Is casting ‘True Detective’ killing ‘True Detective’?

HBO's refusal to commit to a cast for True Detective's second season might prove to be its own undoing.

 

Chris Osterndorf

Internet Culture

Published Sep 22, 2014   Updated May 30, 2021, 1:25 pm CDT

When Seth Meyers introduced Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson at this year’s Emmys as the only two actors in Hollywood “not rumored to be starring in the second season of True Detective,” everyone assumed it was a joke. But with the show’s neverending casting rumors, it no longer feels like one.

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Most of said rumors have surrounded who will be the second season’s leading lady, and this week, a fresh batch of names got thrown into the mix, when reports emerged that Oona Chaplin, Jaimie Alexander, Kelly Reilly, Brit Marling, Malin Akerman, Jessica Biel, and Rosario Dawson were all being considered.

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The sheer number of possibilities is enough to make your head spin. But it doesn’t stop there. Other parts have yet to be filled too. Despite what the #TrueDetectiveSeason2 meme would tell you, there will actually be four major roles in the series’ second go around, according to the details that have been released thus far. Vince Vaughn, Taylor Kitsch, and Colin Farrell have all been tapped to play the male leads (with only Farrell confirming his casting), while actresses Elisabeth Moss and Rachel McAdams have seemingly removed their names from the conversation (though once again, nothing is confirmed).

By now, the rumors revolving around HBO’s criticall-acclaimed anthology series have become such a major part of what True Detective is that there’s a whole site devoted to them. Which makes perfect sense, considering the extraordinarily committed fandom that sprung up around season one. But that fandom also led to accusations of plagiarism, not to mention questions of sexism. Today, however, the biggest problem True Detective has is its ongoing casting confusion; at what point do you have to say, “Just pick someone already?”

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A lot of the back and forth surrounding the female lead specifically appears to be what’s holding this process up. Granted, given the amount of viewers who felt the show failed its female characters in the first season, taking the time to get it right isn’t necessarily a bad thing (of course, having more than one major female character wouldn’t be a bad thing, either). Even as she said that the rumors swirling around about her potentially joining the cast were “super-flattering,” Moss mentioned that the show was due for “a good female part,” echoing the concerns of many others.

True Detective has a real chance to create a unique female protagonist in its sophomore iteration, not just in terms of its own legacy, but in the larger context of premium cable as well. However, the emphasis on getting everything just so is becoming exhausting. It’s not as if the show’s producers should adopt an “any woman will do” attitude (this would be much worse). But there are dozens of amazing female actors in Hollywood who would surely be right for the show’s lead. Unfortunately, executives at HBO don’t seem to be adopting that approach. They seem to be trying to find an actress who will perfectly fill the void left by season one, which is silly, since there’s no one group of actors that will elicit the same reactions McConaughey and Harrelson did.

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When the rumors around True Detective’s second season really started to get out of control back in August, Forbes’ Merrill Barr noted, “Something new happened in conjunction with the Vaughn news: speculation that production on the second season is in trouble. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth, as the real reason for all the rumors comes down to one thing: HBO’s, arguably unrealistic, goals for the future of the series.”

Barr goes on from there to assert that it is HBO’s insistence on finding not only the perfect replacements for McConaughey and Harrelson, but also the perfect amount of star power that’s sending the whole casting process off the rails:

HBO wants True Detective to be the TV home of movie stars. It’s a very real possibility that every name that’s been thrown into the ring thus far is real, and that’s because after sporting a now Oscar-winning actor (and then Oscar-nominated actor in Harrelson), the network believes courting more substantial, major headline causing, names would be easier. However, the network underestimated the negotiating power of these stars’ teams… HBO believes the best course of action is to cast at the level of caliber McConaughey and Harrelson… Of course, a reasonable executive would say the best course of action would be to find the diamond in the rough player that either needs a career restart… or a chance to become a breakout hit (which could happen if the Taylor Kitsch rumor pans out).

All of this eschews the possibility that the key element in creating a great follow-up to the show’s first season may not actually be the cast at all, but the director. Creator Nic Pizzolatto has been given a lot of credit for True Detective’s distinctive style, but critics (myself included) have oftentimes failed to recognize the massive contribution of director Cary Fukunaga, aka the Internet’s new dream boyfriend, to the show’s singular intensiveness.

