A riff on True Detective Season 2’s neon noir satire


  1. The final episode of the second season of True Detective airs on HBO tomorrow tonight [9 Aug 2015]. Popular and critical consensus seems to decree that this finale can only redeem Nic Pizzolatto’s supposed sophomore slump. I’m very much looking forward to the episode, as I’ve looked forward to each episode this season.
  2. Season 2 of True Detective is a much, much better show than its many noisy naysayers might maintain. It’s a neon noir satire, a potboiler bubbling over with lurid, sticky flux. It’s hilarious and anxious and abject. I riff more on it in point 10 if you want to jump down there now. (Or indulge my anxieties, if that’s your deal).
  3. A friend of mine pointed out over drinks a few weeks back that this season of the show will be reevaluated in a few years, after the True Detective serials have run their course. We agreed that the season will likely be reconsidered in a far more positive light. (Think season 2 of The Wire, if you will).
  4. Re: point 3—I’ve talked about the show all season long with friends—texted about it, etc. There’s something still vital there, no matter how much it may seem to curdle compared to season one. Maybe you’ve talked about it with your friends too, no?
  5. And re: point 4: I’ve had more people email or tweet me asking me to write about True Detective than anything ever. So, like, I’m trying, here.
  6. And re: point 5: I’m guessing folks wanted me to write about this season maybe because I wrote about it so damn much last year: About its agon with consciousness, its dreams and nightmares, its literary touches, its weakest episode, and its werewolves. And then I kind of failed to write, at least immediately, about the finale, and when I did write about it, I buried it in a riff on things I wish I’d written about, writing:

    …I could not bring myself to write about the ending, in part because of the (perceived) negative backlash the conclusion received. I felt the need to address haters and doubters, when what I really wanted to comment on was the sheer beauty of the episode—its aesthetics, its greenness. Critics emphasized the bromantic ending, or the moment where Cohle seems to retreat (uncharacteristically) to metaphysics, but for me the signal moment was achieved when Hart is asked by his ex-wife and children, who attend him in his hospital bed, if he is alright. This question links back to a domestic lull in the middle of episode four. We see Hart and Cohle as roommates, as Lucinda Williams’s gentle song “Are You Alright?” plays. This is the middle of the series, and also the central question of the series: Are you alright? At the end of the series, Hart attempts to affirm that he is alright, but it is clear to everyone—audience, family, and Hart himself—that he isn’t.

