What Went Wrong With 'True Detective' Season 2?

A postmortem probe of the one-time phenomenon's California catastrophe

Colin Farrell and Rachel McAdams in the season finale of 'True Detective.' Credit: Lacey Terrell/HBO

Ben Caspere, the murdered man at the heart of True Detective's second season, got his eyes burned out with acid. To many viewers who stayed with the series to the end, he got off easy.

With its eighth and final episode in the ground (along with three quarters of its core cast), TD 2.0 has emerged as the year's most passionately disliked show. Some of that reaction can surely be dismissed as bandwagoneering – everybody enjoys a good dogpile now and then ­– but much of it was earned the hard way. Like the killing of Caspere, the acting, the directing and the writing never quite added up. It's worth combing through the files to figure out why.

The logical place to start is with comparisons to the show's first season, but that only gets you so far. In the end a whole lot of that relatively acclaimed affair turned out to be bait-and-switch and sleight-of-hand anyway. But that's kind of the point: TD used almost all the tricks it had up its sleeve by the time Rust Cohle rolled out of the hospital. Matthew McConaughey's third-rail intensity and Woody Harrelson's complementary out-of-his-depth good ol' boy-isms were obviously nowhere to be found, replaced by strangely sleepy, gritted-tooth turns by Taylor Kitsch, Rachel McAdams, Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn. As Frank Semyon, Vaughn in particular was asked to utter dialogue no one outside a bad Batman comic book or second-rate Grand Theft Auto knockoff should have to hear, and which not even the McConaissance would have been able to redeem. Lines like "The world needs bad men – we keep the other bad men from the door" were tough enough to swallow already; shit like "Sometimes your worst self is your best self" demonstrates the debt owed to Season One's leading man.

Also MIA: Cary Fukunaga, the first season's sole director and MVP. The rumored bad blood between he and writer/creator Nic Pizzolatto probably led to the insertion of a thinly veiled Fukunaga stand-in, directing the shitty movie that we eventually learn Caspere's real killers were working on together. But in the absence of the guy who clearly gave the Yellow King season its shine, from crafting its mesmerizing visuals to coaxing out killer performances, the joke was on Pizzolatto. Without a strong collaborating voice to temper his weaknesses and showcase his strengths, his macho faux profundities were left to wither in the harsh Los Angeles light of day.

Then there was the mystery itself, which was, well, both harder to unravel and far less mysterious. Last year's occult elements may have been a big fake out, but they gave the Yellow King and his minions their modus operandi, spurred feverish fan speculation and made the show not just a crime thriller but a horror film in eight installments. The half-hearted use of a crow mask and one out-of-nowhere David Lynch nightclub scene aside, this season had nothing that strong in its bag of tricks.

Nor did it have the complex but rigorously written structure of opposing viewpoints and shifting timelines that gave the initial outing such storytelling oomph. This season played it straight, chronicling the events that befell Ray, Frank, Ani and Paul as they occurred; what you saw was what you got, and what you got was kinda boring. To be fair, this was sort of the point: In the tradition of hard-boiled crime fiction from The Long Goodbye to The Long Good Friday, the mystery was meant to be impenetrable until just before the end. There just wasn't enough to engage with along the way.

For all that, the season still exerted a strange sort of magnetism. The endless overhead shots gliding over L.A.'s knotted freeways, the many quiet closeups of its main characters as they did nothing but sit and smolder, the sinister thrum of the electronic score overseen by T Bone Burnett – put it together and you get a rhythm and vibe unlike much else on TV right now. Even at its most frustrating, TD often felt like a show smoking a slow-burning cigarette under a streetlight at 3 a.m., a momentary oasis of chemical calm with nothing but trouble and turmoil on either side. Many series that are much better in every other respect would kill for that kind of palpable atmosphere.

But atmosphere alone isn't enough to save a show; it can just as easily smother it like smog. Many of the season's visual and sonic strong points gave off an air of impending doom, but when doomsday arrived the payoff couldn't justify all that time spent sitting around waiting for it. So you're left with flyover glimpses of roads that didn't lead anywhere, or portraits of people so visibly exhausted and immiserated by their lives that the feeling becomes contagious. When you're dealing with a mystery as murky as this one was, that's just not enough fuel to power you through.

Not that the show didn't shoot for catharsis from time to time. If anything, it brought so much firepower to the table it felt like overkill. The all-out slaughter of the cops' gunfight with Mexican gangsters early in the season, for example, broke the story's monotony, but the antagonists were only peripherally connected to the central story, and the massive body count had disconcertingly little impact on anything that happened afterwards. The same was more-or-less true of the big single-take shootout that was a highlight of Season One, but there, at least, there was bravura filmmaking and a genuine sense of having fallen down some kind of awful violent rabbit hole to justify the cost of ammo.

Last night's mayhem was more of the same. In killing off Frank and Ray so dramatically, and taking down many of their enemies to boot, the show tried to slap an exclamation point on the season's run-on sentence. But what for? Frank's nonsensical fight for his suit and its pocketful of diamonds? Better to be broke and half-naked than rich, fully dressed and dead, as he surely should have been able to see. The conclusion to the tragic arc of Ray's relationship with his son? His voicemail message may not have gone through, but with his paternity confirmed and Ani and Jordan out there with evidence of his innocence in the crimes for which he'd been framed, that's a tragedy too easily walked back.

In terms of violence, the moments that truly hit home were the ones with a slightly more fantastical feel. With its woozy camerawork and rhapsodic orchestral score, Ani, Paul and Ray's raid on the conspiracy's big sex party felt like a fairy tale, their escape as primal as Hansel and Gretel fleeing the witch's house. Paul Woodrugh's last stand was equally powerful, centered on the revelation that the man he loved had sold him out and staged in an appropriately labyrinthine underground tunnel. Finally, Semyon and Velcoro's assault on the house where their enemies went for their big cash hand-off was a short, sharp shock of nightmarish one-sided brutality, a hell-comes-to-California moment of gas masks, toxic fumes and point-blank range.

Nevertheless, True Detective viewers will be understandably gun-shy about a potential Season Three. The show's anthology model requires a full reboot every year, and that in turn necessitates a level of trust in the filmmakers alone, independent of continued attachment to characters or cast. It's difficult to see how that trust can be recaptured now, no matter how promising the setting or storyline or how intriguing the actors. They could announce tomorrow that TDs3 will star Tom Hardy, Tilda Swinton and Taylor Swift and still be met with a shrug. If Pizzolatto has enough faith in his talent to take on a creative partner to help focus it, and if HBO is willing to avoid the meandering of unnecessary hours by cutting the number of episodes to better suit the story that fills them, the True Detective trust deficit could still be overcome. Until then, disappointment with the series' squandered opportunity – call it blue balls of the boob tube ­– will linger on.