The most impressive thing about True Detective‘s second-season premiere, The Western Book of the Dead, is that it’s not out to impress anybody. That might be a charitable way of calling it boring, but boredom’s not what True Detective‘s viewers flipped a shit over when Form and Void aired last summer. The first season felt like a neverending piñata at the start—movie stars! time jumps! literary references! conspiracy theories!—only to disappoint many in the payoff department. A year later, series creator Nic Pizzolatto seems to have learned a lot from the backlash about how to manage people’s expectations. In The Western Book of the Dead, the central mystery barely comes into focus, and there’s not even a suggestion of an implication of a promise that this season will be anything more ambitious than an L.A. Confidential knockoff. Be patient, Pizzolatto seems to be saying. If you crybabies are bored, here’s where you can get off.
That’s one possibility. The other is that he’s low on ideas. I can’t tell which it is yet. Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), and Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) are three lonely cops dealing with various flavors of trauma, loss, and sexual frustration. Emphasis on the last one. In McAdams’ first scene, a guy awkwardly apologizes for not being into something she’d proposed in bed. Later on, Taylor Kitsch relies on Viagra to get it up when he visits his girlfriend. Colin Farrell is separated from his wife, and at one point he says to a 10-year-old, “You ever bully or hurt anybody again, I’ll come back and butt-fuck your father with your mom’s headless corpse on this goddamn lawn.” It’s hard to find a fresh angle in LA cop noir, and this season seems poised to give it a go with “weird and depressing sex stuff.” I sincerely wish it the best of luck.
Aside from what’s in their pants, though, these characters are boring. Estranged families, PTSD, daddy issues, alcoholism, corruption, fast angsty driving late at night—boring, boring, boring. The three cops dump neo-noir cliches on your lap like a sack of sprouted potatoes, but the real master of boring ceremonies is Vince Vaughn’s Frank Seymon. Reading up on the show, I was led to believe that Vaughn would be playing a mob boss. What a fun against-type casting, I thought. Sort of like Albert Brooks in Drive. Then I watch the thing and, get this, not only is he trying to go straight, but he spends the entire episode at a fundraiser soliciting donations for a high-speed rail project. I mean, what? Can you think of a more boring place to put “Serious Vince Vaughn” than a gala where he’s stressing out over getting rich people to donate to a bullet train? What is going on?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this roundtable I read a few days ago in the Hollywood Reporter. Six comedy showrunners trade writer’s-room stories, vent about how difficult their jobs are, and generally try to pretend that they’re only partially miserable. It’s harrowing reading for anyone who wants to be a writer in the film industry, but what stuck with me was this quote from Alec Berg, the current showrunner for Silicon Valley, in the video on top:
“If you go back to the original pilot script, the other four guys are very different on the page than they are now. They were each an interesting voice and an interesting note, and when [Mike Judge] put those four together they kind of worked together as a group, so he kind of reverse-engineered the characters in the script from that group of people.”
This quote isn’t too surprising—good comedy TV in the past 10-15 years has made its name on improv and adaptability, unlike more “auteur-driven” dramas like True Detective—but it got me wondering what exactly a pilot for a serialized show (or a premiere of a new anthology season) is supposed to do. In the absence of determined character relationships and dramatic situations, what responsibilities does a premiere have, and to whom? Off the top of my head, the answer would be, “to hook the viewer and let them know what the show will be like.” To get the ball rolling on the main narrative concerns, establish the format, give us at least one person or relationship to root for or care about or be fascinated by, and include a scene or two that’ll be provocative enough for the online water-cooler. Doesn’t that seem like the intuitive, obvious answer?
But should novelistic TV storytelling have the responsibility to give us premieres that basically act as advertisements for the rest of their respective shows? Think about the pilots of Breaking Bad and The Wire, the two golden children of our current hyperserialized moment. Breaking Bad’s pilot made you need to see more, but it also gave you a false impression of what the rest of the show would consist of. It completely aligned you with Walter’s insecurities and anger at the world around him, egging you to root for his dark side in a way that you’d look back on in horror. Not an accurate advertisement. In the case of The Wire, most first-time viewers’ reaction is, “I didn’t understand any of that, who is everyone and what is happening.” The show is famously uncompromising with its legalese, cop jargon, and street talk, and it wouldn’t have its current reputation were it not for its steep (some might say season-long) learning curve. Once you were adapted to its world, its characters were some of the most vivid and memorable you’d ever encountered. Not an accurate advertisement.
It’s common knowledge that these two shows reached a huge audience only after they became bingeable. Word of mouth wasn’t “You’ll love it at first sight,” it was “No, but wait until it really gets going.” More shows are blooming late, and with the advent of insta-dump seasons on streaming services, new series are less beholden to the expectations that their pilots set up. However, I still have yet to see a show that intentionally starts by underwhelming its audience.
Until this week? Hopefully? I got a sense that the show laid out all this stiff detective-story framework in the first episode so that it could do something weird and wacky with it later. There were two surprises in The Western Book of the Dead that made me think Pizzolatto might have some doves up his sleeves, both relating to Colin Farrell’s Ray Velcoro. In his second scene, Velcoro appears to be describing an assault on his wife to a police officer—the mise-en-scene strongly echoes last season’s interrogations of Cohle and Hart—only he’s actually speaking to a divorce attorney. Surprise! One noir convention for another. Nothing earthshattering, but it got me.
Later in the episode, it turns out that Velcoro is a pretty bad dad. His first scene is a mournful goodbye as he drops his son off at school: go show the bullies who’s boss, “I love you buddy,” etc., the kind of scene that seems like it’s trying way too hard to make dads shed a bro-tear. Later in the episode, he beats his son to get the name of a bully who took his shoes, goes to the bully’s house, punches his father, beats the bully’s ass on his front lawn, and utters the “butt-fuck your father” line mentioned above. It’s “my dad could beat up your dad” flipped horribly and hilariously on its head. Again, trading “tortured sympathetic dad” for “tortured awful dad” isn’t going to blow anyone’s mind, but I didn’t see it coming this early.
I hope that there are more surprises like these, and that this season isn’t just the four leads bickering and fighting and having weird and depressing sex before coming together and catching the killer in the end. I hope that Nic Pizzolatto hasn’t let the wave of whine-pieces from last year go to his head and make him think he owes his viewers some grand conspiratorial payoff. I hope these characters, or Pizzolatto’s plans for them, are more than their boring premiere promises. There’s no better time than the present for that to be the case.
Kells is an Oakland native with a sad compulsion to put his opinions online. He hopes that you like them, but what’s really important is that you like yourself. @awkeller510