The first episode of True Detective’s second season opens with a grizzled detective - this time played by Colin Farrell instead of Matthew McConaughey - being interviewed about a grisly crime. It could have been a scene from the show’s incredible first season and writer Nic Pizzolatto was probably inviting us to draw comparisons between the two. But quickly, the new season reveals that the storytelling will not be like season one, and yet this still feels like a crime worthy to succeed that first season.
The crime at the center of season two, which could easily be subtitled “Starring Actors Who Need Career Revivals,” is the murder of Vinci City Manager Casper. Vinci, California is literally a city built for the corrupt by the corrupt, with under 100 permanent residents and everyone in everyone else’s pockets. That’s the environment where we find Ray Velcoro (Farrell), a burned-out detective who is also linked to crime boss Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn). Frank helped Ray find the man who attacked his now-ex-wife years ago, which forever links the two.
During the first episode, we meet our team of investigators piece-by-piece, with Pizzolatto retaining his novel-style approach to introduce the characters through their own fractured lives. After meeting Ray, Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) is introduced with a scene that reveals her struggles in the bedroom. Later, Highway Patrolman Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) comes roaring onto the screen on a motorcylce. In each introduction, these characters fail. It’s starting to look like everyone in this show is modeled after McConaughey’s Rust Cohle and not Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart.
Casper’s death links the trio at the end of the premiere and, during the second and third episodes, Pizzolatto adds more and more layers. While his storytelling frame is less ambitious - this doesn’t look like a crime that’s going to take 15 years to solve - he makes up for it by building inner politics. The California state authorities want Ani and Paul on the case to get to corruption in Vinci and Vinci officials want Ray on the case to make sure the state doesn’t have anything on them.
While the third party in season one was the uncontrollable voodoo angle, Frank’s underworld is the uncontrollable element here. Frank leads his own investigation into Casper’s death, since Casper died with his money in his pocket. Casper was supposed to deliver money to secure Frank’s land deals so Frank could fulfill his dream of becoming bigger than a two-bit hood in Vinci.
Unlike the first season of True Detective, there’s very little humor, with maybe one or two moments in each episode that will make you chuckle. The running gags about Ani’s e-cigarettes or Paul’s incredible good looks are funny, but don’t expect any laugh-out-loud moments. When all these characters are introverted, the car rides are far less humorous than the ones we took with Rust and Marty.
This whole season is going to be about desperation. Pizzolatto is desperate to prove that he can back up season one, with forced added layers to assure you that this isn’t just another Criminal Minds episode stretched out to eight episodes. Farrell, Vaughn, Kitsch and even McAdams look desperate to use this show to start their own McConaissance. The characters they play are desperate to prove they can solve save their own lives.
There’s no way the second season of this show could live up to incredible expectations after the first season, which seemed to be a bottle overflowing with lightening. Perhaps True Detective will move into more adventurous territory in the remaining five episodes, but after Fargo and even the grittiness of Daredevil, Pizzolatto has to do much more to keep this show at the top.
True Detective’s second season starts on Sunday, June 21.
screenshot from HBO YouTube Video