I may be the only person that has this opinion, but I loved the second season of "True Detective." Not as much as I loved the first season, granted, but I still thought it was phenomenal. It's been widely panned by critics for its labyrinthine plot, distinctive dialogue, and (some would say) questionable character development. But I believe most of these criticisms are rooted in an unwillingness to meet the series halfway.
The title of "True Detective" is important. The name comes from a true-crime pulp magazine that started publishing in the 1920s. Like most other dime-store novels and pulp magazines from the era, "True Detective" featured salacious, graphic, sensationalized material that relied heavily on formulaic cliches, archetypes, and character tropes. It was essentially easy, guilty-pleasure entertainment with no substance. "True Detective," the show, borrows the title and embraces that legacy not because it pretends to be based on a true story, like "Fargo," but because its story exists in the universe of "True Detective" the magazine, and other old publications like it. It does not take place in our world.
This is something worth keeping in mind amidst all the uproar over the second season of HBO's critical darling turned critical disaster. One of the complaints most frequently leveled against both seasons of the series is their lack of "realistic" characters, dialogue, or stories. And admittedly, were one to view the show through the lens of realism, then an hour of Rust Cohle's beer-swilling monologues or Ray Velcoro's voice message soliloquies would be enough to turn anyone off. But what we need to keep in mind is the fact the show isn't trying to be realistic and failing. It's not trying to be realistic at all. It doesn't even exist in reality. It isn't that series creator/writer Nic Pizzolatto is incapable of writing characters that seem like real people, and lazily resorts to cop-show cliches. He's not trying to write real people. The characters of "True Detective" live in the world that cop show cliches come from.
Acknowledging this aspect of the show makes some of its stuffier tendencies much easier to swallow. There's a concept in aesthetics called the "willful suspension of disbelief," a term coined by English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, that basically says that when we engage with a narrative with fantastical or speculative elements, we accept these unrealities willingly for the sake of the story. We accept that Harry Potter is a wizard and we go with it, even though that isn't an aspect of our reality.
Many viewers and critics seem unwilling to grant "True Detective" any suspension of disbelief. But just because the show doesn't have dragons in it doesn't mean it's aiming for realism. It may seem unrealistic for a streetwise gangster like Vince Vaughn's Frank Semyon to properly use words like "apoplectic" or "stridency," but if we accept that the show is telling the story of a fictional world, not telling the story of our world, we can easily accept that the fictional universe of "True Detective" is full of verbose mob bosses and Satanic murder cults.
Another thing viewers and critics seem to be unwilling to grant "True Detective" is the chance to tell a new type of story. Across both of its story arcs, "True Detective" has tried to show us one thing: what happens to people who try and face the darkness that lingers under the surface of society. It's always been about the crime solvers, not the crime itself. Season 1's haunted house tale gave us a look at two martyrs trying to conquer a darkness that hid within themselves. And it was so engaging and successful, not just because it was the peak of the McConaissance, but because the mystery, the look into the darkness, was fascinating. Even though it was just a MacGuffin, the mystery of Dora Lang and the Yellow King was instantly gripping. But it was only made captivating to the viewer because it was so captivating to the protagonists. Since these stories are about the transformations of the protagonists, Pizzolatto writes them from the perspective of the protagonists. The Dora Lang case was fascinating to Marty and Rust, the two leads. They obsessed over it, let it take over their whole lives, and thus is was presented to the viewer in a way that would make us obsess over it as well.
But Season 2 put its characters up against a different kind of darkness, the kind that hides in plain sight, the darkness under highway overpasses and behind neon signs. It watched them face down a conspiracy of greed and lust, rather than one of tradition and history. And if the plot surrounding Season 2's murder was often confusing and convoluted, incapable of really grabbing the viewer's attention, it's because it was incapable of grabbing the characters' attention. The Ben Caspere case didn't take over anyone's lives until the very end. Ray, Paul, Ani, and Frank were just as confused and ambivalent as the viewer until they were crushed by the magnitude of the darkness they faced.
Season 2 of "True Detective" wasn't trying to simply retell Season 1 with new actors. It was trying to tell a new story in a different way, and it did it very well. But for many, "different" appears to be synonymous with "worse."