[This is a review of True Detective season 2, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
Despite its flashy opening credits sequence – complete with a new, "this is what darkness is" song – nearly everything about True Detective season 2 feels like a calculated effort to not be True Detective season 1. In fact, one of the most striking things about 'The Western Book of the Dead' isn't the expanded cast of familiar movie stars like Colin Farrell, Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams, and Taylor Kitsch; it's how so much of what these characters aim to do and to be (well, with the exception of Farrell, booze-soaked cop) feels specifically tailored to combat particular criticisms of what came before.
When True Detective came along in 2014, no one knew what HBO would be serving after throwing creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto, Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, and director Cary Joji Fukunaga into the blender, hoping the seemingly immiscible substances would emulsify. And while some of them apparently didn't mix well behind the scenes, the end result certainly fed the masses (particularly their imaginations and deep-seated love for decoding Lovecraftian symbols that proved to be mostly meaningless) for eight solid weeks.
The show became such a phenomenon that inevitable future installments faced a dramatic uphill climb, measured not only against the content, the performances, and especially the painterly quality of Fukunaga's lens, but also – and perhaps most importantly – the first season's ability to capture the zeitgeist. As such, it's impossible for season 2 to extricate itself from the layers of expectation that have already been heaped upon it, so instead it burrows a long tunnel beneath the legacy of its predecessor.
What lurks underneath all the Cthulhu-enriched trickery of season 1 is a far more straightforward affair; one seemingly predicated on the fact that season 2 is dealing with an expanded cast of both main and supporting characters. Along with the aforementioned four leads is an eclectic group of players headed up by Richie Coster, who plays the perpetually drunk mayor of the fictional town of Vinci, W. Earl Brown (Deadwood) as Farrell's partner, and David Morse as McAdams' longhaired hippie father/New Age guru.
Despite what appears to be a story burdened less by suggestions of the supernatural or hallucinatory visions, hints of surrealism still pepper the factory-encrusted wasteland that is Vinci. The most telling detail is a dead man in Blue Blockers riding VIP-style in the back of an old sedan, while a crumpled crow…something lies on the seat next to him. One sharp turn later and the dead man's head thumps against the car window with pointed hollowness. It's weird and unsettling, nothing like Rust Cohle's smoky dorm-room philosophizing on time as a flat circle or other circuitous revelations like smelling the psychosphere and the nature of man, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Take the UV-blocking corpse and slide him alongside the many, many aerial shots of Los Angeles' arterial freeway system and the influences on this second season click into place. This new iteration of True Detective feels less like a Louisiana ghost story, and more like the love child of Chinatown and Mulholland Drive, two films determined to blacken California's otherwise golden finish. If what you see in the premiere isn't enough to convince you the latter's influence, a breezy dream sequence in a later episode should definitely do the trick.
The show's plot still revolves around a murder mystery – turns out the aforementioned dead guy was wearing those shades because he had his eyes burned out – tied to a transportation deal orchestrated by the (formerly) missing Vinci city manager Ben Caspar, who took five million dollars of shady businessman Frank Semyon's (Vaughn) money with him. Set to investigate the murder is Farrell's Ray Velcoro, who looks like he crawled out of the gutter even gutters stay away from, along with California small-town Sheriff Ani (Antigone) Bezzerides (McAdams) and highway patrolman Paul Woodrough (Kitsch), both of whom share the qualities of being haunted by a past they can't forget and flipping the script on stereotypical expectations of their gender.
With the expanded cast the plot becomes more byzantine, a twisting, winding structure not unlike the tangled freeways director Justin Lin is so fond of transitioning from one scene to the next with. But the supposed intricacy of the plot isn't really what's on Pizzolatto's mind. He's more interested in finding ways for his characters to wallow in their gloomy existence, to stare into the abyss and have it come back with a solo performer singing "this is my least favorite life" over and over again. Like the season that came before it, True Detective is more about establishing a mood and getting swept up in an atmosphere than it is in making any sense of its central mystery.
And if their performances are anything to judge by, that all seems just fine with the cast. Farrell is at his greasy, mustachioed best, rocking a bolo tie like his character wonders how they could have ever gone out of style. It takes a talented actor to sell the sort of heavy-handed lines of dialogue the cast has been saddled with here and make them sound remarkable by virtue of their heavy-handedness. Unsurprisingly, Farrell excels at this in the same sort of way McConaughey did.
Velcoro is introduced having a one-sided heart-to-heart with his son (who may not be his). The exchange is fatherly but forced; it is anything but sweet and sentimental. Long before we flashback to see a young Velcoro making a deal with Semyon, we know the father-son bond isn't really there; it's just something Velcoro's latched on to because he needs a reason to keep getting up in the morning. It's the same kind of interpersonal distance McAdams and Kitsch deliver in their roles as damaged people who put more faith in knives and little blue pills than in the people who actually want to have relationships with them.
While everyone's seemingly enjoying his or her glimpse into the darkness, Vaughn comes across as a bit too restrained. It's a far cry from his recent cinematic endeavors, but you get the feeling that, like his character, Vaughn is aware how high the stakes of trying to go straight actually are. Frank Semyon is stuffy at first, unsure of himself in supposedly legitimate situations – or as legitimate as governmental business dealings get – but as soon as the tall drink of water settles into a red vinyl booth across from a horrifically drunk Velcoro, Vaughn unbuttons the top button a little and lets some air in.
The bar in which Velcoro and Semyon meet and its perfectly lit ambiance, its low hanging lights and its green walls, its scarred waitress and apparent BYOB policy, is the best looking thing about the show in the absence of Fukunaga's cinematographic eye. The grimy establishment is True Detective in a nutshell: a strikingly horrible place that exists just outside reality. And yet you get the feeling that the bleak interior is all surface, a curated sense of dilapidation in which each water stain is deliberately placed for effect, and every bulb double-checked to ensure it is well below quality standards.
The deeper you get into Pizzolatto's world the more evident it becomes the darkness (or anything else) doesn’t run nearly as deep as you might've thought. But that doesn't stop the second season of True Detective from digging around in some pretty shady places. For fans looking for the same starry-eyed lyrical mysticism of McConaughey's season this definitely won't strike the same chord. For those on the prowl for something different, season 2 might have what you're looking for.
True Detective continues next Sunday with 'Night Finds You' @9pm on HBO.