This week, news broke that HBO may be foregoing a third season of the buzzworthy anthology drama series True Detective and moving ahead with an entirely different series from creator Nic Pizzolatto instead. Many who were less than thrilled by the show’s nosedive of a second season took this news with joy, but I found myself dismayed by the notion that True Detective might be fizzling out so quickly and unceremoniously. It’s undeniable that the show’s neo-noir-infused second season failed to hit the heights of that glorious masterpiece that is Season 1, but I think the idea at the core of True Detective remains ripe for some magnificent television. That is, if the show and Pizzolatto can correct some of the mistakes they made in Season 2.
When True Detective Season 2 started coming together, anticipation was high. Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Vince Vaughn, and Taylor Kitsch were set as the leads of the anthology series’ new season, and the show promised to tackle a wholly new kind of detective story. The biggest difference from Season 1, however, was that this time around, a number of different filmmakers would be directing the season’s eight episodes, with Justin Lin (Fast Five) kicking things off by helming the first two installments. This difference proved to be the key that led to True Detective’s undoing, as having Cary Fukunaga direct all eight episodes of the first season is a huge reason why that installment worked so well.
Before we get too deep into this thing, I have a confession to make: I didn’t hate True Detective Season 2. Sure it got a little silly with the hazy bar confessions and Ray Velcoro’s son subplot (he just likes watching Friends with his dad, okay?), and yeah, maybe Vince Vaughn was wildly miscast. But I admired the ambition of tackling a Chinatown-esque story for the new season, moving the focus from a twisted serial killer to the evil of corruption of all kinds: the government, the mind, and the soul. I appreciated Farrell’s devotion to the character of Ray Velcoro, and I found Kitsch’s admittedly underdeveloped Paul Woodrugh to be a fascinating twist on the “good guy” noir archetype.
But while I enjoyed True Detective Season 2 more than most, it was abundantly clear that the storytelling, character work, and visuals paled in comparison to Season 1. However, the venom spewed at the show from critics and audiences alike is no reason to squander what still remains a swell formula for storytelling gold.
Some of the magic of True Detective Season 1 certainly came from stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, but a key to that installment’s success was the creative push-and-pull between Pizzolatto and Fukunaga. Pizzolatto created the show and wrote all the episodes, but Fukunaga—as the director—funneled them into a singular tangible vision onscreen. While rumors have swirled that the two didn’t quite get along, it was precisely the “butting heads” of their creative visions that resulted in what we got onscreen. The crux of Pizzolatto’s story and characters remained, along with those tremendous monologues, but Fukunaga was able to offset some of the more bloated tendencies that plagued Season 2 while bringing his remarkable talent as a filmmaker to the table. Moreover, as the director of every episode, there was one singular voice on the visual side of things, resulting in a much more cohesive story.
And this back-and-forth is what True Detective could be all about, if HBO carried on with the series and Pizzolatto was willing to work with a single filmmaker each time out. The melding of two very strong, very talented creative minds in service of one longform story is what gave us True Detective Season 1 in the first place. Why not continue on in that vein and call Season 2 a wash?
This is not an entirely new notion—filmmakers and writers have been collaborating since the medium began, obviously. But the 8-episode format provides a unique opportunity, and one that could result in wildly compelling storytelling for years to come—especially given the caliber of acting talent that’s eager to dive into such a series. The Social Network is one of the greatest films of the decade so far, and one of the reasons that film works so well is that director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin—two wildly different personalities with wildly different creative sensibilities—brought out the best in each other’s work while also suppressing each other’s worst tendencies. That kind of collaboration, sadly, doesn’t happen too often anymore—the Hollywood blockbuster machine necessitates that writer after writer come in and rewrite the script until all semblance of authorship dissipates.
And that is, again, where the value of True Detective comes in. Even at Season 2’s best, nothing came close to the cinematic ecstasy of Season 1. If HBO and Pizzolatto were to move forward with Season 3, this time with one filmmaker directing all the episodes, we could get another contained story along those lines that’s in keeping with the True Detective dynamic: a pair of people detecting things in a morally ambiguous world.
It feels like the network is running away from the series given the reaction to Season 2, but there’s reason to believe a turnaround isn’t out of the realm of possibility. At the very least, it’s worth a shot. And while other series are playing with the prospect of using one director/writer for all episodes (Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick and Susanne Bier’s The Night Manager come to mind), the anthology aspect of True Detective allows for an extended yet contained story to benefit from this kind of creative setup, with some of the best actors working today to boot.
So come on, HBO. Season 2 wasn’t that bad, and you’re sitting on a tremendous creative opportunity here. Don’t give up on True Detective just yet.