True Detective, "The Night Finds You" (Season 2, Episode 2): Barrelhouse Television Workshop

Today's Panel

Becky Barnard is Web Manager at Barrelhouse. She lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where she fights off cabin fever by reading, self-propelling various pieces of sporting equipment around the outdoors, and consuming pop culture. Also bourbon. She always is looking to make new weird Internet friends @beckybarnard.

Killian Czuba is Barrelhouse's art director. She makes comics and fiction and daydreams about being mad swole and/or a detective. She recently founded the interdisciplinary collective @apiary_life, and co-created and illustrated an anthology of adventure stories by rad lady writers (The Egret's Crossing). She subsists primarily on tv and twitter and gifs of baby fruit bats. For a good time, follow @killianczuba.

Erin Fitzgerald is Online Editor at Barrelhouse, and an associate editor at SmokeLong Quarterly. Her stories have appeared in fine publications such as Salt Hill, PANK, and the anthology Gigantic Worlds. She lives in Connecticut, and on Twitter as @gnomeloaf. 

Dave Housley is one of the founding editors and all around do-stuff people at Barrelhouse. His third collection of short fiction, “If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home,” was released in January 2015 by Dzanc Books. His previous collections are “Commercial Fiction” (Outpost 19) and “Ryan Seacrest is Famous” (Impetus Press, Dzanc Books eBook Reprint Series). Sometimes he drinks boxed wine and tweets about the things on his television at @housleydave.

Joshua Isard is the author of the novel Conquistador of the Useless (Cinco Puntos Press 2013), an homage to two of his favorite things: grunge rock and the Philadelphia suburbs. He's also written some short stories, which have appeared in journals like The Broadkill Review, Northwind, and Story Chord. He is the director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Arcadia University, and lives in those Philly 'burbs with his wife, daughter, and two cats.

Toni Jensen lives in Arkansas with a husband, child, dog, and many ants. Her first story collection, From the Hilltop, was published through the Native Storiers Series at the University of Nebraska Press. Her stories have been published in journals and anthologized in New Stories from the South, Best of the Southwest, and Best of the West: Stories from the Wide Side of the Missouri. She follows the Oklahoma City Thunder like it’s her job, but it is not. She teaches creative writing at the University of Arkansas.

Steph Post is the author of the novel A Tree Born Crooked. Her short fiction and poetry has most recently been published in Haunted Waters: From the Depths, The Round-Up, The Gambler Mag, Foliate Oak and Stephen King’s Contemporary Classics. She teaches writing in St. Petersburg, Florida. Check her out at www.stephpostfiction.com and follow her on twitter at @stephpostauthor.



WHAT'S WORKING, WHAT'S NOT?

Dave Housley (DH): Based on my own reaction, and literary Twitter’s reaction last night, I’m anticipating that we’re going to have a pretty solid discussion about what may not be working right now. So to keep this workshopping, I thought we could work on two things -- what’s working, what’s not?

WHAT’S WORKING?

Becky Barnard (BB): I don’t know if it’s bad form to show how the TV Workshop sausage is made, but we’re 16 hours past the end of the episode, we’ve written five pages of other discussion, and this section has remained blank.

Joshua Isard (JI): That's probably a good indication of what we thought... The Ray-Ani relationship got good, especially on their car ride, and that's discussed below. But then, if that's good, then Ray's dead, we're not left with much.

I'll toss out the setting at the beginning, though, for Ray and Frank's first talk. The kids playing in front of a huge industrial river: that was cool. Showed me a little more of Vinci, and kind of ameliorates my feelings about the SoCal setting.

Also, the drunk mayor of Vinci. I think he was drinking a martini right out of the shaker, and had some awesome slurred Yiddish in his last scene. I want to see more of that guy.

Killian Czuba (KC): I’ll say that *something* was definitely working, because this episode was asy more engaging, and when I re-watched it with my husband when he got home, I didn’t just play on my phone the whole time. A few reasons this was better: there’s actual detectiving going on, it’s not just all front-loaded back-story, and the characters feel generally more interesting. Ray and Ani had some good car moments (some of the best parts of season 1 were those car moments).

BB: I do think we established some wonderfully freakish secondary characters. Woodrugh’s handsy mom. The increasingly drunk mayor. Rick Springfield’s creepy psychiatrist, who made me physically uncomfortable to watch. The hair! The sunglasses! The Dr. Evil-esque inflection! They’re all adding a little quirk to what could quickly become a very monotone show.

And the major characters did all have their good moments. Colin Farrell seems to be the most comfortable with the dialog, and makes lines like “What I done for you” and “I had a right, by any natural law. I had a right!” seem almost in character. Or at least more in character than they should, by any natural law. You all cover Vaughn’s post-beating patter and McAdams’ knife explanation perfectly later, so I’ll just say yes and yes. And Taylor Kitsch is really making me want to watch Friday Night Lights, because I’ve heard he’s great in that show. This one...eh.  

DH: I’ll second you on the secondary characters. I think one thing I’m missing, and more on this below, is some levity, or at least a change in tone from dreary world-weary self-loathing to, I don’t know, maybe just weary self-loathing? The secondary characters have a chance to provide some of that and I’m hopeful that they’ll continue to play a part here.

Also Vinci is kind of interesting and getting more so, even though there was a lot of exposition in this one, especially around the whole “ deal gone wrong” thing. The more we see of it and the more interesting that setting is to me, although I’m also just about full up on profound-seeming overhead shots of California traffic.

Toni Jensen (TJ): I want to see more of the drunk mayor of Vinci, too. His dialogue, those few moments, were the best of the episode. When he tells Ray “innuendo is nobody’s friend,” I thought actually the show could use more innuendo, less overstatement, but he makes even that dialogue work. The moments in the car between Ani and Ray also were starting to work. When he tries out the catching flies with honey cliche, and she responds with “what the hell would I want with flies?”

I was super pleased to see some interesting banter. Cop shows need banter. But if Ray’s now, dead, then I’m afraid the world of banter is dead, too. I can’t imagine Paul is capable of banter. Mainly, even though I didn’t really like how it was done, I very much liked the introduction of how Vinci works--how there’s this influx of 70,000 people who work there--but where do they all live? The shots of the industry with the people so small, so ant-like--that’s really working to set up Vinci as, perhaps, the most interesting character of all.

WHAT’S NOT?

JI: Vince Vaughn's dramatic acting. I didn't hate the opening scene where Frank talks about his dad, though It totally went on too long. But the scene in the car, after he found out the deal he did with Ben Casper never went through and he's out millions of dollars, that performance was awful. He was supposed to be a dangerous man holding back his anger (I think), but just seemed flummoxed.

Vaughn needs wit.

The scene where the guy gets his ass kicked on the side of the road, and the Frank jogs over to talk to him, Vaughn was great there. It was sarcastic, had a little humor right in Vaughn's wheelhouse.
I'm not sure if Vaughn was miscast for the character, or if Pizzolatto didn't write a character that played to Vaughn's strengths, but but one way or the other, there are some brutal moments from an actor I really like. Sort of hard to watch.

BB: I think the whole show could use a little wit. Season one was dotted with moments of levity. Woody Harrelson’s reactions to McConaughey’s overly-philosophical car conversations. The Lone Star can men. The Big Hug Mug. There were these tiny things that winked at you throughout the show. So far, the humor has been pretty thin this season.

DH: This is what I’m really missing -- some kind of levity or at least change in tone. We have these broken characters who just kind of gloom around. Somebody tweeted a month ago something like “I haven’t seen True Detective 2 yet but from what I can tell from the trailer it is a show about frowning.” I haven’t been able to get that out of my head, and unfortunately the show has pretty much delivered on that promise. So far the largest ray of light has been that bartender with the cut up face (really interesting job with the scars on that one). She seems nice. Everybody else seems like a super gloomy self-contained/loathing downer.

