TRUE DETECTIVE: “Other Lives”

The time to wait and see is over. True Detective has some real, hard-to-fix problems.

What’s happening now is we are surviving. We are rebuilding.

–Frank Semyon, who apparently hasn’t seen the show

As True Detective Season 2 begins its second half, it again finds itself playing the hits. After a midpoint episode climaxing in a shootout, the detective drama finds itself skipping ahead in time. You know, exactly like Season One did. Instead of jumping a decade into the future, we jump ahead just 66 days (I remain shocked it isn’t 666 days – you know, Big Symbolism), but it’s enough time for the lives of our protagonists to have changed.

Let us all observe a moment of silence for the loss of True Detective’s greatest character: Ray Velcoro’s mustache. Yes, having resigned from the Vinci police department and now working security for Frank Semyon, Velcoro has shaved his incredible lip plumage. That’s how you know things have changed! Not with subtle character fluctuations, but with differing facial hair! Paul Woodrugh is settling down with his fiancé, and now works insurance fraud cases. Ani Bezzerides is sitting through months of sexual harassment counseling and occasionally spouts dirty dialogue to prove that she’s a victim. Frank Semyon is settling back into being a pimp club owner. The local governments have pushed the story that the Mexican drug kingpins involved in last week’s shootout were thugs responsible for murdering Ben Caspere, who was simply the city’s lone dirty employee. No one is questioning the official narrative, and life has moved on for everyone.

Of course that’s probably not the reality, but everyone involved in the cover-up is powerful and insulated enough to be protected from any fallout, and what we’re left with is the other lives of our principles now that they’ve moved on from the investigation.

The reality is that I could talk about how the last 15-20 minutes of “Other Lives” is actually solid plot development. Not great, but solid. The particulars of the case finally begin to take shape, and the details of a large crime ring, only hinted at thus far, finally start to come into focus. In short, Dr. Piltor performs plastic surgery on attractive women, making “eights into tens” as he says. Then those women are ferried by Blake Churchman, one of Frank’s shady employees, to expensive parties fronted by Tony, the mayor of Vinci’s son. There they act as prostitutes to the city’s rich and powerful elite. Bada-boom, Bada-bing. You’ve got yourself a wide-ranging crime ring and probably a Ben Caspere murder cover-up to go with it!

The revelation that the man Ray Velcoro murdered was not his wife’s rapist is even better. His wife continues to threaten to take his joint custody away, and now Velcoro realizes that his debt to Frank wasn’t even for legitimate revenge. A single murder has ruined his marriage, his career, and his soul. And it may not even have been the murder he was trying to commit. That’s a solid storyline!

The problem is that it’s too little too late, and I mean that for both the episode and the season. The first two-thirds of the episode are so chock-full of meandering story and bad writing that I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that the majority of the audience had already turned the episode off. I’ve been rough on Nic Pizzolatto all season, but the dialogue in “Other Lives” is particularly heinous.

It’s not just TV critic nerds like me that are killing him for it, either. If you followed discussion about the show on Twitter while the episode was airing, even the general populace was shocked by how stupid the show’s conversations were. Frank Semyon’s comment that waiting to start over was “like blue balls…in your heart” was the target of the most vitriol, but there were plenty of other tin-eared lines, too. While sitting through her sexual harassment course, Ani Bezzerides is asked her thoughts on a topic and responds with a slew of sarcastic comments about how she loves large male appendages, to the horror of her instructor and the allure of her fellow course participants. Paul Woodrugh’s mom tells him that she sacrificed her career to bear and raise him and laments that Paul “should have been a scrape job.” It’s not just bad dialogue – it’s ugly. The second sin could be forgiven if it wasn’t for the first, but together they make for a miserable listening experience.

Nic Pizzolatto isn’t the only writer who writes words that may make the listener blush, of course. Quentin Tarantino is celebrated for the same thing. Similar language made The Sopranos and The Wire feel all the more real. The problem is that Pizzolatto’s dialogue doesn’t serve any greater purpose. There’s no underlying meaning or subtext. It’s just there to shock the listener. His characters don’t reveal themselves through colorful language like David Chase’s gangsters or Tarantino’s hitmen. They just say terrible things to shock.

In a negative review of David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet, Roger Ebert criticized Lynch’s use of Isabella Rosellini saying she was “degraded, slapped around, humiliated and undressed in front of the camera. And when you ask an actress to endure those experiences, you should keep your side of the bargain by putting her in an important film.” I can’t help but feel the same way about the actors in True Detective. If Pizzolatto is going to continue to have them utter ugly lines, at least make them mean something. Don’t let it just be terrible dialogue. At least put these actors in a show worthy of being watched. It seems Pizzolatto only had one story to tell, and now, having told that great story in Season One, he finds himself grasping at straws and trying to bluff his way through his show’s second act.

I was one of the few writers backing a “wait and see” attitude in response to the show’s lackluster first episodes, but that time has long passed and it’s time to address the reality: True Detective is a disaster, and it’s too late for Nic Pizzolatto to write his way out of it. That’s one of the problems with being the sole writer for a television series. There’s no one to tell you when you need to give your script a second look.

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