4 Storytelling Lessons We Can Learn from the Giant Fuckup that was True Detective Season 2

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Once there was only dark.

Then there was True Detective and for a while things got a little brighter. But for those of us who have been hate-watching our way through True Detective Season 2, that light has slowly faded in a welter of confused plotting and Colin Farrell in a handlebar mustache.

Let’s not dwell on the misery. Time may be a flat circle and we may be doomed to repeat our mistakes over and over in an endless cycle of violence and degradation, but storytelling matters too much for us to meekly surrender to the implacable forces of bad acting and weak characterization. We can learn. We can do better.

We can understand where it all went wrong. We can analyze the mistakes of TD2 and mainline the secret storytelling truths of the Universe.

When. Where. Who.

This is one of the most basic rules of fiction, the equivalent in cookery terms of knowing how to boil an egg. Give the audience a sense of time and place.  

A story doesn’t need to tie up all (or even any) of its loose ends as long as it has a point.

It might seem incredible for a show which must have some of the TV industry’s best creative minds behind it, but True Detective 2 trips and eats dirt at this first and not very high fence. If you watch the title sequence, always an excellent opportunity to tacitly deliver some information to the viewer about location, date and likely milieu for the drama, you’ll likely be amazed, as I was, at how little it tells you. Los Angeles was all I gleaned, and some of the images – of satellite towers, farmland, rivers and the ocean – though gorgeous and atmospheric are actually misleading. None of these play any significant role in the story itself or even serve as locations for it. They just look pretty.

The first scene, apart from a brief and enigmatic shot of poles topped with fluttering banners, involves Ray Velcoro dropping his kid off at school. As an introduction to one of the main character arcs, this scene works just fine. As a way to anchor the drama in a time and place, it fails. The clothes, haircuts and props could come from any point between 1980 and the present day. There’s a reference to a shoe brand which might help, but I’m guessing I’m not the only person watching who isn’t familiar with the history of modern footwear. Three scenes into the drama (three scenes!) and I still don’t know that Velcoro is a cop. Or that we aren’t in 1985.

This muddiness persists through the entire series. In fact I’m still not sure, even after some research, when the story is set. Not only does this give the whole series a weird and weightless feel, it made the flashback sequences confusing as hell, simply because without cues to guide me, I didn’t immediately grasp the time shift.

The secret storytelling truth we must mainline:

Don’t be vague about the basics. Find a way to nail, right at the beginning of your story, the time period, location and the main preoccupations of the characters. If you can find a clever way to do this, great. If you can’t then just say it.  Lack of subtlety is a lesser sin than leaving your audience in the dark.

The Moral of the Story

The plot of TD2 is crazily complicated, but it’s a noir and noir has a staunch pedigree of stories which cheerfully drag you through whole labyrinths of twists, u-turns and reversals only to reveal as you stagger to the exit with twigs in your hair, that none of it actually makes any sense.

But an audience can tolerate bonkers plotting so long as the story itself delivers a clear message. You could call this ‘the moral’ as in ‘the moral of The Long Goodbye is no one makes a chump out of Philip Marlowe’. A story with a solid moral leaves the audience feeling satisfied and quells a million questions about exactly why some random psycho called Leonard is suddenly stabbing that guy from The Hunger Games and who exactly was tied to that bloodstained chair. But the moral of TD2 is hard if not impossible to pin down. I had several tries at it and ended up with Corruption pays. Sort of.

Don’t ask me where the blue diamonds fit in to that scenario.

Audiences don’t care where the path of a story leads them so long as there is one. The moral of the tale acts as a signpost, nudging the action back onto the path at key points in the drama. A fuzzy moral means that the audience might well find that they have wandered from the path and onto the moors on a night with a full moon. And we all know how that ends.

The secret storytelling truth we must mainline:

A story doesn’t need to tie up all (or even any) of its loose ends as long as it has a point. The moral of your story is the driving principle – the lesson an audience takes away once the credits roll and the dust settles. ‘Love conquers all’, ‘Teens often make bad decisions’, ‘Don’t walk across the moors at night.’ Decide on the moral of your story and use it to drive the action.

Everything that happens must happen for a reason, and the more of a big deal you make of an event, the bigger the pay off must be.

Characters we give a shit about

Remember that Greek myth about Tantalus, whose punishment for offending the Gods was to spend eternity with food and water perpetually just out of reach*? Creating characters your audience gives a shit about is as simple as deciding what they want, then finding new and interesting ways to make sure they don’t get it. Witnessing this frustrated desire makes an audience do that thing we call ‘rooting for a character’. This is how we as writers force our audience to care.

Step one in this process, you will note, is deciding what your characters want. Even under threat of an eternity spent tied to a stake listening to Michael Bublé, I could not tell you what three out of four of the main characters in True Detective 2 want. The sole exception is Ray Velcoro, who is trying to maintain a relationship with his son in spite of his ex-wife’s campaign to separate them (though even here it’s hard to root for him because he is actually a terrible parent). The others– Bezzerides, Woodrugh and Semyon – drift through the drama, their desires vague and conflicted. Does Semyon want to save his crumbling empire or his marriage? Is Bezzerides a cop who wants to solve a murder case or a woman in search of a soul mate? Is Woodrugh battling inner demons or battling corruption?

