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A bizarre murder brings together three law enforcement officers and a career criminal, each of whom must navigate a web of conspiracy and betrayal in the scorched landscapes of California. Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) is a compromised detective in the all-industrial City of Vinci, LA County. Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) is a criminal and entrepreneur in danger of losing his life’s work, while his wife and closest ally (Kelly Reilly) struggles with his choices and her own. Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) is a Ventura County Sheriff’s detective often at odds with the system she serves. Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) is a war veteran and motorcycle cop for the California Highway Patrol who discovers a crime scene which triggers an investigation involving three law enforcement groups, multiple criminal collusions, and billions of dollars. (From HBO’s official synopsis)

 True Detective: Season Two
“Better safe than something else.”

It would be an understatement to say that the second season of show runner/creator Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective was a disappointment, but I posit that the backlash began much earlier. The shine was significantly scuffed from the apple when a sizable chunk of fans were dissatisfied with the season finale. When the show hit home video and fans were able to reevaluate Pizzolatto’s patterns, the negativity compounded – specifically criticisms of the weakly developed female characters. Whatever their reason, I think that a lot of people – deliberately or subconsciously – were rooting against season two. At the very least, the magnifying glass was fixed a lot tighter than it was when season one premiered. Still, even assuming that nits were over-picked, Pizzolatto’s choices made it pretty easy for even hardened fans to give up on True Detective and move on (possibly to Fargo?).

I stuck with the show and, as I re-watch it now for this Blu-ray review, I still can’t quite tell if I liked it or not. It certainly feels like a step back from the brilliantly esoteric existentialism that defined the first season. Besides the generally ineffective detours into Will’s home life (Woody Harrelson’s character), there was a potent, if not abstract, understanding of the human condition overriding the entire season. The metaphysical ideas that Pizzolatto put forth were filtered through Rust’s (Matthew McConaughey’s character) singularly strange mannerisms. And the audience was permitted to keep Rust at an arm’s length during the early parts of the series, because everything outlandish thing he said was called out by the more pragmatic Will. Will’s respectability lends Rust credibility and Rust’s out-of-the-box thinking makes Will a better detective. In essence, Pizzolatto turned the classic buddy cop formula, in which opposites attract to make a stronger whole, on its head by telling a long-form story about the co-dependent struggles of such a relationship. Season two’s major characters are a bunch of Rusts – confused, antisocial weirdos with very stereotypical back-stories to support their tortured lives – and there are no Wills for them to bounce off of. There are also more of them to contend with and less time to follow their stories (season one covered more than a decade of time, similar to Joon-ho Bong’s Memories of Murder, 2003, and David Fincher’s Zodiac, 2007).

 True Detective: Season Two
It’s probably important to remember that, before True Detective, Pizzolatto was a novelist and fiction/literature teacher. Second season critics presume that, like many successful first-time artists/writers, he believed his own hype. Perhaps his instincts had been filtered during the first season, but, I want to give him the benefit of the doubt and say that season two’s problems aren’t the result of an unfettered ego, but a writer approaching genre from the position of a literary intellectual attempting to deconstruct and recreate the most common tropes. Every ounce of this particular story is framed by common noir/cop story conventions – Velcoro struggles with anger issues, substance abuse, and an estranged relationship with his son/ex-wife; Ani’s aggressive nature is explained by an overly-permissive upbringing and sexual assault during her childhood; Paul is a deeply closeted, self-hating gay man who suffers major PTSD from his time serving in the military (oh, and his gayness might be his overbearing, oversexualized mother’s fault); and Frank is a middling criminal whose entrepreneurial spirit dooms him and his family. Beneath this are dozens of references to genre fiction, both literature and film, most of them obviously made in reverence to what came before and others specific enough to have driven accusations of plagiarism (...again)*.

