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'True Detective' Drinking Games That Could Kill You

Season 2 went almost completely wrong, until it went right.

Because I don’t want you to die, I want to warn you away from the “True Detective” drinking games that the kids have been going wild for lately.

Here's how to avoid said drinking games, unless you have a death wish:

  • Don't drink every time an actor struggles with an overwritten line of dialogue. (“It’s like blue balls in your heart.”)
  • Don't drink every time you watch Taylor Kitsch or Vince Vaughn battle mightily to master roles that, for the most part, do not play to their strengths in a consistent way. Definitely don’t imbibe every time you think Vince Vaughn sounds like he’s appearing in a dinner-theater production of “Guys and Dolls.”
  • Don't drink every time you think the character development is lacking, sloppy or incomplete. Why was coming out, even a little, so difficult for Paul Woodrugh (Kitsch)? Why was embracing that side of himself so challenging for this particular man? No idea. And if the answer is because he’s got a shrewish, emasculating mother, then creator Nic Pizzolatto has got to stop getting his story ideas from psychology textbooks published decades ago.
  • Don't drink when you can’t fully enjoy a set piece, like that massive gun battle, because it fundamentally made no sense. Yes, now we know why it made no sense (sort of?), but it would have been nice at the time not to wonder why a bunch of random gang members suddenly decided to act very stupidly.
  • Don't drink when you wonder whether the entire resolution of the season will amount, more or less, to “a wizard did it,” with James Frain’s barely-seen Burris as the convenient wizard. How did Burris know where Woodrugh would emerge from the tunnels? Because he’s a wizard! Has he been pulling all the strings the whole time? Yes, because ... wizard stuff! Who was the African-American man Woodrugh met in the tunnels? Another wizard! All right, IMDb.com tells me it was Holloway, the police chief, but I highly doubt that was the first guess of anyone in North America. Forget Holloway and Burris -- raise your hand if you’ve spent exposition-dump scenes wondering who the hell Geldof and Tasha and Lutz are. But for your own mental and physical health, don’t drink when character names ring zero bells -- just move on.
  • Don't drink when you start thinking about how the repetitive overhead shots of Los Angeles’ highways are a metaphor for the convoluted bowl of spaghetti that is the plot. But wait, bowls of spaghetti and highways are not the same thing, maybe “True Detective” is a lasagna of obfuscation and imitation? But wait, maybe a better metaphor is a stew of undercooked MacGuffins swimming in a broth of “gritty”clichés? You will really, really want to drink when all these metaphors start colliding in your head (and you might get hungry), but don’t start pouring shots, because you need your head clear to figure out what that singer is wailing about (not even this hilarious "True D" plot explainer has any idea what the singer's deal is). 
  • Don't drink when an individual episode feels as though it lasts for several days (I don’t know about you, but Episode 5 alone aged me by three years). Definitely don't go near alcohol when you wonder why no well-compensated HBO executive effectively reigned in Pizzolatto’s tendency to write clunky dialogue, march his poor actors through unforgiving exposition deluges and festoon what could have been a decent six- or eight-episode season with way too many barnacles, curlicues and extraneous doodads. But maybe I’m an outlier on this: I’ve been at the Television Critics Association press tour for a week, and my desire to drink has increased every time I’ve heard an executive at HBO, Amazon, Netflix or some other deep-pocketed content factory proudly declare that they don’t tell their amazingly talented creators what to do, ever, because creators are creative and anyone who is creative must always be right! Uhh, what? I’m all for creative people being allowed to shape their stories and employ their craft in intelligent and evocative ways, but what is the point of executives at places like that if they don’t make the storytelling better, or at least stop it from turning into an expensive, reeking mess?
  • Ah, the hell with it, pour me a drink.

No, wait, I promised myself I would not drink when watching, thinking or writing about “True Detective”; that way lies madness and possible death. And yet I must confess that I am nevertheless addicted: I can’t stop watching it, because, as train wrecks go, much of Season 2 was a gift that did not stop giving.

 As the sophomore season got off to a hilariously awkward start, Pizzolatto attempted to give us five or six different shows ineptly smushed in one, and most of the grafts were either rejected or took a long time to take. It was fitting that Season 2 began with the rotting, propped-up body of a dead man, because the central plot was a Frankenstein’s monster, a stitched-together creation that smelled more ripe as time went on. 

As others have noted, for all its vaulting aesthetics and thematic ambition, Season 1’s saving grace was that it concentrated on only a few elements. There were linked murder investigations in the past and present, and the narrative through line -- which remained strong even when everything else wobbled -- was the complicated friendship of the two cops involved in those cases. Keeping the whole thing coherent were the masterful performances of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey and the sure, supple direction of Cary Joji Fukunaga, who infused long stretches of Season 1 with an air of wounded, graceful lyricism.