  7. In that big fat quote above, I wrote that “I felt the need to address haters and doubters” about the end of season one; similarly, part of the anxiety of writing about season 2 is that one falls into the position of having to address the “discussion” — almost all negative chatter — about season 2 — instead of, you know, discussing the mood, aesthetics, and tone.
  8. And of course season 2 was born into a kind of Oedipal anxiety over its progenitor. Season 1 seemed to come from nowhere, black, electric, crackling with the charisma of its two leads.
  9. (I’m such a nerd that I had a dream a few weeks before the début of the second season where I dreamed I saw the second season and it wasn’t nearly as good as the first. Inside the dream, I knew that this was my subconscious helping to deflate anxieties. And over a fucking TV show! What’s wrong with me?) Well let’s get to whatever point I might have:
  10. The second season of True Detective can be read as a satire—on noir, on L.A. stories, on hardboiled pulp, on masculine anxieties. Yes: But it also plays as a satire on television itself, on viewer expectations even. Sincere satire never fully announces itself as such. This second season of True Detective is sincere satire.
  11. true-detective-western-book-deadOne satirical reading rule for True Detective Season 2 is introduced in the first episode, “The Western Book of the Dead.” In one of its more memorable sequences, Ray Velcoro dons a mask before beating up an Los Angeles Times reporter who was working on an “eight-part series” to expose corruption in Vinci. The scene reads as a metatextual prick at viewers hoping to have this eight-part series laid out neatly for them.
  12. The lurid violence here succeeds by connecting to a kernel of pathos for its perpetrator, Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell). Velcoro is surely the reason to watch this season. He anchors the satire in sincerity.
  13. We can find similar sincere satire in True Detective season 2’s superior cousin, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation of Inherent Vice. There are plenty of plot convergences between these two, but the tonal overlap is more interesting to me.
  14. Well, plot of course—
  15. —but wait a moment with plot: Mood. Ambiance. Tone. —Of course they are linked, plot and feeling—but this season has done a marvelous job evoking the dreadnights of David Lynch (and if the directors seem to borrow a bit heavily from Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway, so much the better). And The Long Goodbye. And Chinatown (talk about Oedipal anxieties!). But also Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (why not?). Or even The Big Lebowski.
  16. 09-true-detective.w529.h352.2xAnd the plot? What? Another reading rule, indulge me, indulge me, comes in the series’ overuse of aerial shots of L.A. freeways—big converging loops, sometimes black white gray, but often glowing lurid neon at night. The plot is easy to write off as a shaggy dog mess (see also Inherent Vice, Twin PeaksThe Big Lebowski), but it’s not. It does fit together (just like the plots of those examples I proffered parenthetically). You can even have someone explain the plot to you if you like. Ascending from the confusing and abject trenches, the looping freeways’ tangled violence resolves into a beautiful, complete, pulsing picture.
  17. And there are other reading rules that guide a viewer toward TD2’s satire—the bizarre cliffhanger “death” of Velcoro at the end of only the second episode, for example. The scene was thoroughly convincing in its morbidity and illogic, an illogic predicated on its audience’s intimate relationship with hoary TV tropes of yore.
  18. Or the insane gunfight at the end of the fourth episode (an answer, we know—and not a full answer, just a different one—to the famous thrilling single-take shot at the end of the fourth episode of the first season). The scene begins with nonchalant swagger and escalates into Michael-Bay-on-the-cheap territory. The hyperbole untethers from reality—it really gets out of hand fast—delivering an overabundance of violent spectation. The satire punctures any veneer of reality—but only momentarily. The end of the scene finds our detectives realizing how awful things went.
  19. Or? Or the body of our (ostensible) murder victim, Ben Caspere, chauffeured about a la Weekend at Bernies? Or the scene at the Chessani estate? Or Woodrugh’s cheeks flapping in the wind? Or the saloon that Velcoro frequents, with a witch guitarist on retainer? Or the Elvis impersonator? Or the Good People commune? (Reminds me that I forgot to namedrop The Source Family in points 15 or 16). Or the garbage apocalypse movie? Rick fucking Springfield? The masks? The dildos? The knives? The teeth? The eyes? Or the fucking orgy scene, with its wonderful syrup soundtrack?
  20. The satire overwhelms, I mean, re: point 19. The satire normalizes, elides its own satirical contours. L.A. and Environs of TD2 is absurd, abject, and surreal. It’s fun stuff.
  21. And this, re: point 20, is what maybe fails to connect with so many viewers who’ve been so critical of the season—It takes itself too seriously! is a common accusation. But no, I don’t think it does, not a bit.
  22. This isn’t to say that the actors aren’t acting so seriously—sometimes to the point that they appear to be in entirely different series from each other. Vince Vaughn is an easy example here. He’s not just playing against type as Frank Semyon, he’s playing against strength. And common sense. And maybe even good taste. (Although I don’t think good taste has anything to do with TD2). Vaughn’s Semyon occasionally comes to life when he’s back in his rough-and-tumble element, but for the most part, his character seems to be one long deadpan (emphasis on dead) satire of audience expectations.
  23. Let me anticipate: Look, pal, are you saying that Vince Vaughn is bad on purpose in True Detective? No. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that he was a bad but interesting bet for the role, and I think he was cast as a satirical jab at audience expectations.
  24. And but still, re: point 22, re VV’s Semyon: When, on his revenge kick in ep 5, he delivers the simile “It’s like blue balls in your heart,” what other option is there but to laugh hysterically? I mean, spit out your precious bourbon even, if it’s in your mouth! Blue balls in your heart is a satirical metaphor, the punchline to the series’ set-ups of masculine anxieties. It’s an especially excellent example of one of many, many lines in TD2 that oozes pulp. The audience is to chew that pulp and like it. (Or do a spit-take).
  25. 25 points seem like too many points in a riff, as these things go, and too much has been written about True Detective Season 2 anyway—which attests maybe to its zeitgeistiness, if not its greatness. I’ve enjoyed the season very much, and I do not care at all if its loops cohere into some greater picture in the finale. I’ll happily settle for some ridiculous hardboiled neon noir satire.

