to show. So now, after biding his time for nearly four years, he’s returned with a new season — starring Mahershala Ali as “true detective” Wayne Hays — that takes painful care to revert back to the structure of the McConaughey and Harrelson glory days. Once again, the show involves child murders of a possibly occult origin, and takes place in multiple timelines: 1980 (when Hays first works the murders), 1990 (when Hays is asked to revisit the case by current police), and 2015 (when Hays, in the twilight of his life, revisits the case again, at the behest of a true-crime show). Some other similarities: the murders take place in the rural South; the casework is gummed up by crappy bosses looking to make a big splash; Hays, like McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, is a seemingly righteous cop with a morally murky background in law enforcement and thus a shocking capacity for bending the rules in order to get what he wants.
Because this is not our first time with the show, it’s reasonable to deduce that things are not quite what they seem, and that the unnerving elements surrounding the murder — the dead child’s hands folded in a praying position, a bunch of creepy dolls — will herald the involvement of a pedophilic Satanic cult somehow connected to the governor. The first two episodes were promising, or at least not as aggressively nonsensical as the second season. The reviews are more positive, and there’s already a terrific joke: When the white true-crime host asks Hays about the racism he experienced — and says it’s because she’s “interested in the intersectionality of marginalized groups within authoritarian and systemic racist structures” — he responds by staring like she’s dropped to the floor and barked like a dog.
It’s interesting to consider how the show has adjusted to criticism. Its second season of was so astoundingly hyped that its critical and commercial failure was overwhelmingly stark. The third season has received plenty of hype, too, but of a different sort: The question is Can Nic Pizzolatto return to form, instead of collapsing under a super-structure of bullshit? And Pizzolatto’s immediate creative choices are savvy: Ali is a critic-proof actor, following years of thoughtful and award-winning performances, and the close mimicking of the first season’s format is an effective way of reminding people that they actually liked the first season.
But the reboot doesn’t stick in timid territory: Pizzolatto is swinging for the fences by addressing race, the first time the show has explicitly done so. In the second episode, Hays accuses his white partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff) of not sticking up for him with the white bosses given his capacity to sway them as another white man. When Dorff responds angrily, and says that’s bullshit, Hays replies, “Son, I know where I am in a way you will never understand.” Elsewhere, Hays threatens a bigoted pedophile with prison rape: “You will bleed black cock,” he says, knowing the man will be particularly frightened by the racial specificity.
The show is very aware of Hays’s existence as a black man in a white world, and though it’s somewhat audacious that a white writer would make this his comeback play, the early returns are certainly intriguing. The jaded cop clinging to meaning in an evil world is an old trope, but Ali radiates empathy and intrigue. He doesn’t need to blurt any goofy koans about the meaning of life, because his face convinces us he’s still searching for the answers.
And so here we are, deep in nostalgia for 2014, when a charismatic performance and a slightly novel murder mystery could compel us for eight weeks. The fun of watching True Detective was always paired with the fun of talking about True Detective, and one auteur’s direct attempt to grapple with the contradictions of masculinity in a world in which it is often destructive and stupid. Only a man would’ve gotten the second chance after boffing it so spectacularly, but Pizzolatto is running with the opportunity. For the moment, I welcome it. In its time away, I didn’t particularly miss True Detective; there were always other shows to think about. But I did miss thinking about it with all of you, and everyone else who could not quite look away, even as they weren’t sure whether to laugh or nod.