I guess I don’t really need jokes so much as some kind of change in tone. I feel like in traditional noir you at least get a lot of smart guy jokes, witty dialogue, you get a lot of descriptions of drinks and meals and places, and it serves a purpose, which is to give you a little grounding, a little change of pace, and there was a lot of that last season and almost none so far this season. Those tiny moments Becky mentions really carried a lot of water last season.

KC: Some of the dialogue was so. bad. Parts of my brain were screaming
CUT CUT OMG CUT.

Steph Post (SP): I am so one hundred percent with you on this. So. Bad.  

Erin Fitzgerald (EF): If this were an actual workshop, I would be sitting here thinking “Please don’t make Nic read out loud, please don’t make Nic read out loud.” There are some situations where it’s okay to have not-outstanding dialogue. But a show that is reliant on dialogue to process information, thereby moving things forward? Nope nope nope nope.

JI: I think the dialog problems are just exacerbated based on season one, mostly because it's one writer. If it was a team, I don't know how I'd feel, but with this I'm like, "Nic, man, I know you can do this dialog thing, what's going on?" I still wonder, with stuff like this, how much the success of the first season affected his writing process for this season.

DH: Totally agree. It’s also not helping that all these actors are playing it so absolutely completely dour and serious, which I think makes the dialogue come over even more leaden. Not to harp on last season, but we might as well harp on last season, and I think Mcconaughey’s reading of Rust’s dialogue was so full of a kind of fuck-you mirth that what could have been all serious and leaden just didn’t come out like that. It was slippery and fun and offbeat. The rest of the characters were pretty serious, although not quite as life-or-death grim as these characters in season 2, but there was that one kind of trickster in the middle of it and it gave everything this nicely off-center feeling, a different tone. Maybe that’s what they were hoping Vince Vaughn was going to do -- he’s usually got that same lightness to him, even when he’s playing a dick, and I don’t think that’s exactly coming out here (giving him a monologue about being locked in a rat room at age 6 didn’t exactly help).

TJ: Oh, Vince Vaughn. I second the comment that he needs wit--he needs wit and something to do. He’s good in motion, not so much sitting and delivering impossible lines. My only hope for his character (now that they’ve gone and shot the wrong character--if we’re voting, I mean) is for him to devolve into mayhem. When he sports his sunglasses and menaces while also cracking wise, he’s okay, maybe even compelling. But that rat story as backstory business has to end. Show us who he is, please and soon. Don’t tell us. He’s not very good at soliloquizing, at direct telling. My vote for the other worst part is a tie: 1) Paul and his mother. It’s way too close to Boardwalk Empire, and there’s no Gretchen Mol, or 2) Ray’s ex-wife and her awful screaming. That dialogue and its delivery so far are the worst--didactic and screamy and obvious. We already know all the information she gives...and yet she gives each bit at least twice. While screeching.

NOIR

DH: As a kind of natural extension of last week’s discussion about season 1 and the way the seemingly supernatural elements (that weren’t) might have skewed expectations for what wound up being a pretty straight up noir/crime show, I wanted to talk a little about noir and where True Detective Season 2 fits in that tradition. So a bunch of questions: do you think it does fit? What elements of noir do you see the show working with this season? What are you missing?

KC: Vinci has much more personality re: city as character. The back-and-forths between characters were quippier. Each of the detectives is a loner, which is classic noir material. Interesting to have them in a team, as such. I mentioned the eagle/falcon mask in a tweet to Dave and Erin the day the last workshop went up: glad that came back.

BB: This season is trying to create a complex background mystery that may fit a written work better than a performed one. In a book, your narration can get into the details without it feeling heavy. Done well, it can act almost as a separate character.  In True Detective, we can’t fade to black and get ten minutes on the history of tax revenues from shady business dealings over the past decade. So they give the exposition to the mayor’s lackies and some Vince Vaughn monologues, and you can feel the whole train slow down.

