Aaron Yap dissects the sophomore effort of True Detective thus far and compares it to Bosch, the old-fashioned cop show that effortlessly unfolds without the feverish fanaticism.
Following up the first season of True Detective was never going to be simplest task. It’s easier to appreciate this now, having chewed over the lacklustre response to the first two episodes of its sophomore season.
Neophyte showrunner Nic Pizzolatto gave HBO their buzziest new show of 2014. In the two months it aired, it broke the internet. Viewers pored over its mysteries with a feverish fanaticism that inspired countless theories and think-pieces.
Much of its success hinged on a series of elements aligning perfectly, unexpectedly, into place. You had Matthew McConaughey, riding high on his comeback wave, delivering another towering performance. There was Woody Harrelson matching McConaughey’s vigor and magnetism scene-to-scene. The masterful direction of Cary Fukunaga, who helmed all eight episodes, brought a richly atmospheric panache to the show’s alien bayou setting. Pizzolatto’s script, which juggled an intricate structure, obscure literary references and darkly philosophical dialogue, ignited our propensity for armchair sleuthing.
But the excitement seemed to burn out as quickly as it started. Towards the end of the season, the general consensus was that the show had grown somewhat conventional. With less interesting material to sink their teeth into, writers drew attention to Pizzolatto’s alleged plagiarism and questioned his shallow characterisations of the female characters. After the show ended, the harshest of Pizzolatto’s critics did their best to portray him as a complete douchebag.
Yes, season two is off to a less sure-footed start. Pizzolatto’s trying to unload a whole new story and set of characters into our laps while rather self-consciously addressing his detractors.
Trading in Gothic Southern swamps for sunny Californian highways, this season’s convoluted, mostly linear plot involves the murder of a businessman who’s in the midst of a not-entirely-legit $68 billion deal to build a high-speed railway system. It’s all very Chinatown and Chandler-esque.
Also familiar are the self-loathing, brooding qualities of our three investigating detectives. There’s Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), a corrupt, heavy-drinking loner doing dirty work for local crim Frank Semyon (a flat, miscast Vince Vaughn); Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), a war-scarred highway patrol officer battling accusations of soliciting an actress during a traffic stop and Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), Ventura County’s deputy sheriff with a thing for knives, gambling, internet porn, who hates her spiritual guru father (David Morse).
The basic gist seems to be everyone is bitter. It wouldn’t have hurt to have at least one kind-of okay cop. The piling of these screwed-up backstories pushes the show’s ponderous, humourless tone so dangerously over the top it verges on parody.
Despite the welcome addition of a core female protagonist in Bezzerides, and Pizzolatto giving a character the line, “Just so you know, I support feminism”, True Detective remains revelling in the macho-angst-laden masculine world that it’s always been. The prominence of penis-related references is almost comical: there’s a castrated corpse, talk of “butt-fucking”, “sucking a robot’s dick” and paternity testing, a guy popping Viagra, a big house furnished with dildos.
The preoccupation with the phallus thus far, almost makes season two an analog of sorts to David Lynch’s masterpiece of male anxiety, Lost Highway. Furthermore, Woodrugh’s hysterical death-wish bike ride, Rick Springfield’s bizarro appearance as a therapist, the folk singer crooning a dirge called “My Least Favourite Life” and the scar-faced waitress all seem to have seeped through from your average Lynch-verse.
Series newcomer Justin Lin, shifting gears after a bunch of Fast & Furious films, doesn’t completely have Fukunaga’s deft grasp of the off-kilter. The lugubrious pacing occasionally gets away from him. But he is reasonably good at mood-setting. The toxic industrial milieu of the show’s fictional Vinci city is established with economy, while teasing at more complex and sinister machinations within.
If nothing, Lin can at least lay claim to one of the year’s best holy-shit television moments by episode two’s end. Fake-out or not, it’s an absolutely ruthless cliffhanger that no one saw coming and suggests Pizzolatto may be taking notes from George R.R. Martin. Here’s hoping a few more left-field surprises will yank the show out of the whiskey-soaked torpor of misery that it’s currently wallowing in.
Where the stylized hardboiled vision of True Detective is the strained, sweaty exercise of a rising auteur, Bosch is a bracingly comfy-old-slippers-type of show with no agenda other than to spin a solid whodunit. Don’t get me wrong – watching them both back-to-back yields an unavoidable sense of déjà vu. It reinforces the fact that the genre’s DNA (insubordinate detectives, pissed-off captains, grisly autopsies, etc.) is so hard-coded that certain overused tropes are rarely, ever effectively transcended.
But Bosch isn’t seeking to break any new ground. It effortlessly unfolds with an page-turning consistency that can be attributed to Michael Connelly, whose books featuring the titular detective have been on bestsellers lists for over two decades now. It definitely helps that veteran writer/producer Eric Overmyer (Homicide: Life on the Streets, The Wire) is running the show, and the cast features a host of recognisable faces, from Titus Welliver (Lost, Deadwood) in the lead to reliable support from The Wire alumni such as Jamie Hector and Lance Reddick.
Welliver plays Bosch with an astutely judged combination of easy-going charm and tough-guy snappiness that’s easy to get into. There’s also a thread of loneliness. He’s so consumed by The Job that he’d give away Lakers tickets to get back on rotation even if he’s meant to be off-duty.
The writing is pin-sharp. Connelly’s experience as a crime-reporter ensures the dialogue is fastidious to procedural detail without forsaking the pulpy poetry that comes with the territory. He knows his way around smart character exposition – note how Bosch’s background is revealed vis-à-vis an on-going court case arc. And of course, the tale itself, centering around the discovery of a 12-year-old boy’s skeletal remains in the Hollywood Hills, is morbidly intriguing.
Bosch’s straightforward, back-to-basics execution might not thrill viewers looking for something out of the ordinary. For me, it’s catnip. Absorbing, and absolutely binge-ready – a true detective show.
BBC’s seven-part period magician drama Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell has piqued my interest… the Michael Douglas/Glenn Close ‘80s thriller Fatal Attraction is being developed into an event series by Paramount… the future of NBC-cancelled Hannibal looks a bit grim, as the contracts of stars Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen have expired and showrunner Bryan Fuller is off to do American Gods for Starz… thinking of digging into acclaimed Brit rom-com Catastrophe shortly.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.