What Went Wrong with Season 2 of "True Detective"? Cautionary Lessons for Writers
Most of the time, I try to use great writing as examples of what TO DO. But, some writing fails so epically, the best use of it is as a cautionary tale for other writers. We can use it to study what NOT to do.
True Detective Season Two does just that. I hate writing this because Season One was a masterpiece, and all I can think of is that maybe Nic Pizzolatto was a victim of his own success. It would be very daunting to top Season One. Scratch that. It would probably put most writers in a padded cell from nerves.
So what the heck went wrong?
This entire blog is nothing but a spoiler alert, but trust me. I am saving you ten hours of your life you can never get back. Before we talk about some of the basic writing issues that derailed the series, I believe there is one core reason this post fizzled faster than a bottle of New Coke.
Pizzolatto forgot the audience and remembered the critics.
Despite resounding praise for Season One, a handful of critics did take shots at Pizzolatto because they are critics and it is what they do. I wish Pizzolatto would have appreciated that most T.V. critics are being paid to watch the show and paid to have an opinion. They weren’t really his audience. The audience LOVED Season One. They bought t-shirts and quoted lines and tweeted and those were the people who mattered because it is basic math.
Fans waaaayyyy outnumber professional television critics. More fans means fans matter more.
This reminds me of the trouble we can get into as writers. This is actually one of the big dangers of attending a critique group.
Thing is, everyone at the table actually could love your pages, but I promise you that there will be ONE dude who will say something negative even if he doesn’t believe his own critique because he is like that jerk teacher who never gave an A because, “No one is perfect.”
Then, instead of the poor writer listening to twenty freaking people who thought the story was written with long-sought-after unicorn tears dripping from the quill made from a feather of a phoenix? Writer tries to appease Jerk Critic who just wanted to have something to criticize because he simply cannot stand the fact that someone in the group might have more talent.
Same with reviews on books. Unless an overwhelming percentage of people are complaining about the same things?
DO NOT WRITE FOR CRITICS.
I feel this is what happened to Season Two of True Detective.
Instead of appreciating the glowing feedback from fans and basking in the knowledge that his series fundamentally changed television…he listened to the critics and changed Season Two to suit them. Maybe not consciously, but yeah. And since I don’t want to spend too much time here, check out this Ben Travers’ fantastic article about it; How Nic Pizzolatto’s Temper Tantrum Toward Critics Ruined ‘True Detective” Season 2.
When we write for critics, more times than not, we end up with Franken-Novel, which I wrote about in my post Franken-Novel, Perfectionism & The Dark Side of Critique Groups.
So, About the Writing…
Every time I write about the “rules” of writing, inevitably, I get at least ONE commenter who wants to toss out the rule book, which is fine. But, I will reiterate that we can break rules but we do so at our own risk. Rules exist largely for readers (the audience) which I hope will become clear as we go through this.
Limit the Number of Characters
O…M…G. I lost count of how many named characters were in this series. I felt like I was trapped at family reunion, smiling at people and pretending I knew them and that I actually recalled that they were the second grandchild of my third-cousin-by-marriage.
Even in the finale, I had to pause because I had NO IDEA who the hell was killing off one of the main characters.
Is it the Russians? Who IS that? Honey, does he look Mexican to you or Armenian? I thought he was cool with the Armenians. Wait…nope, those are Mexicans. What the hell are THEY doing there?
Really, I was Being Serious…Limit the FREAKING Characters
Especially POV characters. I’ve run into this before with my writing classes. Some new writer who wants to get all “literary” demands she has seven POV characters. Oh-kay.
I used to argue. Now?
Have fun storming the castle *waves*.
Thing is, like meeting every person on the planet who is alive and who happens to share our DNA at ONE TIME (family reunion again) we cannot care about that many people. Not at ONE time.
Season 2 had four POV characters and only eight episodes. Basic math tells us this is a bad plan. When we try to cram too many POV characters into a story, we end up with extra parts that don’t matter because we simply don’t have time (and audiences lack the cranial bandwidth) to explore these characters.
