Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Save me, Jebus.

So, yeah. This will be the last post about True Detective for the foreseeable future or at least until Nick Pizzolatto buries the hatchet with Cary Fukunaga and/or finds a decent casting director and/or rediscovers the mojo that led to a brilliant story in the first season. This season is a trainwreck, interesting only for how bad it can possibly get before the end.

We're both pretending to be Pizzolatto jerking ourselves off.
Let's start with the cliché, since there were plenty to choose from. Ray and Frank square off across the kitchen table, guns drawn, tension high... and trying to make every sentence sound as profound as possible, since only one other person in the world might remember how eloquent you were before you had a hole blown in your chest, presuming that he doesn't a) also die and b) decides to preserve your brilliance for posterity when he staggers away to the ER. I mean, seriously: "If you ever point a gun under a table at me again, you better not let me see you coming." What does that even mean? How does it make sense? Once again: People don't fucking talk like that! Stock characters could. Animated mannequins might. Writers trying to club people over the head with their self-declared brilliance do... Oh, wait. There it is. What happened to the casual pace of last season, where confrontations like this developed out of daily life (as they do), rather than completely artificial staging (as they don't)? What happened to the relationship between the leads that drove the story? What happened to the story?

Apparently that story also includes a key character named "Stan", because Frank has been mourning "Stan" for the last three episodes, including this one, where he spent several minutes delivering bullshit homilies about having a heart of gold. Who the hell is "Stan"?  Oh, right.

That's Stan. On the left. With the breathing problem.
"Stan" was the guy with a whole sixty seconds of screen time before he was ambushed by a couple of Russian heavies and dumped in a drainage pit. And yet Frank has been acting like it's the ides of March and he finally got around to doing "Friends, Romans, countrymen..." to an eight-year-old. Because, you know, "Stan" was that important of a guy. Seriously. Is this where a writer gets stuck on the small details and loses the (many) thread(s) of the plot?

I'm feeling almost as distressed about what I was watching.
But the crowner, of course, was the orgy scene. This is HBO, right? This is the network that isn't afraid of showing realistic events, right? So, they decided to rein it in and didn't show anything explicit. Fine. I don't care about that. If they wanted to paper it over, that's their choice. But to take a lead character, place her in the midst of that kind of event, and then keep everything essentially as background noise does a disservice to the audience and the character. Ani is someone who has some psychological issues around sex. Great. We should be able to follow her into this event and experience her twisting reactions to what she's seeing. But we don't get that. We get a drug reaction that has no connection to reality whatsoever! "Molly" is MDMA, also known as Ecstasy. Ecstasy is an enhancer, like cocaine. It makes you feel really good and like the whole world is a party (I know. I've taken it.), exactly like the other women seemed to be acting. What it doesn't do is cloud your vision and make you feel like someone has just hit you over the head with a shovel. That sounds a lot more like the various "date rape" drugs (Haven't taken'em. Only know secondhand.) So did everyone else get Ecstasy and Ani got something else or did she just have a worse reaction to X than anyone else, like, ever? Couldn't we have gotten this just from the emotional blowback as we now know that her personality has been shaped by a childhood assault? Wouldn't that have been more interesting and made this whole scene (and episode... and season) seem less staged and artificial and stock PG-13 action film?

Incidentally, given the amount of disorientation she was showing, it's obvious that whatever drug she was given had long since entered her bloodstream, which means putting her finger down her throat would do jack-all for her state of mind. But, amazingly, post-bathtub Ani can sprint down a hillside, perfectly lucid, while carrying another woman (her conveniently discovered missing person that she didn't see waiting on the street... or in the bus... or in the front room... until Ani discovers her in the bathroom also having the worst reaction to X ever known (So now there's two. Scientific trend or just shitty plotting? You be the judge.)) Vomiting apparently does more for Ani than any other human alive. And we thought her sister, Athena, was the god...

Wait! It's an actual plot! Hide!
Insult to injury was Ray and Paul doing what cops everywhere do: overhear key conversations while avoiding detection only to break in and steal conveniently placed documents that reveal the whole scheme. That's what being a TRUE detective is all about! It's also an example of a screenplay written by a freshman at USC. It hits the right notes for bog-standard cop flick, but is a far cry from the far more interesting first season, where actual police work (boring, repetitive, takes a long time, with occasional inadvertent discoveries or methodical assembly of testimony) was shown with fewer shortcuts but far more interesting development. You know: not CSI: Vinci.

