When I skim the online reviews of the second season of True Detective, I wonder what all the critics were looking for. The review aggregators like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatos are consistent in the way they give the series a C-/C. I guess they are largely polling the same critics, so the ratings should be similar. When I surf around, trying to hear what other people think, the negative critiques prevail. The themes of those critiques seem to hinge on ideas like:
- the series is too carefully controlled,
- the tone isn’t right, or
- there’s too much about character and not enough plot.
What would Roger Ebert have thought? He would have evaluated the story on its own merits. Maybe he would have snuck in a comment or two about the first series, probably as a way to illustrate a point, but he wouldn’t have made the comparison the basis for his review.
The two series are very different. Both have main characters who are flawed police detectives, but the similarity doesn’t go much further. Series two is about four people, the “detectives”, who are brought together to find an answer. Each has a darkness in their past that affects the way they interact with the world, and True Detectives is as much about them solving a mystery as it is about how each person moves a little bit past their misanthropy to connect with another person.
The story is controlled. The detectives provide a master class in restraint that is punctuated by explosions of action. Their self-control is what keeps them human and separates them from monsters and a sure decline into failure.
The story’s tone is dark. This darkness is an extension of the darkness in each character, and through contrast it allows us to see and appreciate the moment each person becomes a small light in the darkness.
I think Ebert would agree that the series works on its own and has value on its own. Its strengths outweigh its weaknesses. Like The Wire, this series challenged the audience to keep up. It’s not a program for someone who wants to be passive as their entertainment dances before them. This program requires some interaction and some thought. Maybe that’s why so many people didn’t like it.