Last night, I finished the second season of True Detective after a week of group vacation binge watching and I wanted to share a couple of thoughts about the second run of the HBO hit series. While writing, I will try to minimize the comparisons to Season 1 as these shows are to be viewed as standalone entities.

In the first step, let’s think of what can be generally viewed as objective criteria for good show. The second and final step should then conclude if the sum of these objective criteria can provide a good iteration of the complete picture. The TV-GRE (Television General-Reviews-by-Erwin) basically consists of the following elements:

  • Acting (1)
  • Chemistry (2)
  • Scripting (3)
  • Cliffhangers (4)
  • Memorable Episodes (5)
  • How High are the Stakes ? (6)
  • Level of Suspense (7)
  • Cinematography and Music (8)

Acting

Courtesy of http://polygon.com

Courtesy of http://polygon.com

Starting with Acting, the show definitely gets a high rating. HBO proved yet again capable of getting an absolute deluxe cast on the show and they all acted the crap out of their roles. For me the highlight here was definitely Vince Vaughn – known for some great and some highly average comedies – he was able to prove that he can act serious and carry the heavy dialogue just as well. Some of the best scenes in this show were part of his effort – just thinking about some of them gives me the shivers; the kitchen staring contest, the confrontation with the traitor and the ring-throwing-farewell talk. Colin Farell was also perfectly casted for his role as the angry, torn, uncontrollable force of nature policeman who has a change of heart (granted it was a little bit of cliche at times but actingwise it was really amazing) – some of scenes however seemed to be real-life footage of Colin Farrell (think about the relapse). Bringing strong female characters into the show (who were not only the wives of the main cast) was also a fantastic move. Rachel Adams plays a great role as the dark and broken but “tough-as-nails” female cop who wants justice more than anything but is constantly fighting her inner demons. Before mentioning Taylor “Tim Riggins” Kitsch, I would like to give a shoutout to Kelly Reilly as Frank’s wife – not only was she an awesome and strong character, I also really enjoyed her chemistry with Frank and the role she played in his life. She is not only the “gangster’s wife” but plays a pivotal role in this show being a driving force to Frank’s success and failure. Finally, the most underplayed and “non-pivotal” character of this season – Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch). The character has a lot of potential and could have been interesting – as he carries enough depth and darkness to fill an entire season all by itself. But I felt that his story did not really end up contributing enough to the plot to make his appearance worthwhile. Taylor Kitsch once again showed that he can play broken characters (maybe that is all he can really play) but the script did not really exploit his story well enough – kind of a bummer.

Acting Score: 9 out of 10

Chemistry

Courtesy of http://elle.com

Courtesy of http://elle.com

Moving on to chemistry; to make it a little shorter – and given that chemistry kind of plays into acting as well – the chemistry was mostly great but had some credibility issues which were mostly a result of bad scripting. Generally, the main characters who had to have chemistry had really great chemistry – Frank and Ray were my personal highlight. The way how the two interacted throughout the show – the tension, the friendship, the feud, the standoff … really, really well done.  The cops from different precincts (Ray, Paul and Ani) had mostly really good chemistry as well – even though sometimes I felt the “worry” for their partners was a little overplayed given the fact that they probably know each other for a few weeks. At points, it felt like the safety and well-being of the respective partner would be put above a family member but ok – that is cop-bromantic to a certain extent so we can let that slide. What was really enjoyable as part of the chemistry element were the “interwoven’ess” of all characters and their dependencies to their respective reporting lines and their hidden motives. That started as an interesting plotline but drizzled off in the end (probably for the better). The best chemistry and interplay sequences were granted to Frank (both with Ray and his wife). Speaking of Ray however, he also had some really great scenes with his ex-wife which continuously contributed to his brokenness – and his credibility as a great character on the show.