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Pizzolatto has already stated that the show will not be able to bring one director onboard for the whole of season two, though several impressive names have been floated as possible contributors. The Fast and the Furious franchise’s Justin Lin has recently been pegged to helm at least the first two episodes of the second season.

But regardless of which directors end up with the unenviable job of replacing the Emmy-winning Fukunaga, there’s an unfortunate possibility that the show won’t be able to duplicate the same kind of cinematic storytelling that made it a special piece of work to begin with. Because while the first season was focused through a remarkably cohesive lens of authoritative intent, it seems there’s at least a chance that Fukunaga was as important an author as Pizzolatto was. Worse that that, it also seems plausible that without Fukunaga to rein him in, True Detective could end up sucumbing to the script-driven criticisms it’s faced in the past.

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Josh Hill at the show’s very own True Detective Rumors expressed such worries earlier this month. “The charm of the first season of True Detective was that Cary Fukunaga was in charge and the show was a shared vision of director and writer,” Hill wrote. “This next season will be all writer and secondarily director…Not having one singular director will be a mistake for True Detective as the vision of the show could get to be all over the map.”

Even when directors and actors are sorted out, however, the biggest challenge True Detective may face in its second season is itself. Or, more accurately, its own hype. In an Internet-obsessed culture, hype is everywhere. And with an increased appetite for minute by minute updates on virtually everything, all creative works are put up against an extra level of scrutiny, which can be almost impossible to overcome. From films, to television, to video games, to music, to books, it’s inescapable in modern culture. Writing about hype in contemporary cinema for We Got This Covered, Rachel North astutely observed that “initial uber-popularity sets up terrifyingly high standards for any sequels, which then become their own undoing as they simply cannot compete with their own reputation.”

In the case of True Detective, people started to ask whether the show was living up to the hype before the first season was even over. This was illustrated in the reactions to the season one finale, which were mostly positive, but brought out several vocal detractors.

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The irony therein is that the obsessive detail that is being paid to True Detective’s second season is part of what helped the first become a phenomenon. It’s that kind of rampant speculation, that type of compulsive clue-hunting, which made the show what it is today, and that’s now threatening to kill it, with the amount of pressure it has to live up to.

Earlier this year, J.E. Reich talked about how the all-consuming nature of True Detective made the first season finale an inescapably difficult proposition at the Daily Dot.

Indeed, the theorizing, hypothesizing True Detective denizens is undeniable…the Internet response to True Detective has been immeasurable since it premiered earlier this year. Throughout the duration of its first season—a standalone, eight episode miniseries—the show launched a countless number of threads and think pieces, articulating everything from its philosophical underpinnings to its literary allusions to its flat-out plot-based conspiracy theories. (Here’s looking at you, Joffrey.) … [T]he precise same propounding that added to the undeniable, cult-like popularity of the show is what has created a stark delineation between those who were satisfied with the conclusion of this season’s arc, and those who were not.

However, the good part of this for True Detective is that viewers who stick around, and who are satisfied with the second season, are that much more likely to stay involved with the show’s passionate fanbase, and to continue to drive its success through an ongoing and intense conversation.

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But that’s also why HBO’s hemming and hawing on the cast is an issue, because in trying to replicate what generated the first season’s massive fandom, they’re killing the second’s season’s potential to generate a fandom all its own own, which, especially as an anthology show, is exactly what it needs to survive. As Reich puts it, “In the end, what matters most is the way that commentary and reaction en masse are shaping the way in which we interact with presented media and entertainment, and how we can eke out new ways to emphasize the continuity and essentialism of fiction, both on our screens and on the page.”

True Detective didn’t become the best new show of 2014 due to huge stars or immaculate visuals (although those elements certainly helped). True Detective became the best new show of 2014 because it was completely unexpected and completely unlike anything else on television. That’s why viewers grabbed onto it so tightly, and hopefully, that’s why they will again. So for its second season, HBO, not to mention the show’s fans, should realize that success will lie in whether True Detective can deliver something completely unexpected again, rather than a carbon copy of what preceded it.

Photo via Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY S.A-2.0)

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*First Published: Sep 22, 2014, 11:00 am CDT