These stereotypes are treated so seriously that they do become accidentally funny at times, in part because there’s so little intentional comedy. Any levity is a respite. I initially found myself annoyed by this, but grew to enjoy the supposed tone-deafness of it all. Every characteristic is so on-the-nose that any divergence from ‘the norm’ becomes a fascinating attribute. Ani’s obsession with knives, for example, is a nice touch, though it is Velcoro’s relationship with his chubby, red-headed son that brought me the most joy. He tries so hard and his every attempt to connect with the boy is so genuine that you can’t help but love him. The fact that he continues doing something as specific and anti-tough-guy as constructing models by himself, because it makes him feel closer to his son, is fascinating. I hope for more oddly specific idiosyncrasies in season three. I am slightly concerned with the strong implication throughout the season that sex is an expression of evil, but I think this is mostly tied to the fact that these characters generally fear their own sexual impulses. Pizzolatto isn’t necessarily making a broader statement on the subject. And, in regards to the suggestive nature of sexual violence this season, I realize that the character of Ani worked for me the second time around. I’m still bothered by the not-so-subtle innuendo that she couldn’t possibly be such a self-reliant cop and brutal fighter, had she not been molested as a child, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that she’s “written like a man,” because I realized that Pizzolatto only really writes a handful of character types (she’s not “written like a man” as much as she’s “written as a Pizzolatto woman”).

 True Detective: Season Two
Part of the problem, in terms of narrative output. is that Pizzolatto is once again making a relatively modest plotline appear incredibly convoluted by telling most of the story from the point-of-view of characters that aren’t able to parse the information. The difference is that the unexpected simplicity of the first season’s case was partially the point of the exercise, at least as I understood it. Rust and Will spend years and years of their lives trying to solve a case, building up bigger and grander conspiracy theories, when the answer is literally staring them in the face very early in the investigation. Season two’s labyrinthine cabal feels like a direct answer to common complaints about the first season’s “unsatisfying” finale – like Pizzolatto is trying to give his most critical audience the intricate conspiracy they think that they want (though it’s also arguable that the murder mystery is beside the point of this investigation). But he doesn’t really have it in him to write a compellingly structured mystery. This doesn’t bother me all that much, especially if he continues to concoct increasingly tortured characters with increasingly eccentric traits. I do admit, however, that I may be immune to badly structured mysteries, due to decades of watching the worst Italian gialli and North American slashers.

Another possible catalyst for the dip in quality might be the absence of Cary Joji Fukunaga, who had directed every single second of season one. With significant flair, I might add. Season two featured direction from five different filmmakers, including Justin Lin (several Fast & Furious movies), Janus Metz ( Armadillo, 2010), Jeremy Podeswa ( Dexter, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones), John Crowley ( Brooklyn, 2015), Miguel Sapochnik ( Repo Men, 2010), and Daniel Attias ( The Wire, House M.D.). All of these creative minds do what they can to create visual homogenization throughout all eight episodes, which seems like a waste, given the breadth of talent. Still, there are some stand-out moments and most of them are quite impressionistic, like the fire-filled, nighttime foot chase at the end of episode three, Maybe Tomorrow, and the nightmarish orgy at the end of episode six, Church in Ruins. The highlight is definitely the stomach-churningly suspenseful shootout that Podeswa orchestrates for episode four, Down Will Come. I’m not sure if anything will compare to that jaw-dropping, extra long tracking shot that Fukunaga pulled off in season one, but it’s compelling to think that each season of True Detective will do its best to top itself in the shell-shocking shoot-out department.

