When the first season of True Detective started, one of the aspects that got me most excited about this new show was the fact that it was an anthology-style series. Right from the beginning, we knew each season would be a whole new cast, a whole new story. What we didn’t know at the time was just how different the second season would be from the first. New cast? Sure. New setting and mystery? Of course. Completely different influences and themes? That was completely unexpected, so much so that many viewers were angered by the second season. They certainly have every right to like or dislike what they saw in the recently concluded second season, but I would argue that many were looking at it all wrong.
Plenty has been written about the first season of True Detective, but for the sake of comparison I want to touch on a few points about it. The first season of True Detective is a work of Lovecraftian fiction. It’s a weird, pulpy tale of unspeakable horror and two detectives that are caught up in the middle of it. Much of the fascination with season one centered around Rust Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey. Cohle was known for spouting verbose existential monologues that read like something right out of a Cthulhu Mythos.
That said, the H.P. Lovecraft influence on season one goes far beyond the ramblings of one of its lead characters. Season one is a crime story told through a Lovecraft lens. It’s a tale of cosmic horror (complete with a vision of the cosmos), of evil beyond the understanding of our heroes. Like the best works of Lovecraft, it never shows you the worst horrors (the video tape featuring abusive rituals performed on small children); it instead lets their unspeakable acts only be told to us through the reactions of the characters. Even the title of the season’s episodes sound like weird fiction titles, “The Long Bright Dark,” “The Locked Room,” “The Secret Fate of All Life,” “The Shunned House,” and “Form and Void.” Those could very easily have been titles of lost Lovecraft works. Actually, one of those is the title of a H.P. Lovecraft story and not the title of a True Detective episode, but you didn’t know that, did you?
The excitement around the first season had viewers clamoring for season two. Every detail that leaked about the new season was news. Who was cast (Vince Vaughn?!), who would they be playing, where was the story set? Nearly 18 months after the premiere of season one, we finally got the first episode of True Detective season two, and it was instantly clear that writer Nic Pizzolatto had jettisoned the show’s biggest influence. This was no longer a Lovecraftian, weird fiction tale, not by a long shot. True Detective season two was a full-blown Hollywood noir.
The term “noir” gets tossed around a lot and getting a clear definition of it is tricky. For the purposes of True Detective season two, “noir” will refer to the films of the 40s and 50s that are generally categorized as “film noir.” We are talking The Big Sleep, Out of the Past, Touch of Evil, and The Maltese Falcon. In the same way that the first season of True Detective was told through a Lovecraft lens, season two is told through a film noir lens. It hits every note of that era, showcasing a damn near pitch perfect, classic film noir style.
Film critic Roger Ebert somewhat famously described film noir as “the most American film genre, because no society could have created a world so filled with doom, fate, fear and betrayal, unless it were essentially naive and optimistic.” This, in a nutshell, could describe True Detective. Doom, fate, and fear follow Ray – played by Colin Farrell – through every scene. He’s a broken, ex-cop with nothing to lose and one last case to solve. Pizzolatto took Robert Mitchum from Out of the Past and cranked him to eleven.
In fact, all the characters from the second season were right out of the film noir playbook. The hard-edged woman who would cut you as quickly as she would love you (Rachel McAdams), the crime boss who can’t escape his past (Vince Vaughn), the former Hollywood starlet (Kelly Reilly), the hard-drinking, corrupt cop on a path to destruction (Colin Farrell). Every politician we meet is bent, every cop is hiding something. It’s like Pizzolatto took a patchwork of classic noir characters and stitched them into his story.
The dialogue throughout season two is token film noir, as well. In the same way that Rust Cohle spouted off monologues straight out of Lovecraft, Frank, Ani, Paul, and Ray sound like a Raymond Chandler novel or a Daniel Mainwaring screenplay. Lines like “Never do anything out of hunger. Not even eating,” could have easily have been uttered by Jeff Bailey. Yes, they are over the top and slightly ridiculous, but nearly all the banter in good film noir is. The dialogue in True Detective season two was striving to capture that tone and era, the look and feel of classic film noir, only in modern day Los Angeles with that True Detective flair.
Even the web of corruption that caught up the characters was oozing film noir. It’s an often used troupe in those films that the deception and lies become so convoluted and big, our “heroes” rarely care about bring the bad guys to justice anymore. It becomes about getting out with what little piece of yourself is left. Watch the narrative structure of Out of the Past and it’s easy to see what Pizzolatto was going for. Whether he pulled it off or not is up for debate.
In the same way that the episode titles for season one were a clue of the season’s weird fiction inspiration, so too are the titles of season two’s episode a tip of the hat to film noir. “Maybe Tomorrow,” “Other Lives,” and “Omega Station,” are film noir titles if I’ve ever heard one. Plaster those words on a poster with an image of Robert Mitchum in a fedora with a cigarette pressed between his lips. If you think of season two and its characters as homage to classic film noir, I think it works.
Now, all this is not to say that season two was as successful in its homage as season one was. There are plenty of folks who did not enjoy season two for plenty of valid reasons (miscasting, low stakes, problematic treatment of female characters) but comparing it to season one is like comparing The Maltese Falcon to The Shining. If there is one thing you can say without a doubt, it’s that True Detective did not try to repeat itself. Where season one was a mind-bending horror tale, season two was a dark, tangled noir. It was never trying to be season one, not by a long shot.