By Justin Ivey
The second season of True Detective is quickly coming to an end, and one thing is clear: this iteration of the show is underwhelming. A variety of critics have examined what’s wrong with the show and arrived at different conclusions for why things went awry. The fact that there’s little consensus on the source of the show’s problems could point to just how deeply flawed this new season is. While there’s plenty of material for criticism of True Detective’s current iteration, one reason for its fall from grace should not be overlooked. The move from Louisiana to California not only changed the setting, but also removed the essence of the show.
True Detective’s creator and sole writer Nic Pizzolatto was born in New Orleans and grew up in Lake Charles. He went to LSU. This is a man who knows Louisiana in and out. The state’s setting gave Pizzolatto a fertile playground for his story. Real life events like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were used to guide the plot. The impetus for main characters Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) to reunite is Hurricane Rita ruining some old case files. One of those happens to be the 1995 Dora Lange murder investigation, which sets the overarching story of the show into motion.
The people and culture of Louisiana also played a big part in season one’s success. True Detective’s inaugural season fell perfectly into the Southern gothic genre. Pizzolatto told a tale that could casually mention voodoo practices through the philosophizing mind of Rust Cohle then have character Billy Lee Tuttle’s evangelical ministry empire be a driving force behind the entire the plot. When the investigation took Rust and Marty to a tent revival or down an isolated dirt road to get to a marsh, viewers got to experience the atmosphere of Louisiana. Much of the credit for the scenery involved must go to director Cary Fukunaga, who is no longer involved in the True Detective series.
That said, moving the show back to Louisiana certainly doesn’t fix it either. The tight focus on the relationship between Rust and Marty allowed for both the characters to be complex as well as the murder mystery they were trying to solve. And nothing may ever replicate the proverbial chess games going on in the mind of Rust Cohle as he waxed poetic on the world as he knew it. But this second season feels like it’s trying to cram in 10 different stories into one. Attempting to examine the psyches of three detectives and one pseudo-gangster while also having a crime mystery unfold is too much to unravel in just one season. Viewers can’t get invested in these characters when everything is so disjointed.
Perhaps if this season had been condensed and honed in on the Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) and Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) characters, it would have produced better results. While the narrative has its faults, its setting gives it no life. The fictional city of Vinci is a desolate, industrial town. It’s not a compelling place to explore because there’s nothing there. Instead of the lush views of the bayou, viewers are given the isolated city streets and abandoned buildings of Vinci. The setting is faithful to the story being told, but it’s far less evocative in a visual medium.
Looking back, Louisiana was the soul of True Detective. By taking the series out of the state, it lost its way. Nic Pizzolatto is an extremely talented writer and the prospects of a third season should be welcomed by fans. But to reclaim that brilliance of its debut season, Pizzolatto may need to bring it back to where it all started. Louisiana is rich with material, and it’s time to revisit it.