Kill it, Ani! Kill it with-! OK. Not fire. Just kill it.
So, yeah. We're done here. Given the bookends of The Killing and TD2, I'm feeling relatively safe in saying that TD1 was a fluke of timing, where Pizzolatto had his baby that he'd been nurturing for years and tossed it to two guys (Fukunaga and McConaughey) at the peak of their powers and they made it into a thing. Cut away the latter two and leave Pizzolatto and we're left with this,which isn't something that anyone is going to watch on a regular basis (in addition to the poor casting.) I'll leave the last two on the DVR and watch them someday. Perhaps the next time I score some X so I can take a hit and try to feel good about it, but probably not.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Dolor, episode 5

Nothing embodies the feeling of watching season 2 of True Detective more than the above GIF. It's kind of a persistent malaise, where you wait for something compelling to break you out of your one-blink-every-five-seconds pattern. Of course, I do a fair amount of eyebrow-raising and low mutters of "Are you fucking kidding me?" but even those are pretty low-key and brooding, which is exactly the atmosphere that writer Nick Pizzolatto enjoys and employed in the first season. The difference is that the first season had a better story, better actors, and a better screenplay for them to work with. This season remains a step down in every possible respect, which is probably why I only feel motivated to write about it at every other episode.

Story: At the most basic level, the stories of season 1 and 2 (We really need a shorthand to differentiate the two, but one was in Louisiana (LA) and the other is in Los Angeles (LA), so... Since we're in the vein of police procedurals here, perhaps TDBayou and TDVentura? Let's go with that.) aren't that different: troubled cops investigate ritual murder, find a tangled network of interests behind said murder(s) while trying to sort out their own problems. But the essential conflict in TDBayou was between Rust Cohle and Martin Hart. They got swept up in the weird circumstances surrounding the murders, but it was still about nihilist Cohle and his drive to help people in the face of his own darkness and traditional Hart and his drive toward self-destruction in the face of his assertion that the world was better than Cohle was saying it was. There was a basic dynamic there that provided the fulcrum for the whole package.

In TDVentura, we have twice the leads with twice the problems, but the problems are more personal. Everyone is struggling with their own version of impotence, which is a story and certainly something that most of humanity has encountered at one time or another. But it lacks the grand philosophical framework of TDBayou and is going to be both less interesting and less compelling, as a consequence. Indeed, a story about impotence is kind of less compelling almost by definition. You can say that Ray Velcoro's anguish about losing the kid that may not even be his is genuinely interesting, but I can argue that Rust Cohle's assertion that the kid shouldn't even be alive is probably moreso but, then, I'm a cynic. The fact that, by episode 5, we're only now finally touching on whether the series of events that immediately followed that kid's conception is based on a lie may also be an indication of where TDVentura has gone off the rails, because we had to sit through quite a bit of dreck to get to that moment of genuine interest.

Actors: In short, Vaughn is totally one-note, McAdams is invisible, and Farrell swings between effective (or even good) and looking like he's giving an acting class on how to emote ("OK, class. THIS is anguish!") Kitsch is the only one who looks like he really gets his character, but even in this latest episode he was chewing scenery in the scene with his mom. You can argue all of those points except Vaughn, in that Woodrugh is already kind of overwrought and Bezzerides is trying to stay in the background in a lot of situations and Velcoro is definitely confused about his route in life... but none of them have really been selling me on those points on a consistent basis. Farrell and Kitsch have both had good moments so it hasn't been a complete disaster, but I think the characters that they're playing are meant to be so dolorous and so crushed by the seeming inevitability of their lives ("You stick with what you know.") that they don't have a lot of room to maneuver.

Vaughn, OTOH, is just lost. He does the same thing every episode, regardless of circumstances or whom he's playing across from. At the very least, he's not doing summer stock and breaking glasses in a fireplace in every third scene, but there's no sense of style or expansion of the two-dimensional role that he's been given. He's going through the motions and it shows.

