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This article was published 12/7/2015 (1558 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Remember last year, when we couldn’t get enough of True Detective? All that Internet theorizing about the show’s slow-drawlin’ nihilist philosophy. All that rabbit-holing over the Yellow King and Carcosa. All those Rust Cohle memes and GIFs and YouTube compilations.
Poor, doomed True Detective season 2. There’s just as much brooding, just as much corruption, just as many hints about secret animal-masked sex rituals, just as many damaged, difficult men. (More, actually!) But people don’t seem to care.
Season 2 hasn’t been critically savaged. Its ratings are solid. But the second outing of creator Nic Pizzolatto’s series hasn’t acquired the audience buzz that comes from compulsive close-viewing and obsessive analysis. Many season 1 superfans have switched to hate-watch mode for season 2, or they’re ignoring it altogether.
This seems to be the doubleedged destiny of TV fandom: Adoration leads to expectation and expectation leads to backlash. Fans seem to get emotionally entangled with their serious series television, more than any other pop culture form right now. Played out on social media, this relationship involves infatuation and frustration, heady passion and crashing disappointment.
True Detective is experimenting with a new way of doing long-form television. From season to season — right now there’s an envisioned third series, but who knows? — writer Pizzolatto stays, along with some related themes: The moral rot of power and privilege, the social and spiritual decline of America, the crisis of masculinity. (Oh, the crisis of masculinity.) But each eight-episode season involves a different setting and different characters and new stories. Right now we’re in Vinci, a sun-bleached southern California spot that’s less a city and more a holding company for sweatshops, porn producers and toxicsludge- emitting industries. The murder of a city official at the centre of a crooked land deal involves law enforcement agents (Rachel McAdams, Taylor Kitsch and Colin Farrell), all at various stages of professional and personal burn-out, and a nervy thug (Vince Vaughn) trying to go legit.
The decision to relocate feels brave, especially compared with so many series that outstay their original inspirations. But the second go-round of True Detective seems doomed to disappoint.
Some fans are punishing it for being too much like last season (why are women always leaning against door jambs in their underwear?). But most are punishing it for not being enough like last season (why aren’t detectives driving around the bayou and talking about existential dread?).
It’s kind of like what the young gangster says to the weary older gangster in the show’s most recent episode: "You ain’t that thing anymore. What you used to was." (Of course, this kind of unintentionally funny dialogue supports the argument that season 2’s problem might not just be the constant comparisons to season 1. Season 2’s problem could be that it’s objectively sucky.) The True Detective letdown actually started with the season 1 series finale, when the big mystery was solved in a way that couldn’t possibly live up to all the gloriously paranoid and complex conspiracy theories floated by fans.
Back in July 2014, an Indiewire critic was already asking whether we were bound to be dissatisfied with season 2. Sure enough, in the following months, rumours about casting, locations and storylines were discussed to death. Trailers, posters and stills were parsed to see if they seemed sufficiently True Detective- y. (Significant stares? Check. T Bone Burnett’s moody playlist? Check. Portentous statements? Oh, yeah.) Pizzolatto tried. With the constant threat of the sophomore slump looming in fan forums and online analysis, he might have tried too hard. In season 2, he seems to be itching to get into a bar fight with Ernest Hemingway, Dashiell Hammett and Cormac McCarthy. His writing feels even more selfserious, more pointlessly grim, more hung up on good men going bad.
Last season was already veering close to parodying prestige-TV tropes. This season seems to be parodying itself. Sometimes, the romance between a show and its viewers ends badly. To paraphrase True Detective 2’s tagline: Maybe we get the television we deserve.