In retrospect, it’s more obvious how crucial the performance of McConaughey was; he had a sparkle in his eye that said, “Hey, maybe Rust Cohle is full of it, but at least he's an entertaining bullsh*t artist, am I right?” Both Harrelson and McConaughey had sly sides to their performances, and their ability to be both serious and to use subtle comic shadings to subvert Pizzolatto’s tendency toward preposterous faux-erudition ended up improving and elevating Season 1, which wasn’t too overwhelmed by inelegant detours and misguided deviations until it hit the home stretch.

This time around, it appears that Pizzolatto’s goal was to triple down on every mistake he made in Season 1, which may account for my weird fixation with this year's model: Soaring, unchecked arrogance can be a spectacle in its own right. Part of me knew what I'd be getting: Pizzolatto has never been known for subtlety, after all. Vinci is the most corrupt town! Ray Velcoro is the most tortured detective! This sex party has the most random boobs! These people employ even more sex workers than “Game of Thrones”! Take that, Westeros! 

A tendency toward maximalism isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Film director George Miller has a similar urge toward energetic saturation, but the difference is, his characters are clearly delineated and his world-building ferociously complete and joyfully imaginative. But this season of the HBO show has hardly been “True Detective: Fury Road,” and more’s the pity. It’s been, for the most part, a series of grim, humorless attempts to crib from various kinds of noir, to shove 15 pounds of plot into a shoddily made 10-pound bag and to come up with something that could eventually incubate its own organic narrative drive. 

And that didn’t happen consistently until Episode 7.

Finally, the “Serpico” homage that Colin Farrell had been starring in steered decisively away from his painfully uninteresting family drama and gave the actor a chance to simply brood and throw off waves of charisma, which he did effortlessly. The reasonably straightforward cop procedural that Rachel McAdams has been appearing in also came into focus, and kudos to McAdams being light on her feet and exceedingly savvy as she skillfully navigated Season 2’s iffy construction. Like Harrelson and McConaughey, both of these actors are magnetic and able to underplay and elevate the sometimes overwrought material they’re given, and when Velcoro and Bezzerides interacted in Episode 7, they and director Dan Attias managed to recreate some of the old magic. (By the way, it’s gross and immature that Pizzolatto went out of his way to mock Fukunaga this season, given that it’s even more obvious now how much the show has suffered in his absence.)

Not having one director for the season was a mistake, but Season 2 labored under the cloud of a much bigger one. The lead weight pulling the whole thing under has been Frank Semyon (Vaughn); the storylines set at his home and workplace were often among the most painfully inept minutes of television HBO has aired in recent memory. Vaughn was miscast and Kelly Reilly has been criminally underused as his wife, and very few things this season were more poorly handled than their sodden, circular conversations about having a child. Sidebar: I could write a whole "True Detective" piece about its nagging wives, cartoonish mothers and women largely defined by the assaults they've endured. In Season 2, there are exponentially more of them than there were in Season 1. (Take that, critics!) But … ehnnnn. Not rising to the bait today. 

The season hasn’t been a complete train wreck, and that’s half the reason I couldn’t look away. It was hard not to love the DGAF characters played by W. Earl Brown and Richie Coster, who gleefully stole scenes from under their more famous co-stars just by having fun with this mishmash of “Chinatown” and every pulp detective novel ever set west of the Rockies. The scene of Velcoro getting shot by the masked man and the visits to the office of Rick Springfield, Creepy Plastic Surgeon, were suitably freaky and purplishly entertaining, and I’m OK with any scene that involves Rachel McAdams getting very stabby. 

But for long stretches, the show itself reminded me of Ani Bezzerides’ e-cigarette; a little douchey, full of artificial ingredients, not good for you and faintly ridiculous. And then, finally, the second half of the seventh episode made everything that came before it almost worth the pain. 

The scene of Velcoro and Bezzerides staring at each other with wounded, vulnerable eyes was hypnotic, and, in Vinci, Vaughn finally, finally locked into a new gear. He was masterful at playing a suddenly conciliatory Frank, who hid an ocean of rage underneath a bland, dead-eyed smile. The plot finally lurched forward, and most of the shaggiest and extraneous elements of Season 2 were burned down like Frank’s club and casino, to be missed by no one.

For long stretches, the seventh episode of “True Detective” was almost dialogue-free, proving again that when it's working, the show is a canny combination of minimalist dialogue and saturated atmosphere. What worked in that episode -- and elsewhere in the season -- derived from unpredictable alchemy created by actors and evocative moments handled gracefully by directors. In last Sunday's episode, what I loved about “True Detective’s” first season -- the quiet atmosphere of sad rage and frustration and the air of vulnerable, doomed romance -- at long last crept back to center stage.

So what will “True Detective” sift from the ashes when it finally wraps up Season 2? Who knows, but I have a feeling that Season 3, which is probably inevitable, will serve as another object lesson in the dangers of unchecked hubris, because Pizzolatto doesn't strike me as the kind of guy who is likely to get out of his own way. “We get the world we deserve,” eh? Critics have been pretty hard on Season 2. What kind of harsh lesson will we deserve in Season 3?

If Stan knows, he’s not telling.

Ryan McGee and I discussed "True Detective" and "UnREAL" in the the latest Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below. 

 

 

 

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