Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Acting Can’t Save True Detective’s Mess

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Among the many things covered in me and Katie’s review of season 5 of Bojack Horseman, one thing we talked a lot about was Philbert, the drama Bojack films throughout the season. We loved the way it poked fun at the melodrama of prestige TV. During that review, we brought up how it reminded us of True Detective; it’s a detective show about two partners, the credits are similar, the style and dialogue seem to spoof it, etc.

Never in my wildest dreams as we wrote that review and talked about Philbert did I believe I’d look back and think it was a tame spoof of True Detective. In fact, after season 3, it almost looks like a recreation. Much like The Onion with the political theater of America these days, it feels like reality surpassed the absurdity of the spoof.

Yes, season 3 recently came to an end. Opinions have varied wildly about its quality. As you can tell by my headline, I fall on the negative side of the opinions. True Detective wasn’t just disappointing this season. It was a borderline disaster. It contained every sin The Fandomentals accuses Game of Thrones of, but even worse. It’s only after I watch seasons of TV like this one that I remember why, despite my deep dissatisfaction and dislike for Thrones, I would never call it a bad show. Nic Pizzolatto makes David Benioff and D.B. Weiss look like Vince Gilligan.

true detective leads

Pointlessness and Self-Indulgence

Basically, this season of True Detective was a slow burn that never actually heated anything. After the first episode establishes the mystery, detectives Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) and Roland West (Stephen Dorff) spend the rest of the season investigate, the next 7 episodes feature a lot of investigating. They chase leads, talk it over, talk to their significant others about it. Everyone spends a lot of time staring into space sadly about it.

Slow burn mysteries inevitably breed frustration. You can never be sure the slow burn was worth it until the end. Lots of leads form, they come and go, and you know you won’t know for sure until the last-episode reveal. When it works, such as it did during the incredible HBO mini-series Sharp Objects, it sticks with you. It’s memorable in ways few other genres can be.

And then sometimes the slow burn fails to ever actually heat up. You’re left watching boring scene after boring scene where two characters boringly talk about the same things over and over. When the end comes, you realize nothing you saw throughout the season actually meant anything and all the story did was waste your time. You realize all those possibilities you theorized about throughout the story were there simply to fill space. When the reveal occurs, it feels deeply unsatisfying because it touches on none of the interesting aspects of the investigation beforehand.

See: True Detective season 3.

This season didn’t just break most storytelling rules, it smashed them on the ground, stomped on them, and dug their heels until nothing remained but dust. The vast majority of the story fed to us throughout the season had nothing to do with the ending. In fact, the resolution was so poorly seeded you’d swear Pizzolatto wrote the previous 7 episodes with no idea what the resolution would be. Numerous details make absolutely zero sense. It repeated scenes that added absolutely nothing to the narrative or characters.

This entire season wasted the time of its audience. And worst of all, it cared more about tricking and even mocking the audience than telling a good story.

The story is told across three timelines, all focused on Detective Wayne Hays. The framework involves an elderly Hays, mentally failing due to Alzheimer’s, being interviewed for a feature on the most famous case he ever worked on. The other two timelines take place 25 and 35 years before this, showing us the initial investigation into the death of a young boy and the disappearance of his sister, and then the reopening of the case 10 years later when new evidence appears to disprove the initial resolution of the case.

Rather than use this setting to delve into the unreliability of Hays as a narrator, in order to truly deliver a memorable character arc, these three timelines are instead used overwhelmingly as a clumsy attempt to keep the audience guessing at all times.We get disjointed pieces of information from each timeline placed in an order clearly meant only to draw out the mystery.

This, naturally, involves a huge number of red herrings that exist only to drag along the investigation and ultimately play no role in the resolution. Much like season 1 of True Detective, season 3 uses disturbing clues to hint at the existence of some larger conspiracy and disturbing intent behind the murder and abduction the case aims to solve. Creepy dolls, posed bodies, rich men behind the scenes, peep holes and allusions to sexual abuse, all the disturbing, stereotypical conspiratorial cult stuff people enjoyed about season 1.

In the end, all of this damn near meant nothing. These clues exist only to string along episodes and few have any bearing on the resolution of the case. Many of them exist purely to create interest during episodes which consist at least 90% of people sitting in a room or car and delivering exposition about the case, rather than showing us anything.

Even the concept of the modern day documentary interviews which brings all this back to the mentally-deficient Wayne Hays seems to exist only to suggest empty leads distracting the audience. At best, it’s a poorly executed story vehicle that ultimately goes nowhere. At worst, the documentary crew was meant to mock the fans who theorize about the conspiracies True Detective never stops telling us might exist.

The end result is a season full of wasted space and pointless scenes. The number of red herrings and random focuses just make no sense. Why include an adultery plot that goes nowhere and serves nothing? Why add a 4th timeline in the finale that tells us nothing new? Who decided to end the penultimate on a cliffhanger about a long-awaited character, only to have that character say “I knew nothing” and disappear 5 minutes into the finale? Why include hint after hint about something more when there is nothing more?

