We could all use a little distance from “True Detective’s” first season. Perhaps you found the HBO series to be the most brilliant TV-watching experience you’ve had in some time. Others (including me) couldn’t help but notice that, in spite of some good acting and impressive technical moves, “True Detective” had some undermining flaws, particularly when it came to the writing.
By the time it reached its slightly anticlimactic eighth-episode finale, “True Detective” functioned almost like a test of the senses: In the show’s dialogue, fans heard an elevated, poetic form; others heard one ridiculous clunker after another. Some were enthralled; others were bored. You raved; I sighed. And Matthew McConaughey, who turned in such a memorable performance as Detective Rust Cohle in Season 1, collected his trophies and was last seen murmuring to himself behind the wheel of a new Lincoln.
More than a year later, as promised, creator/writer Nic Pizzolatto has relocated “True Detective’s” setting from Louisiana to Southern California and, in Sunday’s premiere, readies us for a different mystery that involves a trio of detectives who are just as haunted and damaged (perhaps even more so) than either McConaughey’s Cohle or Woody Harrelson’s Detective Marty Hart.
It’s clear from the first new episode (there are eight again this season) that “True Detective” is taking full advantage of the opportunity provided by the show’s anthology format to move on and remedy some of Season 1’s problems — or, at the very least, head some of its critics off at the pass. The anthology concept can work wonders when it comes to contained stories; FX’s “American Horror Story” sets a refreshing example, adding to it by drawing on a repertoire of players. Anthology can reward devotees with a familiar style and vibe while enticing other viewers to give the show another shot. More TV dramas ought to consider it.
Which may be a long way of telling you that “True Detective’s” second go-around benefits greatly from a re-start. Fans should find themselves content with the show’s intensely dour mood and a story flecked with sexual deviance, grim violence and assorted weirdness that seems at least partly inspired by David Lynch movies. The first season’s three-track chronology structure (flashing back and among 1995, 2002 and 2012, which was smartly executed) appears to be gone, except for the occasional depiction of a memory. Skeptics might notice that Pizzolatto (or someone above him) has learned to whittle down his prose a bit, even though it’s still easy to discern scenes where what’s on the page will simply come off as pretentious on the screen.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in some early, very Pizzolatto-esque monologues from one Frank Semyon, a Southland mobster played by Vince Vaughn. Having built his empire in the underworld, Frank has risked his fortune on a somewhat more legitimate, but still under-the-table scheme: buying his way into the unfathomably lucrative plan to develop land along a proposed high-speed rail line through California.
Viewers may flag a bit when they discover that “True Detective” is now asking them to follow its rather complex look at corruption in state and municipal politics, set mainly in a fictional city-within-the-city called Vinci. Within sight of downtown L.A., Vinci is an industrial mess of refineries, plants, transfer stations and a casino. Though it has only 95 permanent residents, thousands of workers come and go every day. Vinci has a police department and a bureaucracy, including, of course, a dirty mayor. The entire operation seems built on graft and kickbacks, and it is here where Frank has thrived.
Two events, however, are thwarting Frank’s scheme to move up and out: The big local paper has started running an eight-part series on Vinci’s civic corruption (this thread seems faintly inspired by the Los Angeles Times’s real-life probe a few years ago of city leaders in Bell, Calif.), and the city manager has gone missing, just as he was supposed to be moving Frank’s fortune into the hands of railway developers. I can only hope I’ve described this somewhat accurately; “True Detective” jumps around and is sadistically unhelpful to the casual viewer who would prefer to know what’s happening as it happens.
It gets more convoluted. A California Highway Patrol officer, Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), discovers the missing city manager’s mutilated corpse at a scenic pullout on the Pacific Coast Highway in Ventura County, which falls in the jurisdiction of a county investigator, the almost resentfully tough Detective Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams, habitually vaping on an e-cigarette).
The state attorney general’s office determines that the Vinci city manager’s murder is relevant to its ongoing investigation of the city’s finances. Therefore, the state (implausibly) decides that the murder investigation will be handled by three agencies: Woodrugh, who is on leave after being accused by a Lindsay Lohan-like starlet of soliciting sex from her during a traffic stop, will investigate on behalf of the state; Bezzerides will investigate the case for the county.
Detective Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) of the Vinci Police Department is also assigned to the case. “One question,” Velcoro asks his superiors. “Am I supposed to solve it?”
Velcoro is an almost laughably compromised lawman. He’s a binge drinker who, for one example, viciously assaults the father of the boy who is bullying Velcoro’s son — the same son Velcoro’s ex is petitioning to keep away from him. Velcoro’s ties to Frank Semyon are the first signal to viewers of how “True Detective’s” puzzling new plot fits together: Perhaps more desperately than the state, Frank needs to find out who killed the city manager and how to get back his millions. “I’m waiting on this Velcoro burnout to make like Rockford?” he asks, and thus initiates his own investigation.
“True Detective” can’t resist giving the dead city manager a distinct set of sexual peccadilloes, mainly for the benefit of provocative set design, ensuring that the show’s central aesthetic will feature the same depravity and ugliness that colored Season 1.
Instead of hillbilly/cult worship perversion, this time it involves fetish nightclubs, sex-trafficking and purveyors of high-end flesh — which guarantees that most of the supporting roles and bit parts here for women will be of the whore variety. This is ultimately a matter of genre: Pizzolatto is working from themes set forth by a century of fictional crime and noir (and the stories of crime solvers), in which rape and degradation are part of the draw. That doesn’t mean you have to like it. In shows and movies like this, it’s an unfortunate habit.
As with last season, the case that the detectives are trying to solve is secondary. “True Detective” is a show about detectives. Together, Velcoro, Bezzerides and Woodrugh are a psychological minefield: Bezzerides grew up in a New Age movement centered on a mindfulness guru (David Morse) who happens to be her father; now she’s an emotional cipher who arms herself to the teeth with hidden knives — and we’re clearly meant to wonder why. Woodrugh, whose military service led to working as a Blackwater-style mercenary, is carrying some wicked PTSD from some unspeakable horror.
The performances from these three — Farrell, McAdams and Kitsch — are strong enough in the first few episodes to potentially become as compelling as the work McConaughey and Harrelson did in Season 1. Farrell’s style seems especially suited to the depressing, hopeless feeling that “True Detective” aims for, but Vaughn, who is known mainly for his work in comedies, seems to struggle a bit as a conflicted bad guy. (It’s almost as if Vaughn — and his character — took a wrong turn on the way to guest-star in Showtime’s “Ray Donovan.”)
There is something still lugubrious and overwrought about “True Detective,” but there’s also a mesmerizing style to it — it’s imperfect, but well made. You can certainly tell that it’s trying too hard, but I’ll leave it up to you to decide if trying too hard is a serious crime.
True Detective (one hour) returns Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO.