As has been too often noted, reviewing television shows based on a smattering of episodes is similar to reviewing a book based only on its early chapters. This is a complaint often trotted out by creators who think their show has gotten a bum rap (a cohort that overlaps significantly with creators who think a “bum rap” is anything less than a 100 percent approval rating). As such, this analogy is almost always used as a chastisement against judging a TV show too early. It is not, as it could be, used to point out that the early chapters of a book are a pretty good indicator of the novel to come. And it is not, as it could be, used to highlight how much more patient people generally are with TV shows than with books. “Stick around! It gets good around Episode 3” is something people say encouragingly all the time. “Stick around! It finally gets good around Page 200!” is only a recommendation for a book compared to “it never gets good.” The TV-to-novel analogy generally encourages haters and quibblers and critics to hold fire from a series in the midst of becoming— and that means it just as often guilts haters and quibblers and critics to hold fire from a series in the midst of unraveling.
True Detective, I’m talking—seriously, without a hint of humor or levity or self-awareness—to you.
Just three weeks ago, I wrote a generally positive review of the new season, in which I mildly dinged the show for being humorless, completely elided the over-intricacy of its plot, and described it, all in all, as not being a “belly flop.” Having seen last night’s episode, the season’s fourth, I can only hang my head, apologize, and turn in my diving judge’s badge. I was giving True Detective the benefit of the doubt, when, obviously, I should have seen the signs, the poor form, the confusion, and known what was coming: a full body splat into the pool so powerful it leaves all the poolside flip-flops caked in chlorine.
Sunday night’s episode was really, really bad, and not as an outlier, but as an apotheosis. The show has been humorless all season, but Vince Vaughn continues to suppress his natural charisma so mercilessly that every scene he is in feels like it might be one from The Room. Bezzerides’ father told Velcoro, “you’ve got the biggest aura I’ve ever seen,” and everyone, somehow, stood around, not laughing. Bezzerides grimly tells Velcoro that this means “I don’t know—you’re a mood ring?” leaving the real joke, about an aura-measuring contest, to languish unused.
All season, Vince Vaughn’s character Frank has been speaking in overwrought circumlocutions, but only last night did they reach, for me, the point of utter gibberish. “I won’t do another man’s time,” Frank said, not about, you know, a crime, but adopting a child. I include that as an example, a pretty tame one, because at least in that scene I knew, basically, what was happening: he and his wife were arguing about how to proceed on their quest to become parents. I can’t include a quote from Frank’s other scenes, in which, I think, he took back his nightclub and shook someone else down to start moving drugs, because his dialogue was so contorted it didn’t enter my brain as spoken language, but some experimental new form of pig latin: ootay eriousay uckingfay.
Verbal opacity has long been a feature of some of our very best dramas: The Wire, Mad Men, and Deadwood all occasionally plop you into the middle of a scene so thick with wordplay and minor character names and politics that you have to make a real effort to grok what is happening. It’s a style that is favored by many ambitious shows (not all: see the crystal clear Breaking Bad) because it requires the audience to make an effort, to actively engage, or risk misunderstanding. When it works, it does feel a bit like getting tossed into the pool: you sink, panicked, into all that density, thrash around, and then come up for air. But on True Detective the shore is just too far away. What is anyone saying? What is happening? Who are they shooting? It makes me want to give up and drown in another TV show.
It’s not just the dialogue: it’s the plot. Season 1 of True Detective was hardly uncomplicated, but compared to what’s going on in Season 2, it was as streamlined as a bullet. All the explaining I am about to do is at odds with the feeling of watching this episode, which, for me, was kind of irritated befuddlement: It was all so incoherent I just wanted to ignore it. That is, however, not an option for a TV critic. What I think happened is that Bezzerides, Velcoro, and Woodrugh followed up on various leads that suggested the Mayor of Vinci, whose name regularly eludes me, is the big bad. The mayor’s daughter made a connection between the mayor and the murdered guy’s creepy shrink; Bezzerides’ father made a further one, connecting the mayor and shrink to the cult-communes in the area. Then Woodrugh found the murder victim’s watch in a pawn shop, where it had been pawned by a woman we don’t know and never saw, who was linked to a criminal we don’t know and see only in a mug shot, and somehow that all added up to a huge shootout in the middle of a public street. A shootout that—again, I think—was engineered by the mayor, or someone close to him, hoping to get the murder case wrapped up right quick. In any event, we are halfway through this mystery, and the only thing we know is that the guy who died is named Caspar. Honestly, he could be a friendly ghost?
That shootout was a pathetic counterpoint to last season’s shootout, the Cary Fukunaga one-take masterpiece. That scene also involved dozens of characters we don’t know and was pretty ancillary to the main mystery, but it was gorgeously shot and taut, we knew why it was happening, and it advanced the heart of the show—the relationship between Rust and Marty. None of that can be said about last night’s fire fight, which left Bezzerides and Velcoro and Woodrugh in almost exactly the position they were in before: in deep shit, suspended and suspected. I will say I am so programmed to give ambitious shows the benefit of the doubt that as the episode ended, on all three cops, shaking, trembling, looking around at the bodies and, probably, their careers, I thought, “Oh, that could be interesting.” I think it’s not a coincidence that they were mostly silent.