I think this is why classic film noir tends to stick to simpler MacGuffins - just acknowledge there’s this thing that the characters want, and then get to the characters themselves. We’re here for them, not for the lending policies of various California holding companies. (Although one of those companies seems to be represented by the father from My So Called Life. Get your share and take a good vacation with your daughters and grandkids, Graham Chase.)

DH: I think Killian’s right that the detectives being these loner, broken people is pretty dead-on for noir. They really remind me of people in a George Pelecanos story (although there would be one of them, and that person would have a few better people to work with, if I’m remembering the early Pelecanos correctly). I do wish there was a little bit of humor mixed in with the world weariness -- it was encouraging that Velcoro told a joke this episode! Step in the right direction, at least.

That’s a good point about TV versus a novel -- much less space/time to elaborate on backstory (which I kind of hate in general, but see where it can be valuable). On TV, it has to be people telling each other a summary of a thing they both know, which always sounds false. I’ll be the first to break the seal and bring up The Wire, because that show did an amazing job of moving along these massive, complex plot lines and almost never having those expository moments. I wish this show trusted the audience a little more so we wouldn’t get those explanations (would also help with what Steph was talking about last time -- the tendency to have just one or two too many lines of dialogue).

JI: Definitely agree with Killian and Dave about the loner thing. I think Ani's status as a loner was well established in her first scene, with the failed sex act, the nature of which was never quite revealed. I liked that. The family history, which we talk about below, that's way more heavy handed, far less effective. Weird sex, guns on the wall, hard boiled detective, and a touch of humor with the way Ani talks to her boyfriend—that one scene had a great noir atmosphere. I kind of wish they'd just let that establish her character and been done with it, and maybe followed that model of brevity.

TJ: I have hope for more noirish dialogue from Austin, aka the drunken mayor of Vinci, and maybe even from Ray’s descent. The visuals of the factories and the workers also give me hope that we’re moving into interesting territory--a mix of industrial and noir--and some commentary on the intersection between the two. I have hope for that, anyway.

LAST NIGHT’S ENDING

DH: Holy shit!

EF: I have a theory about who The Bird Guy is. Here goes:

Exhibit A: Ani’s outfit. (Also Vincent D’Onofrio, who I think is on this show to make up for the lack of law enforcement research. I am okay with this because I am very okay with Vincent D’Onofrio.)

TJ: It’s W. Earl Brown, yeah? But he’s only ever in cop shows and serves the same function as D’Onofrio, for sure, while also being crusty. It is good to have a crusty cop around, to meet our genre expectations.

EF: You’re right. And the interchangeably that goes on in my head with this show is staggering.

(Ed. note: although he is quite D'Onofrian, Detective Teague Dixon is, in fact, played by W. Earl Brown.)

Exhibit B:
For reference, Ray’s height. About the same as the trophies. Shot straight on:

Exhibit C:

Big Bird. Shot from below, but still obviously shorter than Ray:

Even before I went back for the screenshots, I thought it was Ani. And that was because I wasn’t quite done being annoyed by the OH MY GOD A WOMAN LOOKING AT PORN scene just before this one. I really, really hope I’m wrong.

KC: YEP. I was thinking that, too. Also annoyed by the porn thing. *Hive mind* But were the Bird(wo)man’s pants the same? They didn’t seem quite as tight.

EF: I could go back and try to find another angle, but that would mean seeing the “It’s Porn And It’s On Her Eyeballs, How Fucking Depraved Is That?” scene before it again.

SP: Last night’s ending definitely worked for me. Of course, my first reaction after “wait, did that just happen? like for real happen?” was “how very Game of Thrones…” which sort of took the wind out of the sails, but only by a little bit. But it was a ballsy move and saved the episode. I sort of wish a move like that would take place at the beginning of an episode to spice things up a bit, but that’s just me.