I don’t think even the actors knew the answers to these questions, which goes a long way to explaining why they all, even Vince Vaughn — a man not known for subtle underplaying, turned in performances so lifeless they would have embarrassed a corpse. From an audience perspective, it’s hard, for obvious reasons, to give a shit about people who appear to have given up the will to live.

The secret storytelling truth we must mainline:

Strong, well written characters have strong, well written desires. The people in your story must have a hole at the centre of their existence that they are striving to fill. Then and only then will your audience care about what happens to them.

Deliver on your promises

One of the most basic assumptions that an audience makes is that the person who created the entertainment they’re about to enjoy is going to treat them fairly. They assume that everything they witness has a point, and is necessary to the story. Audiences are prepared to accept small exceptions to this rule – writers are allowed a few red herrings and MacGuffins – but break it in a major way and they’re going to feel cheated.

TD2 commits this sin, several times but I’m going to confine myself to pointing out the most glaring example. The first episode expends considerable time and effort carefully creating a situation where three of the main characters — Bezzerides, Velcoro and Woodrugh — are brought together by the discovery of a gruesomely mutilated corpse. This set up and the solemn, portentous way it’s handled, signals to the audience that this meeting matters, that the drama hinges on it, that these three people are going to be important to each other in some way.

It then fails to deliver on that promise. Do these people like each other? Hate each other? Want to screw each other? I honestly couldn’t tell right up to the point where Velcoro and Bezzerides jump in the sack together, and even that felt like an obvious outcome – the most clichéd result of having a man and woman work together closely. As for Woodrugh, you could have replaced him with an entirely different character and the story could have progressed unimpeded. In storytelling terms this is like having Luke and Obi-Wan meet Han Solo in the Mos Eisley cantina, only to part company after a couple of beers. If you felt cheated after a scene like that, you’d be right.

The secret storytelling truth we must mainline:

Be aware of the contract between you and your audience. Everything that happens must happen for a reason, and the more of a big deal you make of an event, the bigger the pay off must be.


Even after the outpourings of disappointment over True Detective 2, a third season remains on the cards. I’m game to watch it, in hopes it recovers its stride. What would you want to see happen?

*If you think this sounds cruel, you should know that Tantalus offended the Gods inviting them round for dinner, cooking his own son and serving him up as the main course. He got off lightly.

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Comments

big_old_dave's picture
big_old_dave from Watford, about 20 miles outside London, Uk September 8, 2015 - 2:39pm

Great article but errr....a bit awkward..
i enjoyed season 2...probably because my writing blows even harder but if your in thr UK it's a hell of a lot more interesting than the limp wristed crime drama we have over here, bar ripper street it's dire.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies September 8, 2015 - 2:45pm

Great article, Cath.

lifetemp's picture
lifetemp from Birmingham - UK is reading A Quiet Belief in Angels September 8, 2015 - 3:00pm

I thought it was terrific. I think a key difference between prose and drama is that an audience can infer a lot of this on a personal level from image and performance whereas prose conveys if in a different way.

Taylor DuBois's picture
Taylor DuBois September 8, 2015 - 6:42pm

My guess is that the moral of the story is: Don't do anything out of desperation.  Frank gave that advice earlier in the season and didn't live by it when he made a deal with the men who killed him.  That's why he died and same with Velcoro.  But I admit this was not well conveyed and is purely speculation.  

Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast September 9, 2015 - 1:00am

Yes, nice point Taylor and that's a pretty good moral for a story. If TD2 had used that for all the main characters - for example teasing out the differences between them when faced with desperate choices - then it would have worked.

Deets999's picture
Deets999 from Connecticut is reading Adjustment Day September 9, 2015 - 7:50am

It's so fashionable to rip and pile on TD2 - was it flawed, yes! But was it still not 8.5 interesting and sometimes compelling hours of TV, also yes! It was always going to be hard to live up to the first season and clearly some decisions were made that didn't pan out. I'm sure they'll course correct for Season 3 (assuming they'll do one) and look to rebound off an uneven Season 2.

Jake Adler's picture
Jake Adler September 9, 2015 - 12:57pm

This season really only had one good episode (the shootout). The cast was pretty weak so that didn't help. It was all over the place. Honestly if not for season 1 most people would probably have just dumped this season after episode 3. There really wasn't any charactor that you cared about. There were no real plot twists, it was quite predicatable, the opposite of season 1. 

Jesse Brown_2's picture
Jesse Brown_2 September 9, 2015 - 1:03pm

I agree with all points except for one: The Moral of the Story. I felt the moral of the story was the show's tagline before it even aired, and which Bezzerides mentioned in the last few minutes of the finale: We get the world we deserve.

To tell a noir story with that moral I thought was fitting. I actually thought most of the acting was good. I especially enjoyed Colin Farrell's performance.