* Something funny that I realized while revisiting the season: The shadowy bad guys’ ultimate plan, to finance a commuter train through the L.A. area, is sort of the opposite of the bad guy’s plan in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

 True Detective: Season Two

Video


True Detective is apparently still shot using 35mm film, though its imdb.com specs also list the use of Arri Alexa digital HD cameras. I didn’t notice any major deviations in image quality on this 1.78:1, 1080p transfer that would signify the use of two formats (there are a handful of night scenes that might exhibit slightly ghostly digital artefacts), but admit that the footage looks a bit ‘off’ to my eyes. Grain levels are persistent and sometimes distracting, in part because the granules are so noisy and discoloured. I hadn’t noticed this or the clumpy blocking effects that appear over the brighter, warmer colours (usually red) during darker scenes when I originally watched season two on HBO’s streaming service (the whole season is very dark and I’m glad to know that I wasn’t missing anything vital while viewing the softer HD stream). You see similar artefacts when cheaply shot or obscure older movies hit Blu-ray and, generally speaking, it’s a case of bad telecine machine scanning. My best guess is that the production used purposefully subpar film stock to create extra texture. One interesting side effect of this sharper image is that the digital effects, many of which are minor augmentations to existing architecture (like the sign on Frank’s casino), do not blend very well.

 True Detective: Season Two

Audio


True Detective is presented in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio sound. The basic goal of the sound design is create a consistently oppressive mood, even when obvious effects work is at a premium. When it works, this creates a continuous flow of ambience between scenes. For example, a car will drive out of frame and the stereo/surround effect will bleed into the music/environmental sound of the next location. There are more typical multi-channel directional effects as well – like the aforementioned episode four shootout, with its poppy impacts, back to front gunfire, and LFE rumbling explosions/car engines – but these are less common. There are occasional issues with noise reduction effects during some of the location-shot sequences. The hum and buzz of environmental noise drops in and out as the characters speak and is very clearly covered by more immersive stereo/surround effects that weren’t part of the original recording. This isn’t an issue with the track itself, of course, but it is a slightly annoying artefact. Coen Brothers favourite T Bone Burnett returned as composer/musical consultant for season two. His work was more ‘electric’ this time, presumably to fit the ‘mechanical’ Los Angeles environments. I miss the Southern Gothic twang of season one, but it’s nice to see him engaging a bit more in the composer part of his job. The most evocative scoring occurs in the lead-up and execution of the orgy sequence in episode six. A repeating synthesizer throb indicates the onset of certain doom while the nightmare of the orgy itself is represented by composer John Adams’ “Harmonielehre: Pt. II: The Anfortas Wound,” which essentially plays out in its entirety as the rhythm of the scene is built around its crescendos.

 True Detective: Season Two

Extras


  • Commentary:
    • Episode Four, Down Will Come (Disc 2) with Pizzolatto and actors Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Taylor Kitsch, and Vince Vaughn.
    • Episode Eight, Omega Station (Disc 3) with Pizzolatto, executive producer Scott Stephens, and actors Farrell and Vaughn.
  • Making The Vinci Massacre (29:30, HD, Disc 3) – An in-depth look at the production of the season’s most incredible sequence: the already oft-mentioned episode four shootout. It includes four days’ worth of raw behind-the-scenes footage and talking-head cast & crew interviews.
  • A Look Inside True Detective (10:20, HD, Disc 3) – More behind-the-scenes footage and interviews, this time with a focus on the main cast and the characters they play.
  • True Detective’s California (4:00, HD) – A montage of the helicopter shots from throughout the season set to Lera Lynn’s “Lately” (the song that closed out the final episode’s credits).


 True Detective: Season Two

Overall


Just a few days ago, HBO president of programming Michael Lombardo took responsibility for True Detective season two’s subpar performance, claiming that the studio pressed Pizzolatto too hard, too quickly for a sequel series. Whatever the cause (I think it has a lot to do with Pizzolatto not quite having a handle on the material, which might have been fixed with time), I think that the disappointment will probably dry up in a few years as people revisit the season on home video. Certainly, this was a step back – undercooked, over-indulgent, self-serious, and about three episodes too long – but there’s too much interesting and weird stuff going on here to completely dismiss it or future entries in the series. HBO Blu-ray is a visually gritty affair, as the showmaker’s intended, with a strong, ethereal DTS-HD MA soundtrack and a decent, though relatively brief collection of extras.

 True Detective: Season Two
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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