Ray was my favorite characters so far, though, so as far as the story goes, it sucks. (unless, God forbid, he’s Not dead and survived that kind of blast at close range….) I wish it had been Paul. I don’t like Paul. He could disappear from the show and I wouldn’t notice. But that’s for another rant.
JI: I also don't like Paul (what's he even doing in this show, anyway?), and think that ending was totally gutsy. Presuming Ray is dead. If he is, wow. It's beyond Game of Thrones only because Colin Farrell was such a huge part of marketing the show—then he's gone two eps in? Gutsy.
If he's not dead: WTF?

KC: Yeah, RIP Ray? Who knows, but I hope he stays dead. Sad to lose the character after this episode’s improvement in depiction, but bringing him back would negate all the POW of the reveal.

SP: Actually, I’d like to know the answer to Joshua’s question. What IS Paul doing on this show? What’s his purpose? Any takers?

DH: Paul is dead. On the inside, man. Because...oh fuck it...I don’t even care enough about that character to finish the shitty joke.

KC: While we’re on theories: I’m worried that the first episode was setting us up to assume that Frank actually raped Ray’s wife. I hope it was just bad facial acting on Vaughn’s part, buuuut… It feels like the thing a writer might do to add to the guilt/power-dynamic of the cop-in-the-gangster’s-pocket trope, though I actually think it’s a lazy move (as rape so often is in TV, unfortunately).

JI: Agreed, if Frank is the guy that raped Ray's wife, that's a pretty awful plot twist. Also, the kid doesn't look like Ray, but not in any way that he looks like Frank... If that's the twist, casting could have been better.

Regarding Paul, if Ray is indeed dead, then does Paul become the new Ray? Will he be the one bantering with Ani? I kind of hope not—Taylor Kitsch has been a nothing in this series for me, partly due to the character's make up, partly because of his acting.

EF: Just put him back on his bike. He loves the bike, man! I vote for Paul’s mom taking that spot in the investigation. Or Rick Springfield because on top of everything else, I don’t think we’re going to see enough of him.

TJ: I hadn’t considered Ani as killer, and I may give up on the show if that’s where it goes and if it keeps on with how “edgy woman” equals sister who’s sort of into porn, equals Ani sitting around, watching porn. I mostly was intrigued by the outfit. Why a bird costume? Is that a raven or a crow head? What’s with all the feathers? Rick Springfield’s psychiatrist office featured all sorts of Native American talismans or artifacts (or faux Native American talismans or artifacts), so I wondered if we were meant to connect Rick Springfield with the killing at the end?

Mainly, though, I just don’t understand, from a narrative standpoint, killing off Ray, one of the few compelling characters. Why not Paul? For the love of god--why not? Unless we find out soon that Paul is really a robot, I vote for him getting shot next. But, yes, the Birdman/woman shotgun blast is a good plot twist, a surprise, a reason to anticipate Episode 3.

“JUST SO YOU KNOW, I SUPPORT FEMINISM”

SP: I had a LOT of problems with last night’s episode (didn’t everybody), but I wanted to start with what I considered a redemption moment. I was not impressed with Ani’s character at all in the first episode. You would think I would be: tough detective, no-bullshit, carries knives… But I was really disappointed in how she was the character who had ‘family issues.’ I mean, why can’t a chick just be a badass? Why do they have to have daddy issues or a messed-up sister on the scene? I’ve seen this time and time again when it comes to tough female characters and it’s frustrating. If a guy can just be an asshole, why can’t a girl just be an asshole? And then move on with the story.

