August 10, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “True Detective”


The idea of applying a deep coat of existential angst to thriller conventions isn’t new–every Sundance Film Festival has at least a couple of examples of the sub-genre, and there are even sub-sub-genres of the form, like Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice and Bleeding Edge, which add surreal humor to the mix.  With 8+ hours to work with, though, the fact that TRUE DETECTIVE creator Nick Pizzolatto doesn’t really care much about the conventions he’s using as a framework (let alone have any affection for them) has become a problem, one that led this season to indifferent plotting and a sense of pointlessness that went beyond the general nihilism of the stories being told.  In Season 1, the familiar and ultimately flat serial killer plot was tempered by the offbeat buddy-cop relationship of the Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson characters, and the actors’ ability to bring humor to the game.  Season 2, which doubled down on miserable anti-heroes, was almost unrelieved in its heavy-handed gloom, despite superb production values and some wonderful acting.

Part of the reason Season 2 felt so tedious was that there was hardly any mystery to it at all.  Although the specific identity of Ben Caspere’s killers was unknown (and the ultimate revelation that they were the grown-up children of parents killed in a robbery that implicated Caspere and several of the other characters more than 20 years earlier was anti-climactic and lacking in emotional force), the identity of the real villains was clear almost immediately:  the same tycoons and corrupt cops and politicians who’ve been the baddies in every LA crime saga from Raymond Chandler to James Elroy to Chinatown.  None of them were personalized like Noah Cross in Chinatown, and we already knew that their evil would survive whatever efforts our heroes made to shut them down.

Pizzolatto’s season finale (he’s written all the episodes of both seasons, co-writing a couple with Scott Lasser) was reaching for tragic inevitability, but it mostly overextended the pretentiousness with a 90-minute running time.  Of course Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) would seal his own doom by returning one more time to see his beloved son, even though that was obviously the first place gunmen would be looking for him.  And of course Frank Semyon would make one cocky gesture too many, punching a thug rather than give up his diamond-laden suit, and cuing an unintentionally funny trek through the desert as he bled out and hallucinated miseries of his past.  Someone had to live, which was good news for Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), who was last seen teamed with Frank’s widow Jordan (Kelly Reilly) in Venezuela and leaving the story of the vast LA county criminal conspiracy for a reporter.  Since Pizzolatto has a strong streak of sentimentality to go along with his fatalism, not only was Ani revealed to have given birth to Ray’s posthumous child, but we found out that Ray was the biological father after all of the son that everyone (including he) assumed was the result of his ex-wife’s rape.

Although Pizzolatto provided buckets of exposition at times, the details of the plot only barely made sense, and the action scenes–sometimes dazzlingly staged, especially the shootout at the end of episode 4–felt superfluous.  That was especially true of tonight’s sequence where Ray and Frank massacred a cabin full of anonymous villains with enough firepower for a Rambo movie.  Pizzolatto mostly seemed to care about the arias of hopelessness and regret he gave his lead characters.  The finale’s opening scene was a prime example, perhaps the bleakest post-coital sequence in recent history, as both Ray and Ani traded dismal memories from their pasts about her molestation and his murder of an innocent man.  (Mornings are particularly tough for Pizzolatto’s characters:  Ray and Ani’s recollections followed a sequence earlier in the season where Frank imparted a childhood experience with a rat to his wife upon waking up.)

Despite all its flaws, there are reasons why True Detective has remained watchable (and strong in the ratings).  The show is filmed with the glorious care and expense that HBO permits, with tonight’s episode tensely directed by John Crowley, the filmmaker behind Brooklyn, the Sundance hit that will be arriving in theatres for Oscar season.  The design, photography, music (by T. Bone Burnett) are unfailingly feature-quality.  Then, of course, there are the meaty roles Pizzolatto provides for his leads, dream parts loaded with backstory and lengthy monologues.  Rachel McAdams was the unquestioned star of Season 2, given more to work with than Hollywood has ever provided in her big-screen roles and digging into Ani’s combination of violence and brokenness.  Farrell, too, was excellent, although less of a revelation thanks to some of his indie roles.  Taylor Kitsch, whose Paul Woodrugh didn’t survive to the finale, made a strong accounting of himself, even though his closeted cop role had the least depth.  Vince Vaughn, as Frank, worked very hard, but he was out of his element delivering Pizzolatto’s stylized dialogue, and often sounded like an actor doing an exercise.  (Pizzolatto did permit him a tiny meta joke in the finale, when Vaughn, having his first scene of the series with McAdams, squinted at his Wedding Crashers co-star quizzically and asked “We met?”)

True Detective will certainly be back if Pizzolatto wants to continue (and if movie stars continue to flock to it), but one has to wonder how long its self-seriousness can sustain itself.  Pizzolatto seems to be writing a treatise on crime drama as much as an example of the form, and for all the show’s skill, True Pretentions can often seem like a more accurate title for the result.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."