There are few television series in recent memory that have represented both success and flop more than HBO’s True Detective. Launched as a crime drama anthology in 2014, the first run of the series was an excellent thriller that was powered by strong acting from Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. The anthology’s 2015 follow-up failed despite a cast that included capable actors like Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, and Vince Vaughn. After a two-year lay-off the next edition of True Detective is in the works, but the series must learn from the mistakes of the second season to reclaim its status as one of television’s best dramas.
The best detective stories are often like the best westerns. Less is more. More often than not, the dedicated straight shooter is all an audience needs. McConaughey brought that aspect of noir into the 21st Century with his heavy performance as Rust Cohle. He was also joined by Woody Harrelson, who gave a brilliant turn as cop Marty Hart. Writer Nic Pizzolatto’s use of the Deep South as the backdrop for their investigation was also a stellar choice that helped create dark and powerful suspense. This blend allowed for some intense drama that was primarily comprised of psychological intrigue that made True Detective one of the truly great crime dramas to ever appear on television.
Every aspect of True Detective that was a success in season one went the other way in season two. The writing lacked a cohesive storyline and ultimately ended as a disappointment. Even though Farrell turned in a solid performance, neither he, McAdams, Vaughn, or co-star Taylor Kitsch really took over the season as well as McConaughey or complemented it as well as Harrelson. Even the show’s most dramatic moment, the urban shootout, was not as well-done as Cohle and Hart’s drug raid sequence. Both scenes were likely meant to be the high watermark of each season, but the drama of the second season’s shootout was based more in the violence of the moment than a uniquely-filmed emotional ride. Without succinct writing or a clear statement moment, it is hard to define the second season as anything but a step back.
|McConaughey and Harrelson in True Detective|
The first season of True Detective had several scenes that made the next episode a must-watch event. At no point did the second season of the show have an episode that contained a string of moments that demanded further attention. Another element that was missing from the second season was the lack of chemistry. While neither Hart nor Cohle’s characters had much love for each other throughout most of the series, the on-screen duo of McConaughey and Harrelson was tremendous. This quality was noticeably absent from the second iteration of the series. While a large cast of good actors was present in the second season, at no point did it feel like the actors were given the opportunity to develop a meaningful on-screen presence together.
The confusing nature of the second season’s plot also violated the most important factor in a detective drama’s success: strong writing. Certain genres may be able to escape subpar writing, but good scripts must be in place to deliver a successful detective series.
The third season of True Detective may already be off to a more positive start than its predecessor. On July 26, 2017 HBO announced that Mahershala Ali was the first actor cast for the upcoming True Detective. This casting choice is a perfect way to set the tone for the next version of the series. Not only was Ali in two films that were nominated for Best Picture for the 2017 Academy Awards (Hidden Figures and eventual winner Moonlight), but he also received the Best Actor nod for his performance in Moonlight as well. He has already acted for HBO (Treme) and proved that he can deliver a complex performance (House of Cards) that a show like True Detective demands.
If HBO and Pizzolatto can return to a more simplified approach, True Detective can regain its potential as a semi-recurring anthology. The network must not emphasize a large cast and should partner Ali with a strong actor who he can develop good chemistry with instead of an ensemble approach. A compelling story with minimal change in the screen time for characters is the best formula for this genre. True Detective should not be like Game of Thrones and follow a host of characters with vaguely connected stories. Whether their mysteries are complex or simple, detective shows are at their best when fewer characters are in play and there is a stripped-down approach to writing.
The creative process for this upcoming season is crucial for the longevity of True Detective. A successful third season will probably result in an extended resurrection of the anthology. If the third season more closely resembles the second run than the first, True Detective will likely be dismissed from HBO’s future and the legacy of the series will be one very successful season that could not recapture its own magic.