Eight episodes is NOT enough time to fully develop a sympathetic mob boss with a barren wife, a hardboiled detective who is the daughter of a hippie guru who allowed her to be sexually abused as a child, a raging alcoholic dirty cop with guilt issues and child custody problems, and a disgraced CHP with a shady past in Afghanistan, mommy issues, and who is struggling with his sexuality.
Have mommy issues. Feel free to have daddy issues. Go for BOTH at your own risk. Every single POV character trying to reconcile extensive and complex child abuse?
Mob Boss Frank Seymon—abandoned and verbally, physically and emotionally abused.
Detective Bezzideres—emotionally abused by guru father, abandonment issues, was abducted and sexually abused (we think, because she never *really* remembers or if she did I forgot it)
Detective Ray Velcoro—emotionally and verbally abused by his father (in convenient flashback-dream-sequence-hallucination thingy)
Officer Paul Woodrugh—extreme verbal abuse by mother and hinted at sexual abuse by mom who is a bitter dancer pissed off that she gave birth to Paul and it cost her her dance career.
What becomes problematic (other than the sheer NUMBER of POV characters) is that rather than the characters simply being deep (I.e. we can “get” they were abused in their past without the deets) the series teased out details of each character’s past as if these details were salient to unraveling the plot mystery.
We are given all kinds of details in a way that “suggests” we need to pay attention. Instead of Chekhov’s Gun? We got Osama Bin Laden’s gift-weapons-cache from the CIA circa the 80s.
If you show us a
gun plot trail in Act One Episode One, use it by Act Three Episode EIGHT.
The same went for the problems these characters were facing in the present. Not only was the audience saddled with unraveling the past mysteries, but we had the characters’ present-drama dumped in our laps as if THIS stuff was salient to unraveling the plot mystery.
Hint: No. No it was not.
I waited SEVEN episodes for that Hollywood bi*&% who tarnished Woodrugh’s reputation to get her comeuppance.
*rails at the heavens*
Nope. They kill him off and just…stop his story.
What happens when we try to develop everyone, is we develop no one. By the end, most of the characters were forced, contrived paper dolls. In fact, Officer Paul Woodrugh was a third-wheel. We could have cut his character and his storyline with zero negative impact to the overall kind-of-sort-of-plot.
Limit the Plot Layers
Some speculate that Pizzolatto was being reactionary to critics who claimed Season One wasn’t deep enough or complex enough. Here’s the deal. There is a difference between complex and complicated.
Lord of the Rings—> COMPLEX
Star Wars Prequels—> COMPLICATED
Complexity is birthed from simplicity. Complication is the child of confusion.
As we see when we try to create a log-line for each.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
A naive race who has never left home must travel vast distances and fight innumerable dangers to drop an evil ring in a special volcano located in the heart of enemy territory before darkness consumes the world.
Star Wars Prequels
A snarky slave kid who works on robots and races pods and who does something, then leaves home, maybe because Mom dies then something about Metachlorians and kid’s INFESTED with them. Then a dude with a painted face and Jedi and clones and much whining and more whining and then kid-now-whiny-adult-Jedi has no other choice but to slaughter a bunch of kids to save preggo wife and hell… I got nothing.
When it comes to the end of Season Two of True Detective, I haven’t been so confused since I forced myself to finish the Star Wars prequels.
Bluntly, I still really don’t understand the plot and don’t get who killed Casper. There were too many layers and subplots and hints and players in action. Maybe I am simply not smart or savvy enough for this series because…
I cannot unravel the Russian mob, the Mexican Mob, the Armenian underground, crooked cops, crooked politicians, crooked U.S. soldiers, crooked shrinks moonlighting as crooked plastic surgeons, crooked Hassidic Jews (NO, I AM NOT KIDDING), a land grab, toxic waste and environmental crimes, prostitution rings, secret sex parties, a missing five million dollars, sex trafficking, multiple coverups, several missing persons, blackmail, government fraud, gender issues, a missing hard drive, diamond theft, trafficking illegals, real estate fraud, and two orphaned kids with multiple identities out for the-most-complicated-revenge-plot-in-history in EIGHT EPISODES.
All we were missing in Season Two was the plot tangent about jaywalking. And some abused clowns juggling secretly gay ferrets.
