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‘True Detective’ season 2 is the embarrassing television show we deserve

Rachel McAdams and Colin Farrell in the second season of “True Detective.” (Photo: Lacey Terrell)

“My strong suspicion is we get the world we deserve,” declares washed-up detective Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) in the early going of the second season of “True Detective.” I’m not sure anyone deserves the brooding mess that is the Los Angeles County series creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto is giving us after spending the show’s first series marinating us in bayou flop-sweat. But goodness is “True Detective — which braises its characters in a sauce of toxic masculinity and brown liquor, hooks us in with clues to a larger mythology, and constantly signals its own literary intentions — the show we deserve given the terms we’ve used to define the so-called Golden Age of television.

This year, Pizzolatto has packed up the stakes he planted in Louisiana and decamped for Los Angeles County, setting this series in the fictional city of Vinci. And while the characters and the crime are different, to put it in the words of a character from an HBO show that defined that golden age, “game the same.” If only it had gotten more fierce.

In this installment of “True Detective,” Ray is a fallen cop with a fondness for whisky who owes gangster and businessman Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn), who fingered the man Frank says raped Ray’s now-ex wife (Abigail Spencer). Ray took retribution, an act he declares “a right, by any natural law,” but the act hasn’t endeared him to his ex, and it’s part of the general shadow that hangs over him, making him a target for investigation. State authorities get their chance to dig a little deeper when the jurisdictional issues around Vinci’s brutally murdered city manager lead to the creation of a task force that includes Ray, Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) who appears to have read a lot of Andrea Dworkin and tucks knives into her outfits, and Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), a highway patrolman who has a mother with a serious set of boundary issues and some psychosexual challenges of his own.

Once again, there’s someone powerful behind all of this trouble. But as with last season, Pizzollato’s idea of how to signal that Vinci’s mayor is corrupt is to decorate his office with a gold-plated model of an industrial facility, and to make it clear that he’s swiped Don Draper’s barware and the accompanying alcoholism. The guy even shows up lasciviously rubbing his date’s posterior at a public function. Moustache-twirling isn’t the same as insight, just as making your serial killer an incestuous hillbilly is not some visionary, searing indictment of sexual culture below the Mason-Dixon line. And listing out the stages of a city’s economic development and decline is shorthand, not granular detail.

The one thing “True Detective” says this season that I haven’t heard pop culture speak aloud before is the suggestion that the sort of tax credits that states use to lure film and television productions are corrupt. (The owners of a Louisiana post-production studio that did some work on the first season of “True Detective” went on trial this spring on charges that they defrauded Louisiana’s film production tax credit program). But HBO’s already made seven seasons of a show about the grossness and corruption of the movie business: It’s called “Entourage.” 

Pizzolatto has groused about judging his shows before watching them all the way to the end, a complaint that misses the point that, even in the age of Netflix and other services, most episodic television airs in weekly installments on networks, rather than being released ready-to-binge, and thus still has the obligation to be amusing on a week-by-week basis. But even if I were to indulge him, and to judge only the writing and performances in the three episodes made available to critics before the premiere, rather than speculating about the plot, there are some truly embarrassing things happening in the second season of “True Detective” that I doubt will be redeemed by a fourth-quarter revelation that the whole enterprise is actually a parody.

Detective Rust Cohle’s (Matthew McConaughey) monologues worked so well last year in part because they existed in a context where, most of the time, the other characters spoke like recognizable human beings who employed humor, irony, and self-awareness, and each of whom had their own distinctive speech patterns. But many of the characters in the second season of “True Detective” sound fundamentally the same, combining garbled grammar with five-dollar words (or at least five-dollar ideas). Ani’s tic is to drop verbs and certain articles, while Frank, Ray and Paul have a propensity for contractions. The results are monotone, and not particularly ennobling.