I haven’t even mentioned the number of lingering shots killing 10-15 seconds at a time for no good reason. I haven’t mentioned how the great majority of scenes feel like two characters taking turns reading a book rather than any real conversation or attempt at engaging TV. It’s all so self-indulgent, as if Nic Pizzolatto is begging you to pay attention to what a genius he is. It’s everything Bojack Horseman made fun of, but presented seriously and expected to be considered intelligent.

Pizzolatto also writes dialogue that feels less like people talking and more like people delivering his pseudo-intellectual ruminations on life. Again, it has the feeling of a book his characters read rather than writing something meant for the TV medium. Rust Cohle became an iconic character with this kind of dialogue, but what made him stand out was his uniqueness in his voice. Seasons 2 and 3 both try so hard to make everyone sound like Rust, and it does not work. You can expect the same kind of terrible try-hard lines season 2 was mocked for.

Which, naturally, makes the try-hard nature of the dialogue and themes come across poorly because you can tell the writing really thinks it is clever and saying something important, something that needs to be heard. The metaphors beat you over the head, begging you to recognize their “genius.” Maybe if he just picked a few things to focus on, he would be better. Instead he seems to need to include everything he can think of without anyone to tell him, “this isn’t good or necessary, cut it.”

Season 3 violates all the rules of sound storytelling. It constantly tells rather than shows, to the point that the finale resolves the major mysteries via back-to-back droning monologues where someone tells the detectives what happened. Numerous scenes have no purpose or excessively repeat information or character traits. These scenes needlessly bloat the story. It focuses more on tricking the audience than seeding the resolution for them. The story has no clear direction.

What kind of crime show has the crime solved via explanation by random side character? What kind of story of any kind, in this day and age, would choose to deliver its resolution with the equivalent of a mediocre page out of a mediocre book? Why does 90% of the plot development come from two characters telling us it developed, rather than showing us?

It’s a slowly unveiled mess of a season of television, one that strings you along until the ultimately unsatisfying ending. Pizzolatto yet again shows little skill for bringing together a season’s plot threads and a frustrating habit of weaving too many together. He yet again shows a poor habit for including a thousand things and delivering on very little of it.

A look inside the True Detective writing room.

Hypermasculinity and Pesky Women

These flaws could be forgiven if the characters presented something interesting. All of us at some point have loved a stupid plot because we liked characters. True Detective accomplishes this in its first season, as Rust and Marty distract from the weakness of the ending. Season 3’s fans argue that it does as well. I think it does no such thing.

Basically, imagine every uninteresting characteristic you’ve seen done a million other times in a thousand other cop/detective stories. Then you’ll have a good idea of who Wayne Hays and Roland West are.

It’s honestly remarkable to see characters so stereotypically and unironically hypermasculine in this day and age. Every episode guarantees you at least 3 scenes where the two characters sit in a bar or somewhere else drinking and exchanging curses. They’re always smoking cigarettes. You know exactly the bar and the song on the jukebox. They make all the expected jokes about women, children, the LGBTQ community, and so forth. Wayne constantly keeps secrets from his wife to “protect” her and gets mad at her for asking questions. He’s deeply Messed Up but pushes those who care away because that’s what Men do.

What does a detective do to take out his frustration? That’s right, he goes to a biker bar and starts a fight! How do they get what they want? Threaten violence and insult women! Are any of these characters called out for it? Not for a second.

If anything, it speaks to the skill of the acting that they manage to inject real soul into such obvious stereotypes. Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff are utterly fantastic. They kept me chugging through the season, well after I suspected the plot would end unsatisfyingly. They add emotion and gravitas to scenes that, in retrospect, plain weren’t interesting.

Once the plot is revealed for what it is, though, you see the barebones, cliche framework for everything. The haunted soldier who can’t share, the focus on violence, the disrespect for women. These are your typically hypermasculine men, your Walter Whites. Only I wish they had half of the nuance that makes Walter White a compelling character and the challenges made to their viewpoints. Other characters fit into this mold as well. Can’t have an attractive white blonde woman involved without a character having an affair with her!

The one compelling thing that should differentiate Wayne Hays is the Alzheimer’s I mentioned before, only it is used as much as the framing device to confuse the audience than it is to define Hays. His illness should be the thing most used to define him. Instead his defining characteristic turns out to be his repetitive arguments with his wife, Amelia, which play out over and over and over without any differences or changes in their characters. None of the subsequent arguments add anything that the first argument didn’t tell us.

At best, the season covers his mental health in a half-baked fashion as deep as a puddle. At worst it exists only to create a reason for the multiple timelines, which only exist to drag out the resolution of the crime. It’s basically a lazy storytelling vehicle. Again, I have to applaud Ali for making it more than it really was.

Pizzolatto also really fails to create any sort of interesting dynamic between his two detectives. Season 1 focused considerably on the differences between Rust and Marty. It even explored the idea of hypermasculinity in these types of detective stories through them. Wayne Hays and Roland West…are basically the same guy. They have the same voice. They make the same decisions. Wayne and Roland are the same character, just one in the most modern timeline has Alzheimer’s.

