Ray Velcoro was my kind of guy. He drank a lot, was haunted by personal demons, regretted most of his life, and made bad decisions. I loved him. He had longish hair that was usually greasy, a nice mustache, and he wore a bolo tie. This is a character I cherished for eight marvelous episodes of True Detective Season Two, which I rank up there with my all time favorite television series seasons (it’s a privileged area to be in, populated by things like The Wire Season Three and the first season of The Sopranos).
But thanks to the Internet, I have learned something that, to me, is a bit shocking: I am pretty much all alone in my undying love for True Detective Season Two. As it turns out, most people fucking hated it. With a passion. And, in addition, they hated Ray Velcoro, and that hurts.
So that got me thinking. How could this show that I considered absolutely brilliant and adorable (yes, adorable) be so loathed by the general public. I couldn’t get my head around it at first, even after I read lots of negative reviews. Why all the hate, people? After thinking about it for some time, I believe I have pinpointed five things that I learned about the taste of the general public, and how they led to the bizarre hatred of a show that I believed to be truly excellent. What does the strong disliking of TDS2 say about public opinion? Here’s what I decided:
The plot of True Detective Season Two revolved around some rich guy that was found dead on a bench with no eyes and his crotch blown off. The basic storyline revolved around finding the person that killed the guy. Now, I have to admit something right away – I never really cared about the identity of the killer. Or the motive. I mean, I understood that this was the thing driving the plot, but I was much more interested in enjoying the mood and the atmosphere and the interactions between the characters. If the season ended with no killer being unmasked, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference to me.
But man, oh man, in reading the reviews of the show, I was surprised to see just how frustrated a lot of the reviewers were with the storyline. They were unhappy because it was confusing. And it meandered. And when they started to realize the story, well, wasn’t all that good, they tuned out. They got bored. I think this was the common reaction to the show. The general audience cared way more about who killed Ben Caspere (and who shot Velcoro while wearing a hilarious bird mask) than they cared about if Velcoro was a good or bad person, or if Frank Semyon (the Vince Vaughn character) could outsmart everyone before falling into a downwards spiral that would likely end in his death.
This seems to be what killed TDS2 – the story wasn’t interesting enough to most people. The way the season kept getting endlessly sidetracked (Velcoro’s paternity test, Ani Bezzirides and her hippie father, Semyon trying to figure out how he lost everything, Woodrugh’s closeted homosexuality) wasn’t fun and fascinating like I thought it was. No, it was annoying, because it didn’t push forward the all-important central narrative.
Let’s face it. TDS2 was not very interested in being funny. Now that said, I personally found it pretty hilarious at times, but that was more in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way. There were very few jokes in the show (apart from Vince Vaughn’s corny one-liners that were admittedly cringeworthy) (I loved them) and none of the character possessed anything remotely close to a sense of humor.
And this is important. People need that. They need a break from the gloom and doom. They need Pinkman and Pinkman’s stoner friends and Sal to come in and be funny. Otherwise, it’s depressing.
What’s that you say? You enjoy depressing? Well, me too. Not many others though. TDS2 offered no moments of levity, and that got to people.
Now, here, I’m going to get into some specific complaints I’ve seen come up numerous times, and how I feel these complaints say more about the inability of the general audience to see television for the medium that it is (manipulative and aware) then they really say anything about the show.
First, I want to talk about the singer in the bar. You know the one, the girl with the long hair that strummed her jangly guitar and sang really bummed-out death songs. People hated her. HATED her. What surprises me, though, is that people took that character (if you can even call her that) pretty literally. They were annoyed that she was always there, and I’ve read things along the lines of ‘no bar would ever let that person perform’ or ‘someone pull the plug from her microphone.’
See, to me, the bar singer was not really supposed to be there, due to how goofy her performances were and the fact that she was there whenever anyone went into the bar, regardless of the time of day. To me, she was an ominous doomsday figure that operated something like a visualization of the show’s score, or a whimsical touch in which they cast a person to be the soundtrack (and, really, her gloom and doom was so over the top, it really cracked me up). Which isn’t to say the writer and director were brilliant to create her character…it’s just to say, you know, recognize it for what it is (or could have been). She’s mood. She’s the personification of the characters’ deep seeded demons. She’s a filmmaker having fun. But the general audience doesn’t care about any of that: to them, she’s just a shitty and irritating singer in a bar.
