Imagine, for a moment, that the McConnaissance never included the character Rust Cohle. Imagine that director Cary Fukunaga was tied up with his newest feature film, and never turned his genius to the Louisiana bayous. Imagine Nic Pizzolatto couldn’t quite convince HBO executives to accept his first script about a “yellow king,” and that it was only a year later, when he came with a more concrete crime story set in California, that the bigwigs gave him the nod. Imagine that the highly divisive second season, just days from the finale, had never followed the (almost) universally acclaimed first season. Imagine that Velcoro and Bezzerides and Semyon and Woodrugh were all we knew of True Detective.
What would we think?
It’s a fascinating question, at least to me, because it has proven utterly impossible to separate the two. I’m as guilty as anybody else—in my first True Detective review this year, I made comparisons to season one, promising that I’d stop after just one or two quick thoughts. Spoiler alert: Seven episodes later, I haven’t stopped. Not for lack of trying—I’m not out to bash anybody for not living up to one of the greatest seasons of television ever made, because that was already an unrealistic goal, and a deeply unfair standard. The problem is that there are so many stylistic similarities between the two seasons—there’s no mistaking the fact that the same writer, Pizzolatto, created both—that in order to analyze why something works, or doesn’t, in season two, it’s just too useful to refer back to season one. For some, it works both ways—this season has actually changed how certain viewers feel about the first season, and not always for the better.
In that sense, the two are inseparable. But what if they weren’t? What if we didn’t define Pizzolatto’s second effort by his first? What if we came in with no preconceptions about the writer, and judged the work as we judge any other first season—in a vacuum? Would we like it more, less, the same?
It’s a tough question to answer, so let’s start by outlining the possibilities.
Possibility One: It’s hailed as groundbreaking TV, with a compelling atmosphere and plot, and occasional cringe-worthy lines.
I don’t think there’s a world in which the worst of Vince Vaughn’s lines would escape scrutiny. “Inside, you’re pure gold” would sound awkward under any circumstances, and we’d be crazy to believe that it would dodge Internet mockery. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. On the other hand, it’s easy to imagine people forgiving the occasional overwrought philosophical koan and diving into the story with both feet. There’s something eerie about the world of True Detective, and that’s as true now as it was in the first season. The atmosphere can be irresistible.
Nic Pizzolatto drew a lot of negative attention to himself with some abrasive interviews toward the end of season one, and I think that’s led to some fairly gleeful attacks this time around—people wanted to see him fail. If he was an unknown quantity, however, that wouldn’t be an issue, and we’d focus on the show without considering the identity and behavior of the writer. Nor would we measure the stylistic elements by how they compare to Fukunaga’s incredible directing from 2014. Without those critical stumbling blocks, True Detective could be hailed as a revelation, with a few dialogue flaws that amounted to very little in the face of its overall excellence.
Possibility Two: It’s condemned as pretentious, navel-gazing tripe with a convoluted plot and a dour atmosphere.
We have to consider the idea that the success of season one is actually making it easier for season two, and that we’re extending Pizzolatto the benefit of the doubt, hoping against hope that he’ll reach last year’s levels by the time the story of Vinci is wrapped up this Sunday. You saw some of that this past week—episode seven was hailed as the best installment yet, and there was a resurgence of hope among many, including me. Within that praise, is it possible there’s a bit of wish fulfillment? Are we just making excuses for a show because we loved season so much that we desperately want it to be good again?
If that’s true, it probably means that season two would be panned as a standalone show. Without the memory of McConaughey and Harrelson, there would be nothing holding us back from skewering Pizzolatto’s effort, painting it as artistically pretentious, and generally consigning it to the scrap heap of HBO dramas gone wrong.
Possibility Three: It would fly under the radar, attracting cult followers, spreading slowly, and eventually gaining a solid reputation.
This is the theory I happen to endorse, and if you want to call me crazy for thinking that a show with Vaughn, Farrell, and McAdams would sneak up on the world, well…that’s fair, and I’ll accept that.
What I actually believe is that without the background of season one, many who tuned in to watch the start of the second season would leave befuddled. In a world where Rust Cohle and Marty Hart never existed, True Detective would still be unlike anything ever seen on TV, and the closest comparison anybody could make would be to Twin Peaks...and even then, that would only really apply to a handful of scenes. Aside from the bar scenes with the mysterious lounge singer, you can’t really call this show Lynchian. I think it would alienate a lot of viewers, but not in a way that made them overly critical. Instead, I imagine they’d just duck out of the show without expressing much opinion at all, beyond some trace confusion.
When those disinterested viewers went on their away, I think it would leave a core of fanatics. And while those fanatics wouldn’t be nearly as numerous as what we saw last year, I think they’d be equally adamant about the show’s excellence, and they’d proselytize on its behalf. True Detective would be one of those dramas you kept hearing about from a certain kind of TV-obsessed friend. Paradoxically, it wouldn’t attract a ton of negative criticism for the simple fact that it wouldn’t be big enough to make an attractive target. And while you the average viewer might not catch any of the episodes while it was actually airing, you’d find time to watch on a boring weekend day. Maybe you’d be left cold as you struggled to make it through one episode, never to return. Or maybe you’d get hooked and find yourself binging to the point that, a few days later, you’d become the show’s latest evangelical.
I don’t think the second season is good enough to gain the same traction as the first, even if the first had never happened. But it may be good enough to stand on its own as a secret treasure, shared by people who see its unique qualities and begin to treasure it in spite of—or is it because of—its lack of widespread popularity.