'True Detective' season 2: What went wrong?

After the success of the first season of 'Detective' starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, the second season has been mostly negatively received by critics and viewers. Here's how the show can recover.

Lacey Terrell/HBO/AP
'True Detective' stars Colin Farrell.

With the seventh episode of the second season of “True Detective” having aired and only one more to go, it has become evident that the second installment of the HBO drama has not been a success. 

While some found the season’s second-to-last episode to be intriguing – and to be a relief in that it provided some answers to the show’s mysteries – many critics and viewers seem to agree that the season finale, which airs on Aug. 9, will have to be spectacular to make up for the previous episodes. 

“Detective” debuted in 2014 and starred Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as police detectives in Louisiana. It was critically acclaimed and both McConaughey and Harrelson received Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for their work. 

However, “Detective” is an anthology show, and “Detective”’s take on that format means having all-new characters and a new setting from season to season (at least so far). Therefore the second season centered on four new characters: police detective Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), police detective Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), highway patrolman Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), and criminal Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn). The three law enforcers are working to solve a murder that took place in California. 

But the second season hasn’t been as well-received as the first. Part of what may have led to this struggle is the anthology format. Creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto had to start from scratch with the second season, creating new characters and a new story (though he did already have the audience’s goodwill from the first season). For any TV show to accomplish that is challenging. 

What could have helped this second season succeeded? Taking out about eight different plotlines (give or take a dozen) probably would have helped. The show’s central mystery is who killed Ben Caspere, the city manager of the California city Vinci. However, the mystery has come to also involve a missing young woman, a corrupt police department, and Frank’s business associates, among many more. Critics have complained over how many characters there are to keep track of, with one writing of the most recent episode, “Who killed Ben Caspere? Why, it would seem, Laura a.k.a. Erica did it. And if you’re saying, ‘who?’ right about now, then you’ve zeroed in on one of the problems at the center of True Detective Season 2.” Another mentioned two characters involved in the show’s conspiracy and labeled them as “two of the Very Important People that we met for like two scenes, five episodes ago,” while yet another critic noted that “even 'True Detective's' detectives have trouble following the case… Twice in the scene [in which the detectives discuss the case], someone says, ‘It doesn't make sense.’ It ends with Ani literally throwing up her hands and groaning.” 

Another problem has been how many protagonists have been at the center of season two. With the show delving into the personal histories of Ray, Ani, Paul, and Frank, as well as having secondary characters like Frank’s wife Jordan and Ani’s sister, all of them have felt shortchanged. One reviewer wrote that viewers “flail to learn about four main characters” and another called the character of Paul “underdeveloped.” 

Michael Lombardo, HBO president of programming, recently said, “If [Pizzolatto] wants to do another season, I said [that] the door is open. We’d like to do another season of it.” If “Detective” does return for more episodes, those behind the show will have to address some of the problems of the second season before the program can move forward in a satisfying manner.

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