Screenplay: The script, of course, is doing them no favors. There's a cliché moment in every episode where someone has to spout something that's supposed to sound profound but which comes out sounding like they're quoting from a Dear Abby column. No one fucking talks like that! Or at least they don't if they don't want to get punched by whoever they're hanging out with. At least when McConaughey was doing it in TDBayou, it was a pattern that was set from the first minute of the series and you knew he was a little off-kilter. It also helped that he was the only one who did it. Now it seems like Pizzolatto has extended that speech pattern that so many viewers loved to everyone in the show. It's like when Chris Claremont wrote the X-Men and everyone started talking like Wolverine, because he was the most popular character. All that tells me is that these aren't real characters. They're shells. That's what happens when you can't really get inside the heads of your people. They speak in aphorisms and their motivations often seem contrived or rote. That likely means that Vaughn couldn't get anything from his role even if he was capable of doing it.

Plus, did Pizzolatto really need to do the Terminator 2 thing (i.e. tell the same story using the same devices)? So, you have this great story where these cops think they've solved a case and move on with their lives only to find that it's still lurking around the periphery and poisoning those lives. Worked the first time, so let's do it again! This time it's only 66 days instead of 3 or 4 years, but it's the same device. "Do you think we really solved the case?" Of course not. There's three episodes left. Do you think you really have to drag the audience through this "waking up" moment, especially considering that a bunch of dealers in a factory, having nothing to do with crow-masked guys with shotguns or state government, are nowhere near the red herring that was the two true believers that Cohle and Hart executed in TDBayou? No one with any shred of deductive ability could think that a couple of gangbangers desperate enough to spray down a police raid in the open were the same guys who would effect a ritualistic murder on Caspere. The characters aren't that dumb and neither is the audience. At least in The Killing, we'd waste an episode on a red herring that seemed plausible until the end. What this tells me is that the big firefight in episode 4 probably should have taken place in episode 2 so that there was chum to swim through and we could get to some of the more interesting aspects of the story much sooner. Of course, to have impact, something like the revelation that Semyon had lied to Velcoro about his wife's rapist has to be a bit drawn out. What that indicates to me is that this whole story needed more time in the planning stages so that the show wouldn't have lost half its audience by this point.

So, yeah... Again, Pizzolatto made kind of a point to the press that the show was his baby. It wasn't McConaughey. It wasn't Fukunaga. It was Nick. All Nick. And, despite the fact that those two still have exec producer credits on the show, it's clear that this is all Nick and it's not very good as a consequence.

Monday, July 6, 2015


I didn't write anything about last week's True Detective because it was basically a non-entity to me. It didn't lead to the "lolwut" level of response like the opener, but it also didn't do anything to recommend the show. Yes, yes: "Colin Farrell took two blasts from a shotgun at close range!" Big deal. No one could believe for a second that they would build Ray into the most faceted character in the show and then kill him in episode 2. For those of you about to drag out the now-hoary Eddard Stark example, please recall that he was around for 9 episodes before he got the Public Safety haircut, to say nothing of the plot kind of shepherding everyone in that direction, anyway. Other than Dr. Pitior, easily the most fascinating character of the show and played by none other than Rick Springfield (Jessie's Girl!), episode 2 was a lot more of the same: incredibly morose cops surrounded by incredibly obvious corruption and a crimelord who's determined to be the toughest not-tough-guy anyone has ever seen.

Episode 3, despite being lauded by some critics who had gotten previews as the moment when the series begins to take flight, didn't add a whole lot to our continued tour of CSI: Eyes Wide Shut. Ray did survive being gunned down by the raven-masked guy (Dark wings, dark wo- oh, wait. Just riot shells. Since Pizzolatto is dipping into Kubrick, I thought he might borrow from Tarantino and make it rock salt.) and remains the one actor with a lot of meat to work with in terms of character, but who is still sandbagged by dialogue that seems to have come from the writers' room dartboard. He actually sat across from a guy he's known forever and used the word "apoplectic" like he was quoting Atticus Finch? And then explained drinking a glass of water (without ice? In a bar? I know there's a drought, but...) because "I want to stay angry." Sure, it could be false bravado and, given Ray's character, probably is. But it also sounds clumsy and forced. There's a fine line between selling that as a character and making your audience think that the writer was out of ideas when it came to that line and I'm not quite sure that Pizzolatto is staying on the right side of it. Farrell continues to work with what he's given but a couple more haunted looks and I think he might have reached the limit of what he can do here.