The second example of taking things too literally comes from the complaint I’ve read in a few places that Velcoro’s son doesn’t look like him or the mother. Or a combination of the two. He’s fat and redheaded and doughy and that’s a flaw in the show because, since he IS their son, he should look at least a little bit like them.
I would counter this by saying that this is fun casting on part of the filmmakers. The creators know that you’re looking at the kid actor and trying to see if he looks like Colin Farrell. So they’re fucking with you. Apart from casting an Asian kid or something, they’ve cast someone who looks as far from Colin Farrell as possible, for the sole purpose of keeping you guessing. I found it amusing. Everyone else, it seems, was pissed off.
Television is different from other mediums because it’s really, really able to anticipate what an audience is thinking. They control what the characters look like, how they dress, the lighting you’ll see them in…and because of that, they can play with you a little bit. Mess with you. I strongly feel that the singer in the bar and the casting of Velcoro’s son are two examples of this kind of playfulness (as was the Velcoro shooting that ended episode two/began episode three that people also found unforgivably irritating) and because people just want straight forward storytelling, they become (in that context) damning flaws.
So, as I’ve said, I’ve read a lot of reviews. Time and time again, the same complaint was echoed over and over.
The aerial shots of the city. What was up with them?
Again, to return to my personal experience watching the show, yes I noticed the aerial shots, but I didn’t really think much of them. I kind of tuned them out, to be honest with you. Of all the things I could talk about regarding the show, the aerial shots were low on my list. With others, not so much.
It was an artistic decision on the director’s part – an attempt to capture the vibe or labyrinthine quality of the city – and, sure, I’ll grant it to you that it didn’t work all that great. But wow, that ruined the show? Something that amounted to maybe five minutes out of eight hour long episodes?
Oh, but I forgot. It didn’t drive THE STORY forward. And it was different and maybe a little overly stylish, and if you do something like that, then you’re screwed. If you’re going to make a mistake, then do one like Breaking Bad did with the fly episode. Have the characters talk a lot and claim you’re trying to develop them. Because if you do anything that doesn’t advance the story or develop the characters, you could seriously lose the audience.
Sorry to sound like a broken record, but I want to go back to those reviews one last time. Over and over again I read about how Woody Harrelson made season one so good because he represented the audience. He was a normal dude. A dude that asked the questions the audience wanted to ask and acted as our mouthpiece. He represented us. We could identify with him.
This seems to have become the single most important thing in film and television (and maybe even literature, too): the audience must feel an ability to identify with the characters in order to enjoy or appreciate the entire experience.
And in TDS2, there was nobody to identify with. Velcoro was a lowlife loser; Bezzerides was too feministy and angsty; Woodrugh was nuts; and Semyon was played by Vince Vaughn who apparently brings too much baggage with him and made people think of Old School. It didn’t matter how fascinating these characters were (I particularly found Woodrugh to be excellent and was glued to the screen whenever he was yelling at someone or making crazy faces) – they simply lost people because they weren’t relatable enough.
It’s as though the audience sat with these characters and went, “Wait a second…these people aren’t LIKE ME…I cannot identify with them…there’s nobody safe and good at heart…I have no interest any more! I want to see me on this screen!”
In the entertainment culture of the last twenty years or so, giving the audience the ability to identify with characters has been of great emphasis. So much so that people expect, maybe even demand, to be able to identify with what they’re seeing. And when a show like TDS2 comes along and doesn’t offer that (and instead places a certain distance between the audience and the cut off, antisocial characters), people can’t handle it.
In the years to come, I really believe TDS2 will become the appreciated oddity that it deserves to be. It’ll be a cult item. What I fear for is True Detective Season Three. I fear writer Nic Pizzolatto will “fix” the show by giving the audience what it wants. Story. Humor. An absence of unique style. Characters to identify with.
That would be a crime. Maybe if there were more shows as challenging and enigmatic as TDS2 (you have no idea how excited I am about the new Twin Peaks), audiences wouldn’t want everything to be so cookie cutter. And maybe then we’d get a show that not everybody would agree on, and that would be really nice.