True Detective Season 2 Wrapup: 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.

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.

 

Okay, so we haven’t done this since the second episode, when it became kind of clear that this season was not going to give us much of what we needed to do the Television Workshop, as opposed to being just a bunch of writers doing a recap of a show we didn’t like very much, or wanted to like much more, at least. That said, we also thought it might be interesting to get together one more time and talk about exactly what it was that went wrong this season, or went right, or went not quite the way we were hoping it was going to go. There’s a lot to talk about.

First off, what did you think? There’s no way to talk about this without talking about season 1, so let’s go ahead and do it: how did you think this stacked up against season 1? What was different and how did that work, you think?

Joshua Isard (JI): Like everyone, I thought season 1 was better. For me it was all about simplicity and clarity. Season one had two clear main characters, and everyone else was ancillary to that, to their character arcs. It was easy for us to follow, and that allowed for Pizzolatto to really dig deep into the characters. It was complex, but in the way that the characters were rich and full—the right way.

And then, in season 2, he doubled that. Four main(?) characters, none of whom were as well developed. And this resulted in so many plot threads that the whole thing needed a cheat sheet to follow. I mean, I was online during every episode looking stuff up—that’s the wrong kind of complexity.

It wasn’t even all necessary. The season is over, and I still have no idea what the fuck Paul was there for. Take that character out, and the show is pretty much the same.

Dave Housley (DH): So much to talk about when we talk about what went wrong this season. I think you’re right about simplicity and the benefit of really focusing on those two characters last season, as opposed to the four we had this season. One thing I think really drove last season was that, at least in the early episodes, when we all got all fired up about the show, there were three interlocked mysteries happening at the same time. There was the main one about the murdered girl, then the other one that the two African American detectives were trying to figure out -- what happened during the investigation of the murdered girl? Then there was another one, which was basically what happened to Rust Cohl? Obviously they’re all related, but they’re all slightly different, too, and I thought those pieces fit together brilliantly, at least through the first half of last season. There was all of this momentum happening all over the place: who killed the girl? What happened that has these guys reaching back into this old case? Why are they doing that now? What’s behind the transformation of Rust? It was these very tightly related little mysteries all turning around inside one another.

This season I feel like that efficient complexity got replaced by moribund sprawling complexity -- just a whole lot of plot that honestly didn’t fit together very well, even when all the various characters were explaining it to us in the last two episodes. Lots and lots and lots of plots. And a good deal of it at the expense of character. We really cared about Carcosa because Rust and (to a lesser extent) Marty cared about it, right? We cared about whatever it was that had triggered this second investigation into their original investigation because we cared about Rust and (to a lesser extent) Marty.

Steve Almond has a brilliant way of breaking out the basics of a story: who does the audience care about? What does that character care about? In the first season, this is obvious. In the second season? Um...

Becky Barnard (BB): I feel like Pizzolatto went to some noir-themed improv show and wrote down alllllllll the character suggestions. “He’s a former junkie cop who’s on the mob payroll who also killed the man who he thought raped his wife and his son may not be his and he brings drugs to his abusive father!”

The character intricacies gave a few seconds of shock, but they also killed any surprising developments from the characters themselves. I can’t relate to or be surprised by the reaction of a former kidnapping victim who was raised in a cult and is now a knife-wielding cop with a sex-worker sister,  when she discovers that the assistant of her murder victim is one of the abducted children from the Rodney King-related diamond heist that...oh fuck it. I’m tired just writing it.

If we had one lead who wasn’t a pile of tics, who was just a cop who found themselves over their head, I’d be much more interested. Crazy shit happened this season! Let’s give that a chance to breathe!  

Compare that to season one. Rust and Marty were cops. Rust lost his daughter in a horrible accident. Marty cheats on his wife. That was enough to keep me interested in the characters as they pursued the crazy shit, and made their reactions more interesting to watch.

Erin Fitzgerald (EF): I never saw Season 1, but the collective hatred for this season has put it near the top of my to-be-binged list. You all were so, so let down. It’s heartbreaking to watch, which means the heights from which the show dropped were lofty. Maybe every good show that needs more audience should get a hate-season?

Like blue balls. Of the heart. Was the Dialogue.

DH: We’re a bunch of writers so we really have to talk about the dialogue. The dialogue was not good. I actually kind of want to watch season 1 again to try to figure out if it was just more leaden and silly this year, or if the actors were better, and better cast, last year. I don’t know that even Matthew McConaughey could have done anything with a line like that “blue balls of the heart” line. That’s where I start to think that Pizzolatto really needs an editor, or a co-writer. Or what the hell, let’s throw Dennis Lehane, Richard Price, and George Pelecanos at it, like they did on The Wire. In any case, a second or third or fourth set of eyes and ears, somebody to tone down what was being said and to edit out what didn’t need to be said.

