True Detective’s Nic Pizzolatto — critical darling, high auteur, bearlike creature — has undergone a dramatic shift in fortune, a rise and fall much like his own characters. The world has followed this change in bewilderment — Season One was The Best Thing Ever! How did Pizzolatto lose his mojo? How did the critics and fans who heaped praise on Season One turn on him so quickly? But looking at his work, none of this should be a surprise. And the fact that it is speaks just as much about critics as it does about Pizzolatto.
In the conversations around Pizzolatto and True Detective, critics have developed a bizarre strain of amnesia. Back in the first season, their occasional penchant for herdlike thinking manifested in their praise of the show’s brilliance. If everyone agrees that something’s great, and you don’t, well, it must be going over your head. Even Emily Nussbaum, the show’s most vocal detractor, showed a tentativeness in her review, an unease with going against the tide and stomping all over everyone’s fun:
I’m certain that, if you’re a fan of the series, this analysis irritates you. It’s no fun to be a killjoy, particularly when people are yelling “Best show ever”; it’s the kind of debate that tends to turn both sides into scolds, each accusing the other of being prudes or suckers.
Such was the sway of Pizzolatto: Nussbaum is a professional TV critic for the New fucking Yorker, and she felt she had to apologize for not liking a show, like one of the women in this Amy Schumer sketch. The flurry of praise around the show and Pizzulatto made Season One’s doubters feel like this:
But barring Nussbaum’s point about Pizzolato’s potrayal of female characters— that’s already been addressed a lot — Season Two reveals what those who tentatively dissented on Season One already knew: Pizzolatto’s biggest problem isn’t that he can’t write women; Season One’s style obscured the fact that he can’t really write at all. He can’t write dialogue that sounds remotely natural even if he borrows to the edge of plagiarism, and he can’t plot. Consider scenes like the masterful six-minute single take that launched a thousand thinkpieces:
Is it a feat in cinematography? Of course. But if you step away from the visual and stylistic wow-factor, the scene is completely irrelevant to the plot. It’s cool, but it’s a meandering divergence, much in the way Season Two has been accused of being unfocused and meandering. Only in Season One, Pizzolatto had a shiny object in the form of Carey Fukunaga to distract us from his subpar writing and plotting. In Season Two, there’s nothing cool to distract us from this ineptitude. Some critics think Pizzolatto can bounce back if he just works with someone like Fukunaga again, but that argument’s missing the point. It’s not the absence of Fukunaga, it’s the dearth of Pizzolatto’s skills.
It’s astonishing that so many critics are shocked by the decline in quality between the seasons, and their about-faces are borderline comical — though still not as up to par as True Detective’s own Rachel McAdams.
Take, for example, The New Republic: Last year they were one of True Detective’s most ardent lauders, proclaiming that the finale, which even true believers admitted was disappointing, actually was not bad and that, in fact, other critics were missing the point when they said otherwise. This year, the publication dumped True Detective like it was an ex lover who suddenly stopped showering and joined a cult. They even demoted it from counting as prestige TV. Ouch.
Slate critic Willa Paskin had a similar turnaround, from brilliant! tantalizing! inspired! to the dialogue and plot are utter gibberish and this show is drivel. And critic Alan Sepinwall, whose praise of Season One was measured yet present, has said of this season:
Among the many glaring problems of this season, one of the biggest has been the convoluted mystery at the center of it. In crafting a plot involving so many disparate characters, crimes, agendas and even eras, Nic Pizzolatto hasn’t lacked for ambition this year, but the story has lacked any obvious reason for the audience to care about any of it… I spent a lot of the season’s early chapters struggling to figure out what the point of any of this was.
Pizzolatto’s fall from grace reveals what kind of man he is and, moreover, the nature of television criticism at large. So many critics went from best show ever!!! to What happened to this show and how did nobody see this coming?! but in reality, it really wasn’t difficult to see coming. In Season One, everyone was so busy heaping praise because everyone else was, and because shiny long cuts and cool shots, and because look, crazy monologues with crazier mustaches!
…all the while, nobody was noticing that the plot was always incoherent. The dialogue was always ridiculous — it was just that Matthew McConaughey is ridiculous enough to pull it off. The mystery was always weak and convoluted, as the New York Times said of the Season One finale. After after all the hints of some cosmic mystery and birds making swirly patterns in the sky and ramblings of Yellow Kings and mythical lands; after all that — “the killer turned out to be almost a parody of a horror movie psycho-deviant.” The problems everyone is moaning at in Season Two were present in Season One, they just had shinier packaging then. And few critics were willing to unwrap it.
This is not to say all criticism is bullshit; asking questions and poking holes in logic is vital, no matter what industry you’re in. But TV critics, next time the rest of your colleagues are heaping praise on someone or something and a tiny part of you is doubting — don’t apologize for that part. “It was all the same dream, a dream that you had inside a locked room,” McConaughey’s Rust Cohle says in Season One. Let’s consider Season Two a wake-up call.