So I wasn’t digging Ani’s character at all (or rather, Pizzolatto’s development of her character) until the scene last night between Ray and Ani. I think Ani answered for a lot of female characters when she says (about carrying knives), “Could you do this job if everyone you encountered could physically overpower you?” and continues “no man could walk around like that without going nuts.” This speaks volumes for the creation and development of female badasses everywhere. (and female badasses in the real world, as well, in whatever shape or form they might take) It’s the sort of point that is never brought up, but I’m so glad it was. I still wish all of the family issues would have been left out, but I saw a glimpse of honesty in this scene that was gritty and raw and real in a way that the show has boasted about being, but hasn’t pulled off yet. The moment was softened by Ray’s half-hearted joke about feminism, but I hope that it wasn’t lost on viewers. So, this worked.   

JI: I agree, that scene in the car between Ani and Ray was the best of the season so far (and, not coincidentally, the most reminiscent of season one). It was the first time we saw chemistry between the actors and the characters.

I loved Ani's line about doing the job when everyone can overpower you, and I maybe liked Ray's response a little more than Steph did. There's been a lot going around the internet, much of it in jest, about Colin Farrell's dadbod, so I thought Ray's line about supporting feminism via his body image issues was kind of funny in its self-awareness. Also, I mean, how could you possibly reply to what Ani'd just said? There's kind of nothing to add, she nailed it.

With Ani's past, I'm on board with what Steph said. I'm pretty sick of a hardboiled female character needing a shitty past in order to get that way. There are male characters like that too, but I think, for whatever reason, people think no one would buy a tough female character unless some trauma hardened her. Maybe there was a time when that was true about viewers, but I think we're past it. It's a stock, hollow rhetorical device.

EF: Thank you for articulating this so well. I’d been sitting here thinking the show needs a Marge Gunderson, without being able to say exactly why.

The scene between Ray and his ex-wife straight up infuriated me. There was so much opportunity there for something interesting, some better sense of what broke! But she was a carbon-based flash card. She’s going to get the DNA test that we knew was coming since three minutes into episode 1. And she tells Ray that he is a Bad Man. You know, in case a murder, a beating, and a dollop of abuse in the parent pickup lane haven’t already made that clear. Never mind that she’s got legitimate reason to be terrified for herself, her son and her husband. Let’s make this all about you, Ray.

KC: Y’all are nailing my feelings.

DH: Since nobody mentioned her, I have to bring up my favorite dive bar goth singer songwriter guitarist, who appeared again in that bar last night. Again, although she was featured less this time, it just totally takes me out of the story and makes me aware that they’re going for some kind of cinematic somethingorother and it’s not working (for me). Maybe because I just wrote a book where music features so prominently, and I like to notice what kinds of music they use in places like this in TV and movies, but I can’t roll with this idea that this is what’s playing in the bar, and I find it takes me out of the story because then I just think, why are they trading the realism they’re trying so hard to build up by pulling this pretty cheap stunt right out of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (The Bronze!).

What music would be playing in that bar if it was in Justified? In the Wire? In a Quentin Tarantino movie? There are so many options that would be true to the world of the story and also maybe give us a little of that cognitive dissonance -- old school Van Halen playing while they’re having this ridiculously weighted dialogue.

That singer will probably turn out to be Semyon’s autistic sister who wound up living in the rat room with nothing but a Nick Cave cassette to get her through middle school, but until then, it’s driving me bonkers.

BB: I have a theory that she’s the strummy la-la singer from the Gilmore Girls interstitials. After having some success in Stars Hollow, she packed up and moved to L.A. Things got hard from there.

TJ: Dave, I’m with you on the music woman in the bar: she absolutely has to go or else become a character. Everyone else gets over-explained, gets too much backstory, and here is this woman who doesn’t fit, yet we get no explanation. Here is this music video that doesn’t fit--neither the type of music nor its super awkward insertion into the narrative--and yet here she is again, Episode 2. It’s maddening. It’s like product placement, except I’m unaware of her as a product, so it’s even worse. And I like the Gilmore Girls theory! If we were in Stars Hollow, though, Rory or Lorelai would provide banter, would give us a banter-filled meta moment. Without the metafictional layer or the banter, I want that woman to pack up her suitcase and go back to which ever show is missing her.