That was actually where we left the discussion of the dialogue way back in ep 2 -- it felt like much of it went on just one or two sentences too long, that instead of trusting the watcher to understand what was happening, it was explained to us, or we were beaten over the head with the import of what was happening. There was also a lot of grunting and whispering and what I’ve heard referred to as “keyword dialogue,” where one character just shouts a bunch of words -- “those girls! Trafficking!” at another character. Of course, in the last few episodes the plot was so confusing and serpentine and weird that characters just reverted to pretty overt Audience Plot Summary.

EF: Not only was the dialogue sloppy, it was also totally alien to any of the genres from which the story borrowed. The analogy I kept thinking of was kids playing office. They kinda know what happens in there (Business!) but they don’t know HOW it happens. They haven’t done the groundwork to create authenticity. If a writer goes off the rails and expects buy in later, the reality from which he’s departing is even more important than usual. I didn’t buy in, so I didn’t care.

DH: Such a good call. I couldn’t get over the scene when they’re driving away from the Scrooge McDuck (shout out to Tom McAllister) Sex Party and Paul is looking at the contract that he conveniently grabbed out of a random drawer in one room of a giant house, which just happens to be the One Damning Piece of Evidence that confirms that Big Railroad Conspiracy (god, I’m getting bored writing all of that), and he says, “there’s signatures all over this thing!” Well, um, you see Paul, that’s how they do it with contracts there, son. The signed ones, at least. It’s really just a throwaway line, but it’s so...I don’t know...stupid? It wasn’t that the character didn’t understand contracts so much as the show was doing keyword plot: contracts, business, crooked, land parcels, sigh, yawn, what was I talking about again?

BB: Finale note: if Frank wanted Jordan to leave for her own good, he should have saved himself seven minutes of yakkin’ and just White Fanged her.

JI: The Ani-Velcoro dialog grew on me toward the end of the show, and I think that was a strength of the second half. But Frank and Jordan never felt real. I don't know if it was the writing or that the actors couldn't stand to be near each other, but every time they talked I checked out a little. That was painful.

It makes me think about if Ani and Velcoro had been the Rust and Marty of this season, the real focus—I doubt it would have been as good as season 1, but it would almost certainly have been a better show. No harm in following a version of the buddy-cop thing after the way it worked the first time.

Anything you thought worked particularly well?

BB: I liked what happened with the diamonds in the end! The show cared more about the diamonds than I cared about the diamonds (if you divide their $3.5 million value by the number of people involved in the scheme, I think everyone makes about seven bucks each over 23 years), but it’s really satisfying to know that those MacGuffins are sitting in a pile of bones in the middle of nowhere.

DH: They cared so much about diamonds and then Jordan just throws her big old diamond out the window and Frank is like, cool.

I thought some of the performances were pretty good, especially Rachel McAdams and Colin Farrell, who almost kinda sorta made me care about Bezzerides and Velcoro despite the grunting whispery dialogue they had to work with. I liked the way they were brought together in the last few episodes -- if you would have told me that was going to happen, I would have been very wary, but it felt pretty organic to me. Maybe if those two characters were the focal point, and had like one fifth of the amount of plot to deal with, they could have had more room to breathe and I would have cared about them, and about whatever it was they cared about, a whole lot more.

JI: I did like the way the Velcoro-and-his-son plot finished up. The fact that the kid had the badge in the table in that last moment was weird, but other than that I thought it progressed well, ended properly, and then we find out he really was the kid's dad. A nice, genuine moment there.

We talked some about California as a setting, and the rich history of California noir. Do you think this season delivered on that promise?

BB: I know that California has many highways. Cars loop around the highways. The loops are deeply symbolic.

The final episode was the first time that I really felt like they took advantage of California’s biodiversity. In the last half-hour, we saw Ani on the boat, Frank at the salt flats, and Ray in the redwood forest. The disparate settings were really beautiful, and served as great shorthand to show that the characters were on unique paths, and their stories weren’t going to cross over any more that day.

JI: Yeah, I feel like this could have been set in any industrialized city. Pick a city, there will be some project large enough for that kind of corruption. Even the '92 riots, a very LA thing, weren't essential: Caspere could have gotten the diamonds a ton of other ways.

I agree that the last episode was the only one that really used southern California to its fullest as a setting. If that'd been the whole show, I might have bought into it all much more. As it is, I just can't stop thinking about freeways. Freeways everywhere, man…

DH: AND THEY’RE SO SYMBOLIC, RIGHT? SUPER DEEP.

I was disappointed that the show didn’t do much with California as a kind of classic noir setting, especially with the very obvious potential connection to Chinatown. I didn’t necessarily want the show to happen in Chandler’s LA or Walter Mosley’s Watts, but it still seems kind of like a missed opportunity, and maybe even more so (maybe just for me) because it also would have been an opportunity to ground the show in this noir/crime tradition.

This is the section called “Dave Writes 1,000 Words About How Much He Fucking Hated That Fucking Bar Singer.”

JI: I liked the music, and I’d actually like to download some of those songs, but she made no sense in the story. I think in the last episode, at one point, she was playing while the bar was closed, with all the chairs up. What was that? And then the scene of her packing up and walking out was so overwrought.

