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True Detective season 2: The Verdict

True Detective concluded this week with a feature length episode. It was obvious from the nature of the noir-tinged plot and characters that a happy ending was never on the cards.

In the corrupt LA town of Vinci, all dice were loaded. For eight episodes, we have followed four troubled characters (three cops and a gangster trying to go legit) against a background of institutional corruption. In an eruption of violence, some characters fell and resolution was fleeting and insubstantial. The world of True Detective’s second season was as bleak as a James Ellroy novel.

Who didn’t turn on their sofa to remark ‘are you following any of this?’ At least once over the season’s run? Nic Pazzolatto’s dense story failed to provide a moment of true revelation, a moment where all story strands come together. The contemporary phenomenon of ‘binge viewing’- watching an entire series in short bursts – encourages a novelistic ‘reading’ of TV. Like Game of Thrones, True Detective dispenses with ‘previously on…’ recaps. Viewers either refer back to previous episodes or the Internet to keep up to speed, or must simply go with the flow.

There has likewise been a sense that Pizzolatto was perhaps reacting too much to criticism of the first season. In particular of his female characters. Women were sidelined in that first season and in detective Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) the writer succeeded in creating a compelling and interesting character. Other female characters fared less well, often in supporting roles as alcoholic mothers, girlfriends, prostitutes and waitresses. There is a case to be made that this is a sober reflection on social inequality, but these characters often only served to accentuate the pain of the men striding across center stage. Most disappointingly, Kelly Reilly had little to do in a stereotypical gangster’s moll role. If Pizzolatto did plan to address this criticism of the first season he only partially succeeded.

As a piece of entertainment True Detective may have been flawed, but it still regularly made great TV with standout set-piece moments like the infiltration of a high society sex party in the episode ‘Church in Ruins’. Sound tracked by a lush score, Bezzerides attempted to find a missing girl in a dangerous orgy while drugged and armed only with a concealed blade. Meanwhile, Detective Velcoro (Colin Farrell) and Officer Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) broke in to get her out safely (and discovered documents containing the key to the mystery). The sequence was high Hitchcockian suspense and nearly unbearable in its tension.

It is the fascinating characters of True Detective that really elevated the series and compensated for its shortcomings. Velcoro’s strained relationship with his son and Woodrugh’s denial of his homosexuality made for memorable characters that came alive even when over stylized hard-boiled dialogue threatened to take the show into parody. Vince Vaughan was less surefooted as the mobster Frank Semyon; often mistaking glowering for acting, but his character’s ultimate fate was both terrible and moving. While Woodrugh’s story and background could have used more attention, this was a season that made you care about these people. Characters so flawed they could be villains in a story more judgmental in its morality.

When the dust settled, True Detective season two emerges as a qualified success, but still one of the best US crime series of the year.

Review by Stuart Barr.

What did you think of True Detective season 2? Will you be crossing your fingers for a third season? Let us know in the comments below…

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