Trey Parker and Matt Stone's raunchy 2004 comedy Team America: World Police was originally planned as a shot-by-shot remake of the ludicrous end-of-the-world blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow. Using the exact same script that drove Roland Emmerich's hilariously self-serious movie, Parker and Stone planned to film a relatively straight-faced remake — but with puppets instead of people. The joke, they reasoned, was that The Day After Tomorrow was so staggeringly stupid on its own merits that it was already this close to functioning as a hilarious parody of itself. All it needed was one little push over the edge.
What does any of that have to do with True Detective season 2? Let me put it this way: I would love to see a shot-for-shot puppet remake of the first three episodes.
I'm not going to fully untangle the various threads of True Detective's second season for you, since what little "fun" there is to be had with this show comes from doing that yourself. The setup, in brief: Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, and Taylor Kitsch play three officers from three different California law enforcement agencies, forced to collaborate after the mutilated body of a city manager turns up. Of the three, Ani Bezzerides (McAdams) is the closest to a conventional hero; Paul Woodrugh (Kitsch) has been publicly tarnished amid allegations of an arrest gone wrong, and Ray Velcoro (Farrell) is all but openly corrupt, using his badge to further the aims of Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn), a shady businessman with his own reasons for digging into the murder.
True Detective's second season is a colossal misfire. The overarching plot is needlessly convoluted, and the dialogue is often ludicrously overwritten. ("Some people can't handle the deep trip. I fear he is a destroyer," is just one of many, many examples.) By and large, the actors seem to be drowning in this morass, but the material is so boggy that it's hard to put most of the blame on them.
Individual shots are often strikingly beautiful, repurposing the basic visual language established by Cary Fukunaga (who directed the entirety of the first season) for the sprawling Los Angeles metropolitan area. But the pacing is completely listless; there are scenes so languorous that they become unintentionally goofy, as Farrell and Vaughn silently glower at each other for so long that it looks like they've begun an impromptu staring contest. Apart from the rasping Leonard Cohen cut selected for the opening credits, the music choices are mostly cloying, from the bluesy riff that plays over long overhead shots of the L.A. freeway system, to the music of a character I came to think of as Thematically Convenient Sad Guitarist, who seems to spend all her time sitting around in a crappy bar, providing a live soundtrack for Colin Farrell's whiskey-slugging.
The most frustrating thing about all these weaknesses is that they tend to come in the very same categories in which True Detective's first season distinguished itself. The truth about True Detective's lightning-in-a-bottle first season is that it was both better and worse than its reputation would have you believe. The diehard fans who heralded it as the greatest TV show in history were way, way off — but the detractors who dismissed it entirely were wrong, too. The backwater Louisiana bayou was a setting as gorgeous and alien as anything on television. The main structural conceit, in which the two central detectives were subjected to private interrogations, was a clever and engrossing way to preserve mystery and manipulate point-of-view.
And yes, True Detective's first season could be pretty grim — but it was also pretty funny. Matthew McConaughey's nihilistic monologues got all the attention, but they worked best in concert with Woody Harrelson's regular-guy bafflement and disgust. By the time the mystery reached its disappointing resolution, the chemistry between the two stars was enough to carry True Detective through its final hour without making the whole thing feel like a half-assed shaggy dog story.
There was plenty of time to learn and recalibrate from the first season's missteps — but it feels like creator Nic Pizzolatto has taken every criticism leveled against True Detective's first season and built a new show out of it. (Is there a woman who literally lays around in her underwear, waiting to service her brooding boyfriend whenever he deigns to show up? You better believe it.) Even the winks at the occult — far less prominent here than in True Detective's first season — feel kind of half-baked: a creepy bird mask that looks like a leftover from season one's horrifying videotape scene, and a surreal dream sequence that would feel like more of a standout if David Lynch hadn't done a better version on primetime 25 years ago.
It's possible, of course, to make a show that's both ludicrously stylized and excellent. (Are you watching Hannibal yet?) What stands out here is the crushing sameness of everything. In the scope of the first three episodes, we learn that every single main character has a deep-seated daddy issue. In True Detective's first season, McConaughey's Rust Cohle was distinguished by his grim, verbose philosophizing; in season two, everybody is doing it. And it's not just that every character is miserable. It's that they're constantly talking about being miserable, in a series of broody, mealy-mouthed monologues. (Poor Vince Vaughn gets the worst of it, with dialogue that bounces wildly between the weirdly ornate and a kind of bebop gangster jargon.)
By the end of the third episode, I found True Detective's sour cynicism so wearying that I was relieved HBO hadn't sent out a fourth. There's something uniquely dispiriting about the overarching philosophy that serves as the backbone of True Detective's second season. The cynicism doesn't just apply to the four main characters; it infects the entire series, which takes place in a world where a man can be brutally beaten on the side of the road, in the middle of the day, as driver after driver blithely passes right by.
"We get the world we deserve," says Farrell's Ray Velcoro in the second episode. It's the defining quote of the season — important enough that it was slapped onto every single promotional poster. But whether or not we deserve this world is irrelevant, if it is one so muddy and empty that it's not even worth a passing visit.