A lot of the critical flak directed at the second season of True Detective has to do with the bottomless angst in which all of the main characters are mired. There’s certainly a lot of brooding, a lot of staring, a lot of heavy breathing. Nary a smile. The premiere dealt with child abuse, suicide and rampant prostitution (not to mention murder) and the second episode “Night Finds You” left a main character lying flat with a point-blank shotgun blast in his chest. Below is a picture of my family gathered to spend time together and enjoy this wholesome television — after that are spoilers for the third episode “Maybe Tomorrow”.
Really, though, one might hold up “Maybe Tomorrow” as evidence that True Detective‘s sophomore outing isn’t at all devoid of humor. For all of the nihilistic influences the series has recalled thus far — Chambers’s King in Yellow for the first season, a little Lovecraft here, a little Nietzsche there — “Maybe Tomorrow” starts off with a shout-out to Twin Peaks, of all things. An otherworldly Conway Twitty impersonator croons “The Rose” as Ray sits with his father in his usual seat in his usual bar, revealed to be a purgatory of sorts between life and death. That’s right: Ray survived being shot by the mysterious Raven. And yeah, that’s also right: Conway Twitty and True Detective in the same sentence.
That sequence was unexpected because ‘Tec has never employed anything like it before. Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle suffered drug flashbacks throughout season one (the streaking lights and swirling birds in the aptly-titled “Seeing Things” and the gathering storm in the bowels of Carcosa in “Form and Void“), but those were mostly explained as they occurred and chalked up to Rust’s state of mind. The Carcosa storm is obviously more symbolic, but even if there was a moment of WTF it was likely followed by a moment of oh, Rust’s just seeing things. If you stop there, of course, you’re kind of missing the significance of Rust’s journey into that basement of hell, but that’s beside the point.
Here in “Maybe Tomorrow”, we’re not sure at first what we’re watching. The grim Leonard Cohen theme fades out and suddenly we’re listening to “The Rose”, we’re watching a cruise line crooner, we’re watching a lot of hairspray. It might become obvious that this is a dream sequence of some sort even before the camera pans down to Ray’s exploded chest, but the sense of disorientation remains. But that’s not what’s really important, either; the sequence doesn’t differ from Rust’s hallucinations because it’s more oblique. As far as I’m concerned, it was a significant scene for True Detective because it made me laugh.
And “Maybe Tomorrow” kept doing that. “Night Finds You” ended with one of the most harrowing scenes of any episode of television in recent memory, blood-soaked Game of Thrones included. Then, suddenly, we have a Conway Twitty impersonator and Ray waking up, looking down, and grumbling “pissed myself”. There’s a later scene on a film set (which, again, begins with a slightly disorienting feeling of having accidentally changed the channel) featuring the latest in a long line of Mad Max-style post-apocalyptic films, this one being made in Vinci and starring a guy who needs a few extra takes to climb up that rocky hillside. When Ray and Ani pursue a masked man through a sub-highway Hooverville at the end of the episode, there’s more than just a thematic parallel from one post-apocalyptic wasteland to another: there’s a self-awareness that True Detective is using to advance the story and also, hopefully, to make you crack a quick smile.
Granted, some of the funniest things in this season have been unfortunately unintentional, most of which are related to Vince Vaughn’s Frank Semyon (has issues with getting erections, squishing rats) and Taylor Kitsch’s Paul Woodrough (only dealing with one of those). These characters sometimes brood for so long that an uncomfortable laugh just forces itself into the room — for a show that has packed a ton of dialogue into three episodes, it’s remarkable how long these two guys are able to maintain silence. In “Maybe Tomorrow” they finally cross paths and…say nothing. That wasn’t the time for a forced interaction between the two, but it still makes me chuckle for the wrong reason and wonder if their ultimate showdown, should it come to that, will be more of a staring contest than a bare-knuckle box.
The humorous self-awareness of “Maybe Tomorrow” outweighed those moments of unintentional, forehead-slapping, over-the-top superseriousness, from the opening sequence to the film set to the fact that the Kirk Douglas film Ray’s dad is watching is 1951’s Detective Story. It doesn’t get much more self-referential than that. And at best, the surprising moments of humor served to further the characters of this second season, from bit players like the Mayor’s son Tony Chessani (whose accent-switching was played for laughs) to main characters like Ray (who I’m now picturing tinkering over a little toy battleship model). From Conway Twitty to Kirk Douglas, Twin Peaks to Mad Max, “Maybe Tomorrow” showed that True Detective is willing to call upon more lighthearted influences and welcome them into what had previously been a much darker world.