And I hate picking on Pizzolatto because he is still my hero and is breathtakingly talented. ANY of these Season Two characters on his or her own could have been vastly complex and interesting and remarkable. But ALL at ONE time? That was the mistake.
Characters Should Stay in Character
Should characters be predictable? No. Can characters do unexpected things? Yes. Should characters do unexpected or stupid things simply because we (the writer) need them to? NO.
A ruthless mob boss who has survived into adulthood by being a master tactician and who GLORIOUSLY takes out the Russian mob in one showdown should NOT die because of rookie mistake/decision. He would give up the suit and then kill them all another day. He’d kill them, get back his diamonds and take all THEIR money, too.
When he refuses to give up the suit and some spear-carrying Mexican gang member not even important enough to warrant a NAME kills him?
We call foul and it ticks us off.
Characters Can’t BE Something They Aren’t
The whole sow’s ear/silk purse thing. Ray Delcoro’s son was as interesting as tax law no matter how many lines of Ray’s dialogue tried to tell us otherwise. The fact that Delcoro died (pointlessly) still trying to reach out to the World’s Most Uninteresting Kid still kind of ticks me off.
Someone NEEDS to Arc
Personally, I am with Blake Snyder. Everyone arcs! In True Detective Season 2? Other than Ray Delcoro being sober, every protagonist was the same in the end as in the beginning. No one was inherently changed by the crucible of plot.
The Plot Problem MUST Be Resolved
After gutting it through seven episodes, I was hoping that the season finale would finally tie up all these loose ends and that I would finally understand. Finally, there would be justice.
Almost everyone dies for no good reason and the bad guys win. Casper’s murder becomes an afterthought and I can’t even tell you the names of his killers only that his murder is never officially solved. All the shady politicians get what they want and the dirty cops go on being dirty cops.
The season ends with Ani (one of the investigating detectives) in Belize (I think) talking to ANOTHER CHARACTER. A NEW CHARACTER. A reporter. She hands off all the evidence she collected for an expose (????) and is still uncertain anyone will see justice probably because she is as lost as the rest of us and hopes the reporter can figure it all out.
If we want to end our story like a French film and everyone dies? Ohhhh-kaaaaay, but we should give the audience a bone. The bad guys then should be punished. If we want the bad guys to win? I’m not fond of that kind of ending, but all right. It happens. But then we need to give the audience a personal WIN for the characters. Our protagonists cannot all die AND all fail. They cannot all die and fail the plot arc and the character arc.
If they do, the audience will want to stab our story IN THE FACE.
Why all of this is (to me) a shame is because there was so much rich material in this series to work with and it went to waste. I actually enjoyed Vince Vaughn as a bad guy and loved his character (cheesy lines and all).
But there IS some good news to this. When I watched True Detective Season One, it was so good I actually questioned if I could even write. After Season Two? I realize even geniuses like Pizzolatto make mistakes too 😉 .
What are your thoughts? Did you watch both seasons? Were you just as confused by Season 2? Were the dudes with the bakery who forged the passports Armenian? I never could quite figure that out.
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of AUGUST, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
Before we go, some upcoming classes. It’s BACK TO SCHOOL!:
Remember! Due to popular demand I am running my Your Story in a Sentence class THIS SATURDAY and participants have their log lines shredded and rebuilt and made agent-ready. Log-lines are crucial because if we don’t know what our book is about? How are we going to finish it? Revise it? Pitch it? Sell it?
This class can help ensure your story is COMPLEX, not COMPLICATED.
I am also running my Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages at the end of August. Beginnings are crucial. As a long-time editor, I can tell almost every bad habit and story flaw in five pages. I never need over 20. This class helps you learn to see what agents and editors see and learn how to correct most common writing mistakes. I am offering additional levels if you want me to shred your first 5 or even 20 pages.
I am STOKED about Back to School and am here to help! The first ten signups for Gold or Platinum get double pages (10 for Gold and 40 for Platinum).
In September, I’m teaching my Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist. This class is critical for PLOT whether we are plotters or pantsers. This class will teach you how to have a solid plot that captivates and satisfies audiences, whether for one title or a series.
All classes are recorded and the recording is provided FREE with purchase.
Can’t wait to see you in class and read your writing!