Taylor Kitsch, OTOH, did take a much larger step toward becoming a (ahem) person of interest when we discover that the reason for the performance-enhancing drugs and the angst over wartime is not about the combat, but the lover he can't quite forget and the associated urges. That's real conflict and created real drama and genuine character interaction when he found the guys who could lead him to the club, not to mention the series-defining line to this point: "They won't even talk to you... with that angsty, cop thing you're rolling." Yes, you. All of you. Even the one who's not a cop. Suddenly we have someone who's struggling not with the demons of the past that none of us can really see, but beasts of the present (one might even say "animal lust", if one were so inclined) that are Mr. Right here and right now. Woodrugh's insistence on not looking at the people who can already see right through him was a great bit of acting by Kitsch.

And then there's Vince. Poor Vince/Frank. The guy just can't catch a break. Problem is, he can't act one, either. While I was intrigued by the casting of comedic actor Vaughn to play a role in a series that was doubtlessly going to be way, way out of his typical range, at this point I think we have to declare this a failed experiment. Most people (or at least those who hadn't seen Dallas Buyers Club) assumed that Matthew McConaughey couldn't do grim and gritty, either, but he sold it last season from the first moment in the interrogation room. Even while he was rambling, the restraint, the tension, the coiled power, was there. Frank Semyon is a different character, but I think he calls for that same kind of self-assuredness and Vaughn just can't do that. Every time he's on screen, he's bloviating and leaving everyone with the impression that he's in control of nothing, but especially not himself. This is a guy who deals with the Russians? I ain't buyin' it. It'd be approaching believable if he played it with some comic timing, as in most of his other roles. Those are the actor's roots and, therefore, would be easier to accept as the character's roots, too. It's where he's comfortable. Instead, he just looks as out of his element in performing the role as Frank does in trying not to be tough.

In complete contrast, what we have in Antigone is a capable actor in Rachel McAdams with a role that's bordering on utterly worthless. She's a sounding board for the crazy guys. That's it. It's the same problem that existed in season 1, where every woman in the show existed solely to be the scenery for Marty and Rust. Since that series was essentially about their contrasting and hypocritical personalities, you can make an allowance for the fact that most of the other characters didn't exactly have depth. But Ani is no different. Her "moment" in episode 2 was a few seconds where we discover that she actually likes porn. Newsflash: Everyone likes porn. (One day, I will actually get into a Moth Radio Hour session and regale you all with a story about that very topic.) Porn is one leg of the stool that makes up the Interwebs, along with Amazon and Youtube comment threads. This is not a huge revelation nor does it make her tortured or weird or perverted in any way. It's normal. If it's meant to reinforce the fact that she keeps everyone at a distance, we already know that, since the rest of her character serves as nothing but to be the normal, straight-laced "good" cop who gets to be the contrast to the guys with all kinds of issues. You know, the ones that are actually interesting.  The fact that McAdams can play the stock casting call "tough cop" that the role apparently is and still have a certain degree of chemistry with her partners ("Is that a fucking e-cigarette?") is a credit to her, not the role. Episode 3 did nothing for her but give her a bunch of scenes where she shows she's the "hard worker" and "too obsessed with her job to have a 'relationship'" (Ewwww!) and she's built this tough, outer shell to hide the fact that she likes watching people screw? Um... so do I. So does everyone. This is not a crisis.

If I sound like I'm ripping the show up one side and down the other... well, it's because I am. Like many, I had high hopes for it after the phenomenal first season and the second season has turned into something that I would have dropped from my viewing time if not for the foundation laid in the swamps of Louisiana. The setting is less interesting, the characters are less compelling, the writing is exposition on meth, and all apologies to T. Bone, but the theme song kinda sucks, too. At this point last season, I was enthralled. Here we are one episode from the halfway point of season 2 and I'm really kinda bored. I don't care about Caspere getting his balls blown off and the big plot to build a trolley. There are a couple points of intrigue (Rick Springfield! Who knew he could even act?) but they're not really worth the hour a week to dig for them. One does have to acknowledged the awesomeness that is Fred Ward (Remo!) playing Ray's dad, but that's just one more candle in the darkness. We'll give it one more week and then HBO might be getting cut off until March.