It makes for a boring dynamic between them that only really changes during the half-baked attempts at addressing racism. Nothing really comes of this. Wayne will bring up race as a reason for his failings, Roland will disagree, and that’s that. We don’t ever really see any of the racism Wayne believes he faces, which just makes him bringing it up look even worse. One episode includes a sequence where the two detectives go to a predominantly black part of town to question a person of interest. It only leads to near-violence which never goes anywhere or gets mentioned again.

You’d at least expect these characters to change significantly as the case evolves, but they don’t. Not until the end, at which point it feels sudden and unearned. The vast majority of the themes, social issues, and characters throughout the season feel half-baked like this, which doesn’t help the feeling of ridiculous bloat within the story.

Then there’s Amelia. Oh, Amelia. Wayne’s wife is a prominent part of the season, as her marriage and arguments with him feature in every single episode at some point. You’d assume this makes her a well-fleshed out character? Nope. She has exactly one-note; she is interested in Wayne’s case, and that interest makes Wayne angry, so they fight over it. Their marriage is based on the case and every scene between them is about the case.

This speaks to the larger problem with women True Detective has shown every season. Pizzolatto seems to try hard at creating good female characters, but he clearly has no idea how to. Amelia and the few other important women seem to only exist as obstacles and objects the men must overcome. Amelia is only there for lazy marital melodrama and one cheap last-second development. The documentary interviewer, Elisa, is just there to hound a mentally ill Wayne and sleep with his son before the show abruptly casts her aside.

Even the mother of the dead and missing children is there to be ridiculed as a “whore” and bad mother. The eventual villain is a woman who literally never appears before the finale and exists only to be a crazy woman. She gets zero actual characterization.

Pizzolatto might be trying for something deeper, but since like with everything else he barely tips his toe in the water, it just leads to cheap stereotypes that feed into the usual sexist tropes. None of these women get to be real characters outside of the one attribute the story shouts at the audience whenever they show up. True Detective is very much a show about “real men” being “men,” and there’s so little that is interesting about the women involved.

Then, none of those men are interesting either, really. Everyone is a stereotype meant only to deliver exposition. They are meant to read Pizzolatto’s “brilliance” and indulge his ego. Ultimately they all blend together rather than stand out in any way.

Lost Among the Trees

The season ends with Wayne undergoing one last Alzheimer’s incident. It shows him lost in a memory of entering a jungle back when he served during Vietnam. The intention is clear; Wayne is lost in the jungle of his mind and will never find his way back out.

The same can be said for the entire 3rd season of True Detective. It loses itself in meaningless plot, bloated subplots, and half-baked attempts at meaningful themes. True Detective tries to do too many things, has nothing interesting to say about any of it, and therefore loses itself in the jungle with no idea whatesoever how to get out.

It’s honestly remarkable in this era of TV, where so many shows try so many new things and push so many boundaries, to see a show responsible for one of the most renowned seasons of said era do something so bland and uninspiring. There’s nothing here in season 3 of any real interest. The elements were there. They strung me along and suggested something interesting might come of it all. True Detective spent 7 episodes making damn sure that its finale would make or break the entire third season.

Then the finale broke it hard. Most of the investigation didn’t matter. The detectives don’t really solve anything. All the answers are given via boring monologue interspersed with reenactment-level shots of said things happening. Imagine the Red Wedding not being shown, but told to us by a Frey servant with poorly filmed reenactments tossed in sometimes. Imagine Ned Stark not confronting Cersei Lannister to find out the truth about her children, but rather the servant who walked in on Cersei and Jaime in season 7.

And unfortunately, even the story resolution told to us couldn’t compare to moments like that even from a purely plot perspective, removed from delivery of the plot point. It was all deeply unsatisfying and delivered on few of the hints and investigation occurring throughout the season.

The effect is that I look back on the entire season and realize how empty and pointless it all was. I regret wasting my time on all these boring scenes of people talking about the case. I regret the time wasted on leads that meant nothing, and how I regret falling for True Detective’s insistence that it did matter. This season left me regretting every second I spent on uninteresting characters who went nowhere, subplots that shuffle off awkwardly, and a messy, logically questionable resolution.

This season is creating a lot of debate right now. Some are calling it brilliant. Some think it’s at least a good, redeeming season. Personally, I can’t understand how. I can’t understand how anyone can see all the amazing shows airing nowadays and think this is anything other than uninspired.

More than ever, I’m realizing just how hopeless Nic Pizzolatto is at writing a satisfying TV show. I think back on season 1 and director Cary Fukunaga’s influence on its quality. I think on the poor ending of that season. The utter mess of season 2 stands out yet again. The poorness of season 3 was apparently inevitable. It confirms everything I feared about True Detective when season 2 turned out so badly.

Season 3 was bad. If it wasn’t for the acting and the HBO hype machine, it would universally be considered a disaster. Acting is fine, but it no more saves True Detective than it does any other poorly written show. It’s time I give up on this wholly disappointing franchise. It’s a damn shame.

Images courtesy of HBO

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