I did think the show had too many characters, and worse, too many characters trying to take the mantle of great quotes that Matthew McConnaughey's Rust Cohle would spew out randomly.

Here's what I think went wrong. I like Nic Pizzolatto's writing. I do think he's a good writer. But it's just like Harrison Ford once told George Lucas: "You could write this shit, but you can't say it." I think the second season suffered, because the first season was a collaboration between Pizzolatto and Cary Jo Fukunaga. Television shows and movies often flourish when it's a collaboration between two or more artists. There were reports of Pizzolatto and Fukunaga fighting, and I'm guessing HBO sided with the writer, which as season two makes clear, the end result was less than desirable.

Those are my thoughts...

Sean Liddle's picture
Sean Liddle from Kingston Ontario is reading Oddly, the Hobbit (again) September 9, 2015 - 1:10pm

Well I for one chewed my way through episodes 1-2 and stood back.  I wasn't enjoyng it. The first series attracted me I will admit due to it's Yellow King undertones (being one of those Lovecraft dweebs) but even when I knew it wasn't going to turn supernatural I stuck with it as it was well written and acted. 

 

And not a boring cop show...

 

I keep looking at the rest of season 2 on my PVR and thinking "is this the night I try another ep?". Then I read another article like this and watch something else.

 

 

Gavin Nugent's picture
Gavin Nugent September 9, 2015 - 1:22pm

Good article, 

As for TD2 on the other hand, It just had no real focus to the story, And it just Gradually lost it's way .

 

David Gillette's picture
David Gillette from Tustin, CA is reading Transmetropolitan September 9, 2015 - 5:29pm

Great article, but the one thing I felt fit the area of morals of the story was the messaging on family. Each person involved in the case came from or was involved in bad family situations. I feel like that was the biggest theme Pizzolato was working from because the characters were making decisions based upon prior, current or future family dynamics. Just a thought, but otherwise agree with all of the issues of this season.

Ernesto Giron's picture
Ernesto Giron from El Salvador is reading The spy who came in from the cold. September 9, 2015 - 7:19pm

I'm a fan of the series, and my big complaint was the super twist (corrupt individuals using diamonds to seize control of a small town, and then trying to explain it in under 4 minutes) other than that, I liked it.

Peter Ho's picture
Peter Ho from London is reading Lionel Shriver's "The Mandibles: A family 2029-2047" September 10, 2015 - 1:07am

Great article... made me audit all my stories...

Samar Pant's picture
Samar Pant September 10, 2015 - 2:23am

Great article. Great points. I actually learnt a lot that I can apply to my own writing :) I think, though, the main reasons TD2 wasn't that great, even though the last two episodes were awesome, are the following:

a) Unintentionally comical dialogues and sequence of events. e.g. 1 The fight between Frank and the gangbanger with grills. It just seemed comical how the two men decided to get into fisticuffs - I would imagine something like that happening between Adam Sandler and Vince Vaugh. Not saying that the possibility of a fight, at that point in the story, should have been ruled out completely, just the way it was built up and executed seemed funny, especially in the end when Frank says, pulling the gangbanger's teeth out with a plyer, "what way is that to greet the world". e.g.2  Frank and his right hand are having a very serious discussion about Osip and the right hand says something about how Osip "looks half anaconda, half great white" in a really weird/funny/creepy way. I was expecting Frank to at least crack a smile, if not burst into laughter (I actually thought the scene was meant to be humorous) but he continued with the serious look on his face. 

b) Weak dialogues between Frank and wife. There were points where I just felt they were over dramatised and needlessly poetic. And whatever Bonnie and Clyde, us against the world, till death do us part type thing Pizolato was trying to do just didn't seem so effective.  

c) poor song choices. Early on, when Woodrugh is going about investigating Casper's murder, visitng nightclubs, using a gay prostitutes to gather information, the song choices (sorry, don't know their names) just seemed too out of place, you know? They just seemed like something that would, I don't know, work well in a coming of age flick or a sweet drama about a man trying to get his act together...

That's pretty much it, I think, but the above examples happened too often during the show and contributed to it not being that great. As for the 4 main characters, I did feel they were developed sufficiently enough to be empathised with. 

Sandra Schenk's picture
Sandra Schenk September 12, 2015 - 11:35am

The 4 four storytelling lessons are for boring individuals without any imagination. TD2 was created by men with imagination and intuition. Did you ever hear of oneiric narrative? That is the reason why your 4 rules do not aply! It is bold to make a show so raw and visceral like TD2 and will most people not understand the show? Yes. But who cares. The show delivered a universe so full of unforgettable moments. The dream sequence with Velcoro and his dad in the bar was mesmerizing. The show may not give all the answers, but this non-realist feature makes it only more intriguing. And the metalevel of the show is just ... I admire American art for it's strong and fierce potential. The oneiric narrative is a means to hide the true intentions of TD2: ideology critique. Would a show with a direct approach on such a delicate matter be on the air?

Johnny Kage's picture
Johnny Kage September 13, 2015 - 1:58pm

Tantalus... WTF?