One of the truisms of the current age of television is that movie actors like Farrell, McAdams, Vaughn and Kitsch are going to television because the parts and projects are richer. But a sharp reality is that sometimes the actors in television are doing better work than their counterparts in what was supposed to be the more prestigious medium. A line like “This place is built on a co-dependency of interest. Worries me you talking so stupid,” would sound a lot better coming out of Ian McShane’s mouth in his capacity as Al Swearengen in HBO’s erstwhile Western “Deadwood” than it does here on Vaughn’s lips in a contemporary setting. Vaughn does fine with what he’s given. But he’s not walking into an environment that was lacking for excellent acting in this mode, and actors like Ian McShane got to do more with circumstances that matched the prose they’d been given.

But some of the dialogue wouldn’t be salvageable by anyone speaking with this degree of self-seriousness: “I like the bike, sir. The highway, it suits me. I am no good on the sidelines.” “Sometimes not everybody’s always on the same side. Fine. it’s business. But this. No. F— that. Some things don’t stand.” “Some people can’t handle the deep trip. I fear he is a destroyer. In my day, you understand, it was about consciousness expansion, tracing the unseen web. Children are a disappointment. Remain unfettered.”

The easy response to this is to suggest that Pizzolatto’s just working within the confines of hardboiled fiction, where the women are dames, the men are cynical philosophers, and the children are all devices for their parents’ psychological development. But the thing about hardboiling, whether it’s television or eggs, is that the technique actually requires a certain amount of delicacy. If you’re not careful, whites get rubbery, yolks can turn a sickly green, and the whole product can start to taste like sulfur. Lines like the ones I’ve listed here, and many, many more from the first three episodes of this new season of “True Detective,” would be a lot for even the most accomplished thespian to speak with any emotional credibility. The only time this portentousness lands is in a brief sequence that appears to take place in an anteroom of Hades, where a Conway Twitty impersonator provides the entertainment.

Which brings me to this season’s mythology. Last season, “True Detective” was marinated in a shared horror mythology about a fictional city named Carcosa, which shows up, among other places, in the Robert Chambers short story collection “The King In Yellow.” Carcosa was theoretically located somewhere in the Hyades star system, which draws its name from Greek mythology, specifically the daughters of the titan Atlas.

This year, the Greeks have stepped to the fore. Ani’s father (David Morse), who is washed up from his period as the leader of a 1970s-style experiment in communal living, lectures at the Panticapaeum Institute, which also happens to be the last place a missing woman worked as a housekeeper. Panticapaeum was an ancient Greek city in Croatia, remembered today mostly for a distinctive pottery style, its silver coins, and its role as the place where Mithridates VI committed suicide after leading a series of wars against the Roman Republic. Ani’s real name turns out to be Antigone, which ties her to a rather grisly pedigree, though it doesn’t seem like much of a leap that a quasi-cult leader might link his daughter to a woman who committed suicide rather than be buried alive after burying her brother against a king’s orders. Her sister, more fortuitously, is named Athena. (If you really want to go wild, you could note there’s a thug wandering around in a crow or raven mask, and that one of the Hyades is Coronis, which means “crow.”)

Who knows what this jumble augurs, though? Last season, all the talk of Carcosa and the Yellow King gave way to a madman’s fantasy and Rust Cohle’s religious reawakening. Unless Paul turns out to be Polynices, Antigone’s dead brother, this grab bag makes Pizzolatto come across as the Bunny Corcoran of television, grabbing at symbols without grasping the path to the greater mysteries behind them. Pizzolatto may have earned viewers’ confidence that his explorations of hypermasculinity will pay off at some point, but even in the first season, his handling of the mythology that made “True Detective” seem more significant was more of a bust.

I suppose it’s some sort of accomplishment that that first season of “True Detective” trained me to pick up on all these crumbs, but I have little confidence that they’ll make a satisfying meal. Stale bread, overcooked eggs, Johnnie Walker and some ostensibly medical pot may count as sustenance. But “True Detective” doesn’t exactly feel like a feast television’s revival was supposed to deliver.