In Series Breakdowns, we take a look at series of movies, novels, and television shows to track how well (or badly) they’ve progressed as subsequent editions have been produced. Every series we review has personal meaning to the writer, and our analyses will be summations of how we feel about the series, rather than a review of its merits.
As I’ve mentioned on the blog before, HBO was the undisputed pre-streaming king of adult drama series. From the late nineties until the proliferation of services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and all the rest, it felt like HBO always had a groundbreaking hour-long weekly powerhouse to anchor the television week. From Oz, to The Wire, to The Sopranos, to Deadwood, to the early seasons of Game of Thrones, HBO’s run of dominance very much patterned the playing career of Manny Ramirez. From the late 90s through the early 2010s, nobody delivered elite performance on a more consistent basis than the granddaddy of cable subscription channels.
One great HBO drama whose memory has fizzled a bit in recent years is True Detective, a pioneer in the limited drama series genre that has exploded since the advent of streaming entertainment. Before True Detective, the idea of a drama series that was not created with the intention of staying on the air in perpetuity was still a bit loony. After all, if a show makes money, why would the channel that airs it ever stop making episodes?
It was, quite literally, about quantity over quality.
When I first saw the trailers for True Detective, it never even occurred to me that its story was only meant to last a single season. I could immediately tell that it was going to be great, and I prepared to watch Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson hunt killers while beating the crap out of each other for the next several years. Once I understood its conception as a ten-episode, one-and-done season, I was even more intrigued.
It wasn’t an ongoing series like Breaking Bad. It wasn’t a miniseries like Roots. It wasn’t an epic historical bio-drama like Band of Brothers. It was something different altogether.
True Detective took the world by storm, prompting HBO to convert it from a limited drama series into the infrequent anthology series it grew to become. True Detective’s three-season run has paved the way for huge limited drama successes like The Crown, The Queen’s Gambit, The Night Of, and Chernobyl, which may have never been created if creator Nic Pizzolatto did not strike gold with Rust Cole and Marty Hart’s search for the green-eared spaghetti monster.
*Note: I didn’t even realize a fourth season of True Detective was set to be released this year until after I began writing this Series Breakdown. With Jodie Foster coming out of semi-retirement to helm Season Four, things are looking promising for the next chapter of True Detective.
Season One (2014)
The partnership between Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Harrelson) shared a lot of similarities with the partnership of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. They rarely saw eye-to-eye and experienced a slew of ups and downs, but they worked well together until their relationship blew up in an extraordinarily ugly and public manner. The biggest difference between the two pairings was that Rust and Marty got the chance to patch things up and take that one last crowd-pleasing ride together.
Cohle was the wise, grizzled genius who had seen it all and couldn’t be bothered with formalities or social graces. Hart was everyone’s buddy, the family/ladies man who could navigate the more personable requirements of a murder investigation. When a dead prostitute is found tied to a tree with deer antlers attached to her head, Cohle and Hart begin a dark journey that leads them to more bodies, an elusive sex cult, a political conspiracy reaching as high up as the governor’s mansion, and the most sordid, gut-wrenching case either of them have ever seen.
I’d argue that these are the best performances of both McConaughey’s (who won an Emmy) and Harrelson’s careers. The characters are multi-layered, deeply flawed, and irresistibly interesting. Cohle is the undisputed heavyweight champion of pessimists, torturing Hart with his brutally nihilistic worldview. Hart is too stupid and horny to realize how much he has to lose in life, repeatedly risking it all over his lust, jealousy, and insecurities. The labyrinthine case haunts Cohle and Hart for 17 years (which we follow across three different timeframes), destroying lives, families, and careers before ultimately bringing them face-to-face with depravity personified in Carcosa.
Season One is an ideal mix of fantastic acting, superb writing, and breathtaking cinematography. It blends an incredibly dark, almost gothic web of criminal violence with relatable slices of typical family life that keep the story grounded in reality. The fields and bayous of southern Louisiana deserve Emmys of their own, playing a huge role in dialing up the tension and despair of each external scene. One scene in particular elevates True Detective from a great show to a feat of technical wizardry. It’s an uninterrupted shot of an undercover McConaughey infiltrating a bloody gang battle between a group of drug-addled bikers and an entire neighborhood of well-armed street hoods. I rewound and re-watched the scene no less than five times upon my first viewing, and remember that point in particular as the moment that I realized how special this show really was.
Season Two (2015)
After the heaping praise Season One received from fans and critics alike, Pizzolatto tried to repeat the same formula for Season Two. The goal appeared to be the creation of an atmosphere akin to what you’d find in a James Ellroy novel (L.A. Confidential, The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere): a maze of soulless corruption that a few overmatched heroes must desperately wade through in the name of justice. The proportions of this recipe, however, were completely out of whack.
He replaced the eerie, mystic swamplands of rural Louisiana with the dark, impersonal freeways of urban Los Angeles. With McConaughey and Harrelson gone, Pizzolatto recruited Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, and Taylor Kitsch to play investigators with dark, haunting backstories who hunt the killer of a city official who has an even darker, more haunting backstory. Even Vince Vaughn, playing a criminal with a vested interest in seeing justice done, plays his role with a darker hue than possibly any Vaughn character this side of Norman Bates.
Whereas Season One was a sophisticated procedural that explored dark themes, Season Two just felt like a dark procedural that explored even darker themes.
The operative word here is dark.
I’ll say this for Season Two: it makes you think.
The problem is that it makes you think too hard. I’m all for a complicated mystery that makes you peel back the layers of the story to figure out the truth. Unfortunately, this story adds layer upon layer for little reason other than the sake of adding more layers. Pizzolatto tried way too hard to complicate this mystery, the result of which was an overly complicated web that, once unwound, is not even that interesting a story.
Farrell, McAdams, and Kitsch aren’t just dark, they’re depressing. They slog through scenes attempting to come off as tortured souls in need of restoration, but they are ultimately just complete downers. You kinda sorta want them to solve the mystery, but anytime they find themselves in peril you almost hope that they are put out of their misery for their own good.
Season One ends with a bit of hope, leaving you feeling that even the most downtrodden of souls may be able to find a ray of light in this ominous world. Every moment of Season Two, on the other hand, is a total drag. The closest we get to any sort of optimism is the final scene, which barely hints at a distant possibility that maybe something good could potentially come from the hours and hours of hopeless despair we’ve just witnessed.
There’s no doubt that employing a dark, foreboding atmosphere helped Pizzolatto create an intriguing world in Season One. While creating Season Two, he reached dark, then floored it and continued driving 100 miles past too dark to conjure an utter black hole devoid of light, gravity, or anything else of interest.
Season Three (2019)
Pizzolatto made a smart move in Season Three by pivoting away from the horrid underworld of perversion and conspiracies in favor of a more typical suburban tale of two missing children. This is a story of an Arkansas family shattered by the disappearance and presumed deaths of their young son and daughter, an interminable case that follows Detectives Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) and Roland West (Steven Dorff) well into their twilight years.
Season Three, like Season One, takes place over three different timelines. The Purcell kids go missing in 1980, after which the case is promptly solved. The case is suddenly reopened ten years later, then remains open until 2015 when Hays, now suffering from dementia, recruits West to help him solve it once and for all before his faculties completely fail him.
The relationship between Hays and West is not very adversarial, which is actually refreshing after the continual headbutting between Cohle and Hart and then the endless deception and mistrust of Season Two. These are decent cops trying to solve a case that rattled a community. They back each other up as they weave in and out of each other’s lives throughout a period of 35 years, linked by a mutual respect and personal obligation to figure out what happened to these kids.
The main conflict among the protagonists actually takes place between Hays and his eventual wife, Amelia, who meet during the initial 1980 investigation and then clash in 1990 over a true crime book she has written about the case. But the most intriguing struggle takes place between Hays and his own mental condition during the 2015 timeline. Hays’ spiraling memory significantly dilutes his analysis of the 35-year-old case. He even finds himself hopelessly lost and confused from time-to-time, with no idea where he is or how he got there.
Season Three of True Detective is a solid return to form for Pizzolatto. It’s an interesting story told from a unique perspective that doesn’t recycle the themes we saw in Season One or frustrate audiences like Season Two. It doesn’t eat at our soul or overcomplicate the story, but it doesn’t pander to us or oversimplify things either. While it lacks the groundbreaking impact of Season One, Season Three is a worthy companion that reenergizes the True Detective franchise and leaves me confident that the upcoming Season Four will be more than worth my time.
True Detective began with wild fanfare and success that Season Two stained with a contrived attempt to craft a new story using the same DNA profile as the old one. Season Three salvaged the franchise by organically presenting a compelling tale that could stand on its own merits without some perceived need to wallow in hopeless misery.
I highly recommend Seasons One and Three of True Detective, and I encourage all viewers to avoid comparing the seasons until after completing both. Since each season is a limited, stand-alone story, you can feel free to skip Season Two altogether.
Life’s too short to be depressed by entertainment.