“Sometimes your worst self is your best self.” Or a one line diagnosis of why True Detective isn’t quite coming together

There is no shortage of attention being paid to True Detective season two. Nearly every media outlet that covers pop culture has run a piece lamenting that the show is not meeting expectations.  So I’ll make this brief.

Vince Vaughn was the actor I was most excited to see this season.  Like the two actors who anchored season one, his background as more of a likable, comedy guy gave him the most runway out in front of him, the greatest amount of raw potential to wring from his performance.  The trailers only confirmed this for me: images of Vaughn leaning into that caustic edge always present even in his comedic persona were cut together with Rachel McAdams seeming fine but unremarkable, Taylor Kitsch looking taut and vaguely crazy-eyed, and Colin Farrell apparently trying to prove that he can act his way out from behind the most ridiculous mustache and western wear combo anyone has been asked to sport outside a Cohen brothers movie.  Yup, I was going to be in it for Vaughn.

Which leads me back to the impetus for this post, as this past Sunday we finally got to see the scene in which perhaps the most memorable of HBO’s True Detective trailer tag-lines occurs: “Sometimes your worst self is your best self.”

My feeling is that one of the reasons things just aren’t working this season is that Vince Vaughn is the actor putting out the most charisma. Vaughn plays the character who is most like someone viewers would root for: even if he is an anti-hero he is not alienatingly sexually dysfunctional, does not have a substance abuse problem, and has much more relatable emotional reactions to situations than do the three emotionally fragmented investigators in the series.  He’s also the only person in a stable relationship with a person who truly knows him, another component to currying viewer empathy. But Vince Vaughn, the series’ best self, is also being forced to sell some of its worst dialogue.

Farrell’s Velcoro has a weird sense of fatherhood but when he says crazy stuff, we know it’s supposed to be crazy. McAdams’ and Kitsch’s characters are more likely to stew silently that go on an odd-ball riff.  Vaughn’s Frank Seymon fares far worse than the others as he apparently already survived a positively Dickensian childhood and must now rise above a proclivity to give speeches more Shakespearean than anything a criminal has uttered on television since Deadwood’s Al Swearengen–and Al was hustling a full century closer to the Bard’s era.

I’ll go as far a saying Nic Pizzolatto has little touch for writing criminals (anybody you can think of in that category who is not overdrawn? yeah, that’s what I thought) and unlike last season when the evil was “out there,” a credible criminal presence is one of the things that might have best boosted this season’s more byzantine plot and less winsome police.

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