True Detective – and how we’ve been spoiled by great TV
True Detective vince vaughn

True Detective season two received a lukewarm response from critics and viewers. But Mark Butler argues that our standards have now become unreasonably high. 

NB: This is a spoiler-free blog covering the response to season two. No key plot details will be discussed 

As the credits rolled on this week’s finale of True Detective’s second saga, I felt many things – but boredom certainly wasn’t one of them.

A whole cocktail of emotions were bubbling up inside of me. It had been a complex conclusion to a complex tale; but one that I had found to be a nerve-jangling, thrilling, rollercoaster ride.

You can say what you like about the season’s hard-to-follow plot and occasionally pretentious dialogue – and Lord knows many have – but you know you’ve genuinely invested yourself in a story and its characters when you spend the final hour-and-a-half on the edge of your seat, heart-in-mouth, desperate to see what the outcome will be.

It was, in my view, actually a much stronger and more fitting conclusion than the first season’s hammy, Hollywood fist of cliche, which actually felt very much like the ball being dropped at the very last second. Not that you’d know that to look at the reviews.

True Detective season two has been mired in negative to mixed reaction from the start. Back in the first week of its broadcast, I wrote about some of the scathing write-ups and criticism the initial episode received, and I defended it at the time. Now, with many writers continuing to pour cold water all over it, I’m defending the season as a whole.

True Detective 2 gritty

Was it flawed? Sure. There were a few too many silent stare-out contests, the aforementioned story was certainly confusing on occasion, and I’ll admit that some of the philosophical, pseudo-intellectual musing tested my patience at times.

But many of the criticisms people are making of the divisive second season, could equally be applied to the universally acclaimed first.

People have attacked this season because it took a while to really get going – but season one was also a slow-burner.

People have attacked this season because it was difficult to follow the story at times – but season one was hardly easy to wrap your head around, and noir tales are always intentionally mind-bending.

People have attacked this season because of the pretentious dialogue, but season one had a whole heap of that, what with “time is a flat circle” and all the rest. The real difference is that detractors seem to have been fine with Matthew McConaughey’s intriguing Rust Cohle trotting out that kind of baffling nonsense, but won’t accept it from Vince Vaughn’s aspirational gangster. A slight case of double standards, really.

For the most part, I’d argue that this was television of the highest standard. There were intense, frenetic and grandly staged action scenes to rival Michael Mann’s explosive Heat; there were absorbing and powerful character moments delivered with superb aplomb by the central cast; and when the plot did finally reveal its hand, it proved to be a murky, compelling neo-noir web to rival any of the many great Californian detective tales that have been spun over the decades. It didn’t hurt that all of it was delivered with stunning, movie-quality cinematography, and one of the finest, moodiest TV soundtracks I’ve heard in a long, long time.

I always said that the first season of True Detective felt like a great film told over eight hours instead of two. I’d say the second was at least an extremely good one.

Many of those criticising it seem to overlook its stronger points.

Pick on some of the more outlandish dialogue, by all means, but at least admit that there were some outrageously great lines as the season got into full-swing (“A Mexican stand-off with actual Mexicans? That’s one to cross off the list”).

Pick on Vince Vaughn’s performance in some of the earlier episodes sure, but at least acknowledge that he was freaking excellent in the later stages. The guy was simply electric in the finale – and as for Colin Farrell, well, he simply knocked it out of the park throughout. The fact that both, in tandem with the writing, added such emotional depth and complexity to initially reprehensible anti-heroes, speaks volumes.

I think it’s saying something when a drama so viscerally striking, strongly acted, and genuinely cinematic can be branded “an utter disaster” in some quarters, and to me it screams of our TV standards creeping up to a level where we’re expecting the world from each and every show we sit down to watch. In short – we’ve been spoiled.

It’s no secret that the quality of television shows has soared in recent years thanks to bugger budgets, talented showrunners, and top stars from the movie world moving into small screen projects.

True Detective Rachel Mcadams

We’ve come to expect great things from our TV sagas, and are quick to pounce when there are the slightest chinks in their armour.

Ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable for a crime story as polished, daring and ambitious as True Detective season two to be told on TV, yet now a sizeable chunk of viewers and critics are coldly dismissive of it when a few of those chinks appear.

I’m not saying the eight episodes of sleazy, morally murky drama I just sat through were perfect. I’m not saying we can’t point out problems where they exist, and push writers and directors to up their game to keep the level of current television top-notch.

But the manner in which some have ripped into True Detective feels like an over-reaction born of unreasonable expectation.

As I sat watching the series’ centrepiece action sequence (those who’ve watched it will know which one), I was awe-struck that something like that was unfolding in a TV show. As I followed the central characters over the course of the plot, I was delighted at the way my assumptions were challenged and their arcs confounded me in surprising, interesting ways. As I digested the final 90 minutes last night, I was completely thrilled by the nerve-shredding threads playing out before me.

I absolutely cared about what was going to happen. I felt the tangible maelstrom of emotion emanating from key characters at certain moments, as keenly as I’ve felt any such things from a drama on the big or small screen in recent memory. And there were some terrific stylistic and creative choices too.

To call it flawless would be a lie, of course. But how anybody can dismiss TV so bold as “disastrous”, is beyond me.