As a critic, I’ve come to expect a lineup of usual suspects when it comes to angry fans who disagree passionately with my opinion. These include but are not limited to:
- If you don’t like it, watch something else (sure, but I’m a professional TV critic . . .)
- You’re just a hater! (I’m being generous with the spelling).
- You just don’t get it. (Maybe!)
- Your opinion is biased. (Mhhmm)
- You must not get out much. Everyone says this show/movie/game is great! (Criticism is not a popularity contest, thank god!)
I’m sure I will encounter some of these after penning this review of the first episode of True Detective: Night Country, a series/season premiere that left me as cold as the dark Alaskan landscape in which the story takes place. Perhaps it’ll be the last one. After all, lots of critics are singing this show’s praises. Then again, appeals to popularity have never impressed me.
As of right now, I’ve only watched the premiere, so I can’t say for sure what the rest of the six-part season holds and I could very well change my mind over the coming weeks, but for now . . . I’m not particularly impressed.
After all these glowing reviews—“Night Country isn’t a return to form,” Slate gushes. “It’s better.” “Night Country is so good, it might be better than Season 1” USA Today raves—my expectations were pretty high. After all, Season 1 of True Detective remains one of my favorite seasons of television ever. I was hooked instantly—not after the first episode, but after the first ten minutes of the first episode.
I’m sad to report that I feel no such crackling excitement over Night Country, which already feels like a slog just one episode in. The pacing might be forgivable—I enjoy a slow burn—but the premiere is messy and its characters are flat and uninteresting.
The actors, led by Jodie Foster as the crotchety Ennis, Alaska police detective Liz Danvers, mostly do a great job. Danvers is as grumpy as they come but clearly smart and capable, and it’s fun to see Foster return to a law enforcement role. (If nothing else, I now realize it’s been too long since I’ve seen The Silence Of The Lambs).
The story, on the other hand, is taking too long to get interesting—this is a shorter season than usual and a lot of the limited six episodes feels a bit wasted here.
Danvers and detective Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis) have history and some bad blood over a cold case involving a dead indigenous woman, but it’s obvious they’ll be working together to solve this new—and almost certainly connected—case of a group of missing scientists, all of whom are men.
The frigid setting is probably my favorite character at this point. The story begins during the very last sunset of the year. Ennis is far enough north that it’s dark there for two straight months and change. It’s a bleak spin on film noir and, like the gothic southern swamps and ruins of Season 1, creates a distinct mood.
Unlike Season 1, that mood is not as oppressive or as skillfully achieved. While the dark and cold create a haunting enough atmosphere, nothing feels as real or lived-in as the sticky bayous that Marty Hart and Rust Cohle wandered through on their hunt for the Yellow King in Season 1.
Speaking of the Yellow King, Season 1 was filled to the brim with hints at the supernatural. The stench of black magic hung over everything. It wasn’t real, of course. The evil they encountered was terrifying but all man-made. Whatever ghosts shadowed Marty and Rust on their quest for the truth, they were never tangible, visible beings. It was enough that their past—and the many bodies that littered it—haunted them.
In Night Country, the supernatural is thrown at us with all the subtlety of a brick to the face. The opening scene involves a herd of very obviously CGI caribou shrieking and running headlong over a cliff. Lights flicker. People start to go crazy. The water goes bad the same time the sun disappears. An old woman follows the ghost of her dead husband to find the bodies in the ice, all of which have frozen in some kind of rictus terror. We see some kind of creature (probably human, but creature-like) darting around the science facility when the delivery driver shows up.
Honestly, it feels like Yellowjackets but without the same suffocating dread. Even the score and its haunting female chants seem to have been plucked directly from Yellowjackets. Add in the frozen landscape and the supernatural and it’s like True Detective’s latest season took some pieces from Wind River and some pieces from Yellowjackets and then threw it all together with the buddy cop structure of the first season, only this time with two female detectives instead of two dudes. (Even the bear scene feels like it’s been ripped right out of Yellowjackets).
That makes the whole thing feel more than a little derivative, which in and of itself wouldn’t bother me if I found the actual story particularly compelling or its characters interesting enough to follow. Those were the two things that made the first season work so well. There was a genuinely fascinating mystery with all sorts of bizarre and frightening twists, and there were two cops with extremely different personalities whose tumultuous relationship elevated the show beyond a typical murder mystery.
Maybe we’ll get close to that with Danvers and Navarro, but so far they just seem to dislike each other over some past disagreement over an old case. Both strike me as tough, impatient, capable women who, more than anything, have pretty similar personalities. Again, we’re just one episode in so anything is possible. Maybe the horror elements of Night Country will make up for its shortcomings.
While it’s too early to say, for now at least I’m just not that drawn into the mystery or characters. It isn’t bad—and it’s no Season 2, thank goodness—but the first episodes of Season 1 and the underrated Season 3 both had me hooked and excited for more. Night Country just has me wondering what all the fuss is about. Hopefully things pick up in the second episode.
- The opening credits feature the wildly popular Billie Eilish song “Bury A Friend” which I guess is fitting, but not particularly bold or interesting. Compare the opening credits to Season 1’s, which uses the much more obscure “Far From Any Road” by The Handsome Family. Sorry, it’s just not even close—which is what I’m feeling overall about this season compared to the first. Early days, I know.
- Same goes for the music in general. Like the first season of Yellowjackets, the first season of True Detective didn’t lean heavily into needle drops to get the point (or the mood across). Yellowjackets’ second season stuffed every episode to the brim with on-the-nose 90s songs. This season of True Detective is inching in that direction. We’ll see.
- I was thinking about the show The Killing while watching this, and how great the two detectives were in that. I know I complained about this show feeling derivative, but I really think that pairing Foster up with a younger male detective would have made for a more interesting buddy cop dynamic. I think I’m just worried that there isn’t enough contrast between the two tough, serious, grumpy female detectives in this show. Contrast is key. While Rust and Marty were both white dudes, they felt more different than Danvers and Navarro because they had such wildly different personalities. Same with Linden and Holder in The Killing.
I may add more scattered thoughts after a second viewing. For now, enough ink has been spilled. I’m still looking forward to next week’s episode, but I can’t say I’m hooked yet.