Chemistry Score: 8 out of 10

Scripting

As usual not all elements of a show can be deemed positive, so let’s get to the biggest weakness of this season (btw, I also felt this was the biggest weakness of Season 1) – scripting. I understand the constraints under which the team has to operate here i.e. one season to build up and develop a character while constructing a plausible and interesting plotline in which the suspense factor is high – all this in only 8 episodes. But still that is the bar which high quality TV shows à la Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones have set, so True Detective has to be measured against those – especially having the HBO seal of quality.  Unfortunately, the writers were not able to manage this (admittedly hard) task. By now we know and accept that True Detective at its core is not really about the case but the characters working on the case; their interplay, their inner demons and how they learn to overcome them (or not). Still this is a crime show and therefore needs a plot which has suspense, story development, good twists and plausible conclusions. A show should not require rewatching to actually understand what’s going on, who killed whom, why they got killed and what the motive is behind all the backstabbing was only after rewinding to the first episodes. The script kept introducing way too many small characters who were deemed unimportant at first but then ended up playing a really important role after all (Missing girl, Birdman, Stan). Same goes with initiating plotlines which remain unresolved or non-consequential (Paul’s closet homosexuality, the big shootout) – as the show went into the homestretch, they had introduced so many strings and new characters that I almost was about to lose track. Only the strong finale really helped to avoid the potential shark jump in the end.

Scripting Score: 3 out of 10

Cliffhangers

Ok, enough badmouthing – let’s get back to the good things: the good old cliffhangers. There are probably only few things, we love-hate more than an awesome cliffhanger (“ah man, I am so tired now but I need to know what happens next even if it means only 4 hours of sleep.”). Especially in comparison to Season 1, I felt that this season had quite a few really awesome cliffhangers which definetily cost me a few hours of sleep (luckily I was on vacation). Thinking of the confrontation between Frank and Ray for example, that was opened so well by an awesome cliffhanger with Ray knocking on Frank’s door (“We need to talk!”) … so awesome. And not that it was part of a cliffhanger, but the way the show ended each episode with the fantastic solo performance of Lera Lynn was just so well done and David-Lynch’esque (so I heard). In any case, it sounds awesome – listen up.

Cliffhanger Score: 8 out of 10

Memorable Episodes

Now another point which obviously makes a great show is that it provides us with episodes throughout the season of which we later say:”Do you remember the episode with (*enter-awesome-thing-happing*) in (*enter-memorable-set*). OMG, that was effin unreal.” (Not that I actually say unreal, but you get the idea). Let’s just think back of the episodes in most recent memory Game of Thrones “Hardhome” – now that was indeed effin unreal or Homeland’s “There is Something Else Going On” (just shortly before it completely jumped the shark with the terrible finale) – I hope you get the idea. Well, this season had xxx with unbelievable shootout scene which almost reminded me of one of the best shootout scenes in cinematic history in Heat (just to remind you of the awesomeness, I posted the Youtube link below).

Coming back to True Detective, the choreography, the staging, the stakes and the suspense were just unbelievably tense in that episode. I immediately forgave the show its plotholes until this point by providing me with this amazing episode. I have similar feelings about the season finale, I was at the edge of my seat (actually it was a mattress) biting my nails to see what happens next, who will make it out alive and who will get what they deserve…it was truly an amazing season finale. The finale was in fact so awesome that it tamed my previous annoyances with the potholes on the scripting pavement. Thanks to whomever posted the shootout in True Detective on YouTube. Sit back and enjoy.

Memorable Episode Score: 10 out of 10

How high are the stakes ?

