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.

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