The difficult second album, the sophomore slump, has knocked Nic Pizzolatto down a few pegs from his previous wunderkind status. In short, Season 02 of True Detective is a deeply flawed series of episodes which meandered, had repeated pointless forays and digressions, thin characterization, poor casting, and no real narrative arc.
CASTING: While Taylor Kitsch, Rachel McAdams, Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn all have the potential to be above average actors, they were terribly miscast here. It is simply too difficult to buy the pretty and dainty Rachel McAdams as a troubled, alcoholic, gambling addicted, hardened city cop. Overall, the degree to which all 4 of these characters were endlessly presented as psychically wounded was just too much.
DIALOGUE: I’m a huge fan of pulp fiction and film noir, and I know Pizzolatto is as well. (One of his favorite novels is Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest.) Pizzolatto was aiming for classic noir here, but scribing Dashiell Hammett-like dialogue in a modern setting sounds silly. It can’t really be done. Of the show’s dialogue, Brian Lowry aptly summarizes things:
…[T]his was to film noir what bad imitation Hemingway is to Hemingway.
In Wired, K.M. McFarland writes (“True Detective Finale Recap: It’s Finally Over”):
It wants to be a pulpy noir; it wants to be a sprawling tale of urban corruption; and it wants to be something otherworldly and mythic; but it got so lost in all of its influences that it never drew together in a coherent story.
Sean Collins notes in Rolling Stone (“What Went Wrong With ‘True Detective’ Season 2?”):
As Frank Semyon, Vaughn in particular was asked to utter dialogue no one outside a bad Batman comic book or second-rate Grand Theft Auto knockoff should have to hear, and which not even the McConaissance would have been able to redeem.
Part of what made Season 01 so successful (that is, arguably, until its letdown of a finale), was the skilled directing of Cary Fukunaga, who created a dystopian aesthetic in his static visuals, and who was able to flesh out action sequences with the daring-do of S01 extended, uninterrupted neighborhood shootout sequence.
Given this, Collins also notes two other critical factors in S02’s failure, which I endorse wholeheartedly:
Also MIA: Cary Fukunaga, the first season’s sole director and MVP. The rumored bad blood between he and writer/creator Nic Pizzolatto probably led to the insertion of a thinly veiled Fukunaga stand-in, directing the shitty movie that we eventually learn Caspere’s real killers were working on together. But in the absence of the guy who clearly gave the Yellow King season its shine, from crafting its mesmerizing visuals to coaxing out killer performances, the joke was on Pizzolatto. Without a strong collaborating voice to temper his weaknesses and showcase his strengths, his macho faux profundities were left to wither in the harsh Los Angeles light of day.
Then there was the mystery itself, which was, well, both harder to unravel and far less mysterious. Last year’s occult elements may have been a big fake out, but they gave the Yellow King and his minions their modus operandi, spurred feverish fan speculation and made the show not just a crime thriller but a horror film in eight installments. The half-hearted use of a crow mask and one out-of-nowhere David Lynch nightclub scene aside, this season had nothing that strong in its bag of tricks.
S02’s bird mask scene, cult dad character, and sex party subplot had the potential to tease the audience with similar, cult-like elements, but failed on every level.
After the huge success of S01, methinx Pizzolatto’s ego got the better of him. He began to think it was all him. He ignored any advice or inclinations he may have had towards collaboration or better story editing.