Now admittedly this is a weird rating criteria, so let me elaborate on that a little bit. Obviously, every show or movie has their own stakes and in their own little universe that stakes are always high and get higher and higher as the show goes on. It is either saving somebody’s live, finding a killer, saving a child or making it to the top of an organization – you get the idea (I hope). And aside from how high the stakes are, the show has the mission to convey to the audience how imperative the stakes actually are i.e. what are the consequences if the hero(ine) fails in their mission. Here is probably another somewhat negative aspect of the show – on the one hand, the show starts out with a gruesome murder which is somehow connected with a big business bet along the new California Highspeed Railway System. And as the show continues, more parties get involved and more dirt among the different parties is disclosed. Logically, the stakes get increasingly higher – especially when our heroes have to fear for their lives and their loved ones. So far so good, the stakes are high – I got that. But something bothered me here – at some point, the main characters should have figured out that they are digging too deep and they are running danger of getting buried and instead of handing the case over to a higher authority, they think it is a good idea to go against a whole army with 3 people and risk the lives of everyone around them. For a show which prides itself in looking at every little detail, this did not seem plausible to me. Yes, I get it they are heroes, they are fighting their inner demons and at some point, they were in “Eff Y’all” mode but that did not seem plausible to me.

How High Are The Stakes Score: 5 out of 10

Level of suspense

Especially for a crime drama, the level of suspense is one of the most crucial elements to define a good show. And with this criteria, the show aims high and scores high on the hand but also confuses at times on the other hand. Now let’s dig a little deeper, on the one hand, there were sequences in the show which had unseen levels of suspense (again Frank-Ray confrontation, season finale sequences in the woods and the desert or The-Paul-Hunt); they were gripping, extremely well shot and super intense pieces of modern television. These levels of suspense did of course have ties to the plot but they were mostly gripping due us caring about the characters and/or their interplay. Due to the high complexities in the story, the show often fails to create suspense on the plot level i.e. we are at the edge of our seat but more to see what happens with our characters not what happens next in the story – just because some parts like the Stan-Story or who killed whom and why got too confusing at some points.

Level of suspense: 7 out of 10

Cinematography & Music

09-true-detective.w750.h560.2xA big part of season 1 was the “Louisiana” element of the show – how both the actors and the show was able to convey this Lousiana lifestyle, the southern’ess and the landscapes. This time around, the show shifts to a more mainstream part of the US – Los Angeles County. It manages to portray shots of California (US-1 coastline, I-405 and nightshots of LA county) and these shots are amazing – what it fails however to deliever is this whole California lifestyle i.e. embedd it into the seasons DNA (similar to what season 1 did). Having said that, the shots are amazing and the cinematography is very beatiful – it absolutely has cinematic quality by all means.

Now what does set this season apart from the first installment in a more positive way is the music (aside from the terrible theme song). As already mentioned above, almost every episode ends with a song in that very bar where everyone seems to be meeting – and that is such an awesome element to the show. It reminds me a little bit of the musical endings during pivotal episodes of Sons of Anarchy –  the only difference being that there is a constant theme here which conveys the dark atmosphere with its music in such a powerful way.

Cinematography and Suspense: 8 out of 10

The Sum of All Elements

So with step 1 being completed, we now need to put the elements all into the equation to sum up the total quality of the show. The TV-GRE scores the elements in the following way – and that gives us a total score of.

True Detective (i) ∑ = (9 + 8 + 3 + 8 + 10 + 5 + 7 + 8) / ∑ (i)
Full Rating: 7 out of 10

As you can tell my math and scoring shows that I have not dealt with sophisticated math formula for quite some time; so maybe ust think all the scores have the same weight (probably completely unrealistic) and they come up with a final score of 7.25. Now, if I had to rate the show in one sentence, I would state the following:

Great actors in dark and grim crime drama with beautiful shots and an amazing soundtrack deliver another great piece of HBO entertainment but falling short on conveying a cohesive story line – unfortunately only good dialogue does not make a good script – it does have to blend in together.

If you made it this far, I have to thank you for your patience.

2 Responses

  1. Alex

    Good one! But I don’t think you should include “How high are the stakes?” in the rating. Greetings

    Reply
    • Armin Fakouhi

      Fair point, “How high are the stakes” was the criteria which was almost removed (I don’t like it that much either) … Thanks for your post.

      Reply

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