19 thoughts on “A riff on True Detective Season 2’s neon noir satire”

  1. 1. If one has problems with the blue balls in your heart line, then one is not getting the satire.
    2. The Wire Season 2 is perfect, and it shows the value of having a writer’s room to execute the showrunner’s vision.
    3. TD Season 2 is flatly directed. I hope they go back to the one director, one cinematographer system.
    4. I noticed a Fritz Lang M influence, with Vince Vaughn, a gangster, investigating the same crime as the police.
    5. Production design is awful. Very film school-like, or is that on purpose? Maybe I’m not getting the satire after all. Argh!


    1. 3. I agree completely there.
      5. I don’t know…I think there’s something pulpy about it all—like comic bookish even. The painting in Semyon’s casino office.


  2. I always enjoy your sobering and insightful riffs on True Detective, man. I’m in complete agreement about season 2. Here’s one person you don’t need to convince of the show’s continued excellence. Right from the choice of that Leonard Cohen over the opening credits. Perfect.

    After the first couple of episodes my mind turned to Chinatown, what with all the shady land deals and corrupt officials and consolidations of power tracking the real crimes and the real criminals (as opposed to some serial killer). The LA noir thing (or at least a satire of the LA noir crime story) was a great direction for Pizzolatto to go in after season 1.

    You briefly mentioned the ‘witch guitarist’ featured in the first few episodes. I thought she was such a great thematic device. To have Frank and Velcoro, or Velcoro and Ani, meet over and over again in that same dive bar where the same lonely singer is playing night after night (like some siren whose very existence is tied to the place) pouring her heart out to no one but hitting all the right notes and unspoken anxieties of the characters hunched down in that dark corner booth.

    I literally don’t understand the “noisy naysayers”. This season is so clearly linked in tone and quality to season 1, especially in carrying the torch for a pessimistic view of the world and of human actions. And how good was episode 7.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This season is no slouch. I don’t understand the hate. Even if I concede the haters many points, it’s still like, um, what else are you watching? Why the reviews that tear it apart? Please, show me this amazing television that makes True Detective terrible in comparison. What exactly do you want this show to be?

    Unfortunately it seems this season was something the vapid TV critics decided to nitpick.

    The worst thing about this season is the directing and cinematography. Cary Fukunaga’s direction was superior.

    I look forward to season three though. If this season is so much a response to audience expectations, what the hell is season three going to look like?


    1. What exactly do you want this show to be?

      I think that’s the problem with the criticism of this season—not just a willful misunderstanding of what the show is trying to do, but a demand that it do other things that it didn’t even set out to do.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve really enjoyed this season. I am the only person that I know that has stuck w/ it. Everyone’s abandoned it (much how I actually thought people would abandon and deride the first season, but miraculously loved it). I just realized how much play Pizzolatto’s making w/ that reporter (Pizzolatto using the reporter as a stand-in for himself): Hilarious! I really don’t think it’s that dense, opaque, et al, that people claim (the NYTimes just released a video “‘True Detective’ Season 2, Unexplained”). It’s actually really simple. Yet, Hell Hath No Fury Like A Viewer Left Felt Scorned & Dumb. I think people are just wishing so hard for a trick/fake-out-to-the-first-season that they just don’t even care to pay attention. Too, I believe a lot of people have given-up on it b/c our “heroes” are immediately unredeemable at the start, fallen: Rust Cohle was still redeemable. However, that is The Big Pay Off (See what I did there?), our heroes are setup this entire time, “The war was lost, the treaty signed.” Yes, indeed, this season is fucking great and I cannot wait one second more to see the finale. I just want more Horus and another Black Cadillac to roll onto “Mulholland Drive.”


  5. Too, if you haven’t been watching “Hannibal” at all, then, my man, you have fucking missed OUT! I’ll await your thoughts patiently.


  6. I thought the finale was excellent, particularly the final shots, which offered a strong response to the season’s paternal anxieties. I’ll probably watch it again today and try to write something (or not), but I thought it was great.


    1. I hope you do write something. They might end up being the only clear headed thoughts about the finale to appear online. I thought the finale was very impressive. An even more assured effort than the finale of season 1. They really did nail it. And now that I’ve seen the whole, I think season 2 is the equal of season 1 (you might disagree there). Every review I see online from all the major mouthpieces ask “what went wrong with season 2?” Nothing went wrong. I imagine it was exactly as Pizzolatto and co. intended. An kudos to them.


      1. The finale was superior to Season 1’s finale, for sure. And yeah, the whole “what went wrong?” and the “here’s what they should’ve done” type pieces are annoying as hell.


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