Columns > Published on September 8th, 2015

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

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.

About the author

Cath Murphy is Review Editor at LitReactor.com and cohost of the Unprintable podcast. Together with the fabulous Eve Harvey she also talks about slightly naughty stuff at the Domestic Hell blog and podcast.

Three words to describe Cath: mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four.

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