Some of the things that made “True Detective” so captivating last season are missing in the sophomore installment of the anthology series, debuting Sunday on HBO.
Also MIA: elements that made the first season occasionally infuriating.
The net result, at least after watching the first three episodes, is a gritty, noirish crime drama that isn’t likely to live up to the creative bar it set for itself in season one but still manages to be compelling in its own right.
Creator Nic Pizzolatto has traded in the menacing swamps of his native Louisiana for an even more sinister setting in his adopted home of California.
When Vinci’s pervy, shady city manager disappears in the premiere, three law enforcers are thrown together to work on the case. They each come from different jurisdictions but suffer from the same condition: stage 4 misery. (The long-term effect of bad parenting is the tie that binds this season.)
Angry yet sympathetic Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell, “In Bruges”) is a downtrodden Vinci cop who doesn’t have much to live for — and it shows in the perennial pout that resides below his droopy moustache (a holdover from season one, even though Rust Cohle wore it better).
As Ray says himself, he’s no Columbo. That’s fine by his bosses. They’re more concerned with preserving Vinci’s illegal operations than solving the crime at hand.
Ray’s unofficial boss is Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn, “Wedding Crashers”), a Chicago-born criminal looking to go legit in a major land-development deal.
Ray and Frank’s unseemly arrangement — forged after Frank helped Ray get retribution for the rape of his ex-wife — puts the police officer in a tricky spot when it comes to being a team player on the newly formed task force, which includes a couple other deeply troubled souls.
One of them is California Highway Patrol officer Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch, “Friday Night Lights”), a war vet who worked for a Blackwater-type private security contractor in the Middle East. Not-so-subtle hints are dropped that something bad went down over there that Paul can’t escape, no matter how fast he makes his motorcycle go.
Rounding out the task force is Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams, “Midnight in Paris”), a detective with the L.A. County Sheriff’s department. Her addition to the cast could be a direct result of last season’s well documented “woman problem.” (“Paper-thin” female characters were nothing more than “wives and sluts and daughters — none with any interior life,” wrote The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum. It’s a valid point.)
I have to think that Pizzolatto tried to buffer this criticism with Ani, whose knife-carrying, hard-drinking, sex-without-strings-attached persona fits right in with the series’ unapologetically masculine vibe.
Season two has twice as many main characters as its predecessor, which gave viewers the glorious gift of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as Rust Cohle and Marty Hart. These demon-chasing cops whose dueling outlooks on life made for captivating television. It might as well have been called “The Rust and Marty Show.” These two characters — bolstered by remarkable performances from McConaughey and Harrelson — proved to be as memorable as the rest of the cast was forgettable.
The second season boasts a much deeper bench. But so far, none of the players stands out like Rust or Marty did from the get go. And while season two’s movie-star cast does an admirable job playing against type, it’s hard to imagine we’re on the cusp of a Vince Vaughnaissance.
The very solid but not necessarily spectacular directing this season — at least in the three episodes made available for review — also doesn’t measure up to the work of Cary Fukunaga, who presided over all eight episodes of the show’s freshman run. (Much ado was made about Fukunaga and Pizzolatto supposedly butting heads last season. TV critic Alan Sepinwall astutely noted that this season’s third episode features a rather douchey film director who looks like Fukunaga. Not cool, Nic!)
Season two moves at a faster pace, largely because there’s less pontificating about the meaning — or meaninglessness — of life.
The biggest flaw in what was overall a fantastic first season rested with the crime story itself: a hard-to-follow, ultimately disappointing narrative that unleashed a torrent of futile fan theories along the way.
This season seems much more conventional and straightforward from a crime-solving standpoint, with just the right amount of weirdness thrown in to keep things interesting, fresh and true to the franchise.
“True Detective” airs Sundays at 8 p.m. Central/9 p.m. Eastern on HBO.
Rating: (4 / 5)