Could have just been the music for those scenes, we never needed to see her. I share your hatred of that shit, Dave.

DH: I talked about this before so won’t belabor it, or maybe I’ll just belabor it a little bit, but I’m still really surprised that they did that, had this part of the show that was in the show but didn’t make any sense -- at all -- in the world of the show. That singer is just not in that bar. Not every night. Certainly not in the day when the place is closed. It was like the show was suddenly interspersed with a rock video for a song in the show. If part of what the show was doing was playing around with form and the way music or mood serve very specific purposes within a show, that’s one thing, but the rest of the show was so grim and self-serious and straightforward that these bar scenes, when all of the sudden the show works kind of like Flight of the Conchords, just stood out as ridiculous and really just (workshop 101 term coming up) “broke the dream” for me every single time.  

Any hopes for Season 3? What do they need to do to turn this around?

JI: I think a lot of writers who write good first books write lousy second ones. Or just generally overcome bad efforts. James Ellroy, Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler—they've all got some duds in otherwise great canons. Probably any writer who's written more than three books has a bad one in there.

I can't imagine it's so different with TV shows. Norman Lear made a few shows cancelled after the first season.  

I have hope for season 3, that it can get back on track. I'll definitely watch. But if it doesn't, I'm sure I'll be out.

DH: I was struck by how much of the “stuff” of the first season was also “stuff” he was working with in his novel Galveston, which I really liked. There’s that same playing around with time -- flashbacks and flashes forward, where you can see the very real long term effects of decisions that are made in the present moment, a strong gulf coast setting, hard boiled dialogue that generally stays on the right side of the parody line, characters that may or may not be “good people” and who make bad decisions for maybe good reasons. A lot of those are the familiar elements of a crime novel, and Galveston was a good crime novel. I think some of the ideas, in terms of storytelling, character, location, had been worked with effectively in Galveston, so maybe part of season 1 was more of an extension or an improvement on those things. Familiar materials, at least.

I do think there’s evidence that he needs an editor, or a co-writer, a strong director, all of the above, some other voice(s) to tone things down and smooth them out and probably most importantly, cut when they can or should be cut.

BB: Many people who are much more eloquent than I am have written about improving the female characters on this show, so I’ll just say Yes, That.  And Yes, That to adding an editor/director/robot-with-a-randomized-Sharpie to trim things down.

This is sort of related to “make better female characters,” but I’d like season three to put down the children and back away slowly. Season one had kids, but most of them were doing kid things, barely aware of what was going on in adultland.

Season two was so heavy-handed with the children plots - everyone had one, and they were all kind of a drag. Ray and his son worked the best by far. I cared about that plot, and that mopey little redhead, more than I thought I would. Ray’s final (unsent) voicemail and the paternity test result did get to me. That could have been a good, dramatic, child-centric plot. But then came the overkill.

At the other end of the spectrum, I had a thousand ragey thoughts about Frank and Jordan’s fertility issues. Jordan’s multiple abortions causing her infertility is unlikely and felt slut-shamey. (I’m guessing Frank wasn’t living a life of quiet celibacy before they met and married.) Frank’s monologue about not loving an adopted child like he’d love his own blood gave me flames on the side of my face. Was that supposed to be a contrast between Velcoro’s unconditional love of his maybe-son? Or real talk about the importance of real blood?

Other kid plots: Paul’s magical heterosexualizing baby. Ani will spend the rest of her life broke and on the run, but it’s okay because she has Velcoro’s kid. (They were in love, you guys!) The “you have gold in you” speech to Stan’s kid. The children orphaned in the original diamond heist. Ani and Athena were raised in a cult, and Ani was molested. Was there a child in this show who didn’t have a shaky family, a murdered parent, or a horrible crime committed against them? If we’re going to feature so many children, couldn’t we have A kid, somewhere, whose biggest tragedy was the time they barfed in Target?

EF: Tabitha Blankenbiller’s essay about female characters in this season nails some of my biggest irritations. I wasn’t offended by how women were portrayed as much as I was bored by it. Enforcing a passed Bechdel Test even just once per episode would help tremendously. A complex female lead character in a role of genuine authority would, too.

My favorite scene from the entire season is when Ray goes to his kid’s bully’s house -- that really worked for me because it got so much across without the rat-a-tat-tat here-let-me-explain-this-for-you dialogue that dragged everything else down. So maybe Season 3 should be fully storyboarded first, then writers can go in with dialogue. Actually, make that full storyboard, then casting, then dialogue.

I think good story comes most easily from settings that are close in recollection but not directly in a writer’s face, and that’s why California doesn’t quite connect in this season. As a writer, sometimes It’s hard to see what’s around you, for how you need to see it. After skimming a Wikipedia entry...how about establishing Arkansas noir in season 3? The only thing I know about Arkansas off of the top of my head is that Bill Clinton and Sam Walton are from there. Seems like plenty of potential to me already.