Is 'True Detective''s New Season Truly Defective?

HBO's hit show struggles the second time around — but Rachel McAdams shines

Rachel McAdams and Colin Farrell in 'True Detective.' Credit: HBO

So here's the surprise twist: Rachel McAdams makes a hell of a cop. She's easily the best thing about the second season of True Detective. Her transition from mean girl to bad cop is amazing: She's a tightly wound, sarcastic loner with a thing for knives and no particular desire to hide her rage. As she explains in the squad car to her lunkhead partner, Colin Farrell, "The fundamental difference between the sexes is one of them can kill the other with their bare hands. Man of any size lays hands on me, he's gonna bleed out in less than a minute." Farrell replies, "Well, just so you know, I support feminism. Mostly by having body-image issues."

It's one thing for the doe-eyed starlet from The Notebook to cut it as a hard-boiled Southern California cop. It's quite another for her to be the most credible and convincing thing about the show — but here we are. The new-model True Detective would be lost without her. It's an old-school anthology series, where every season is a different story with a different cast — no more Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson on the Louisiana bayou. Instead, it's an L.A. County criminal-conspiracy story full of philosophical speeches — basically The Chinatown Monologues.

Vince Vaughn is a neurotic gangster trying to go legit. Farrell is your generic Cop With Problems. And Taylor Kitsch, who stir-fried the hormones of America's moms on Friday Night Lights, is a strong-but-silent stud who yearns to be back on his bike with the CHP. True Detective makes a sly joke out of his heartthrob appeal — almost every female character makes a point of checking out his ass. (But not McAdams — it takes a lot to impress her.)

The original True Detective had surprise on its side — nobody knew McConaughey or Harrelson were capable of turning their stock haunted-cop characters into genuinely compelling losers. It was a tour de force of acting, writing and direction, even if the plot didn't make a lick of sense — the classic case of a mystery where the action is all in the riddle, not the solution. All that Louisiana sunshine brought out the darkness in these cops' bad brains.

The new season gets off to a slow start, at least in the first three episodes, partly because it doesn't have the surprise advantage: It's a Cali cop drama. The central figure is Vaughn as the crime kingpin, not so far from the drug lord he played in Starsky & Hutch. Vaughn's deadpan is brilliant in comedies, but it makes it tough for him to play scary, since every word out of his mouth sounds funny, even when it's not meant to be. His kingpin is such a nervous wreck it's hard to understand how he got to the top of the gangster racket. "There is no part of my life not overwrought with life-or-death importance," he mutters. "I take a shit, there's a gun to my head saying, 'Make it a good one — don't fuck up.' "

Farrell is a likable meatball. But does every actor need a dark side? He strains for psychosexual depths that aren't there. And that goes double for Kitsch, whose charisma tragically dries up whenever he puts his clothes back on.

Writer Nic Pizzolatto's fondness for here's-how-the-universe-works soliloquies suited McConaughey and Harrelson perfectly the first time. But nobody on the new True Detective has the same chemistry.

So it all comes down to McAdams, the only cookie here you'd be scared to tangle with. People think she's uptight: When a colleague says, "You got serious problems, detective," she snarls, "I'm whittlin' them down." She probably means it literally. It was a surprise to see McAdams on True Detective. But it's even more of a surprise that she turns out to be the truest detective here.