Created and written by novelist Nic Pizzolatto, HBO's anthology series True Detective barreled through the zeitgeist on the backs of career-best performances by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, strong direction by Cary Fukunaga, a bracing level of bone-deep nihilism, and a nightmare-inducing web of creepy Lovecraftian local color. The suspense kept pulses pounding through each episode, while the drive to decipher its mysteries had viewers doing literary loop-the-loops for the rest of the week. What could have been just a well-made portrait of dangerous men in a compelling time and place — Bayou-walk Empire, basically — exploded into a cultural phenomenon. Calling its first season a Southern Gothic rollercoaster ride is both the kindest and the cruelest compliment you can pay it.
But as exciting as a rollercoaster's ups and downs may be, it doesn't actually take you anywhere in the end. Those eight hours of dark crime fiction shouldn't be dismissed. But the more distance we got from the madness of the moment, the more concerns about the material mounted: Pizzolatto's over-fondness for his macho main characters, say, or his insistence that picking these protagonists prevented him from creating women characters with depth. Ultimately, the whole thing revealed itself to be a stunning act of television prestidigitation: With so many of the factors that made that happen no longer in place, it's all but impossible to repeat the trick again.
That's the dilemma facing Season Two. Even aside from all the hurdles inherent in setting up an anthology series' second go-round — new story, new setting, new characters, as well as new actors and directors too — so many of the techniques its initial incarnation used are off the table. And if this premiere episode is any indication, the results are not promising.
Wisely eschewing serial-killer symbolism (at this point you can't swing a severed arm without hitting a television show combining murder mysteries and stag-antler imagery), True Detective 2.0's story stays focused on the political-corruption angle, relocated from the swamps of Louisiana to the sprawl of Los Angeles. Here we find Detective Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), a down-on-his-luck divorced drunk from the City of Vinci. The cop is paying off a debt to local crime boss Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) by serving as his enforcer when he's not busy bullying his own terrified son. Elsewhere, Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), a detective with the Ventura County Sherrifs, grits her teeth through unsatisfying penny-ante assignments, while heavily scarred war veteran Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) uses his job as CHiPS motorcycle cop to sublimate his suicidal impulses. After establishing their gigs and lives, the episode brings the three police together when Woodrugh stumbles across a corpse — one who happens to be a missing person from Semyon's corrupt political machine.
The plot is admirably dense, but you wouldn't call it compelling. And absent Fukunaga's touch, the imagery, courtesy of Fast & Furious franchise veteran Justin Lin, lacks the first season's immersive quality. Only a handful of shots linger in the brain at all: the sight of Farrell's character in a ski mask turning to the camera and shushing a witness; a couple of arterial overhead shots of the freeway system; a recurring sequence of a corpse in wraparound shades being driven around in the back of a car. Given that the first showed up in the trailer, the second is a no-brainer for any L.A. story, and the third is pretty much an homage to David Lynch's underexplored Lost Highway/Mulholland Drive California-noir period, it's a weak showing.
The performances can't carry the weight, either. Colin Farrell's bloated, belligerent, alcoholic cop is, shall we say, not exactly a stretch. Kitsch and McAdams aren't asked for much more than being younger, photogenic, and better at keeping their obvious demons under wraps around others. Vaughn hands in some of the episode's best work; watch his eyes, which radiate genuine unspoken concern over Velcoro's sorry state when the two of them meet up near the end of the episode. Yet he's also asked to deliver gangster dialogue that sounds cribbed from a video game cut scene: It'd take a Brando to make clunkers like "This filth hurt your woman" or "This place is based on a codependency of interests" or "A good woman mitigates our baser tendencies" sound halfway passable.
As two of those three examples indicate, True Detective's woman trouble has hardly improved. McAdams' character is introduced in her underwear, storming out of the bedroom after freaking out her boyfriend by apparently requesting something a bit too wild. Both she and Kitsch's character experience sexual dysfunction as a shorthand for their psychological issues, but in his case he can't get it up without Viagra; it's telling how the worst problem a man can have in the series' world is failure to perform, while for a woman it's performing too aggressively.
Certainly that's reflected in the females Woodrugh encounters: a speeding starlet who gets him suspended with false accusations of soliciting sexual favors, and a girlfriend (also introduced in her underwear) who we've barely seen for 30 seconds before she says "It's been a week, Mr. Policeman — get that dick over here." Can't she see he's suffering?! Well, no, because he saves that for his long solo night rides on his bike, the wind against his face making for the hour's most unintentionally hilarious visual.
Worse still is the emotional contract the show asks us to sign regarding Velcoro and Semyon. A flashback shows the pair first connecting when the latter provides the former with information about the suspect in his wife's rape — hence the "this filth hit your woman" bit. Given what we've seen of Velcoro's subsequent behavior, it's easy to imagine what he did with this knowledge. It's much harder to know how the actual victim felt, given that we never see his wife, hear her, or even learn her name in the episode. The show asks us to believe that a rape is fundamentally the story of the abusive man who avenges her (when he's not menacing children himself), a repeat of Season One's unfortunate white-knight theme. Why must we accept stories about violence in which its perpetrators are its heroes? Unless and until it answers that question, True Detective risks simply being a one-season wonder.