The first question on everyone’s minds about the second season of HBO’s crime anthology series True Detective is whether or not lightning has struck twice. The answer is: not exactly. In Season 2, series creator Nic Pizzolotto has taken his talents to Southern California and the fictional town of Vinci, where the disappearance of a corrupt politician has brought together a criminal entrepreneur (Vince Vaughn) and three law enforcement officers: a burned-out local detective (Colin Farrell), a tormented highway patrolman (Taylor Kitsch), and a talented Ventura County investigator (Rachel McAdams).
Before it first debuted, True Detective looked like a typical noir crime series that happened to feature some marquee movie actors. No one could have predicted that it would turn into the zeitgeist-stealing cult phenomenon it became: an instantly-engaging work that was elevated by the one writer / one director consistency of Pizzolatto and Cary Fukunaga. Season 1 used the device of the Yellow King to tell the ballad of Rust (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty (Woody Harrelson), and its narrow focus on their stories and experiences helped keep the series short, tight, and fully immersive.
But three of the elements that made the show’s first season so intoxicating — Fukunaga’s incredible direction, McConaughey’s mesmerizing turn as Rust Cohle, and the story’s Southern Gothic setting — are not a part of Season 2, and their absence is keenly felt. Season 2 has twice the characters, but half the passion. There is no iconic imagery to kickstart the mystery, no great chemistry among the characters, and no great drive to the overall story, which is mired in darkness. The directors of the first 3 (of an eventual 8) episodes, Justin Lin and Janus Metz Pedersen, craft a stylish visual tableau whereupon the drama can unfold, but it’s not enough to bring life to the material.
This time around, Pizzolatto sticks closer to the familiar beats of urban noir, though his own thematic motifs are deeply apparent throughout: the political conspiracies, the incorporation of sex workers, kinky personal habits uncovered over the course of the investigation, and a full meditation on masculine malcontent. Still, while the Yellow King may have been a device by which to tell another kind of tale in Season 1, in the new season, the story is beholden to the mystery and the murder without feeling like it’s reaching out for anything more. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as far as crime series go, but it makes True Detective into something more cliched, as it follows a rote path in a locale that lacks the baroque touches of the Louisiana bayou that Pizzolatto and Fukunaga so beautifully captured and explored before.
However, separating True Detective’s second season from its first affords it better standing. It is a stylish cop drama with a great cast, though many of them are (initially) underused (particular Kitsch, who is given very little time or material to work with). McAdams, though, is shrewd and capable, lecturing Farrell’s character Ray Velcoro that “the only different between the sexes is that one can kill the other with their bare hands.” It lands a lot better than Velcoro’s parody-esque comment, “You know that expression, ‘Like flies in honey’? Well, if you don’t have flies, you can’t fly fish.”
Velcoro does make a few wan jokes, but that (unfortunately) wasn’t one of them. True Detective’s second season is hardboiled to the nth degree, making viewers cling to any tiny moment of levity (however crude, like the cavalcade of vulgarities Velcoro spews when threatening a kid by saying, “I will butt-fuck your dad with your mother’s headless corpse right here on your front lawn. 12-years-old my ass … fuck you!”)
As the crime story begins to connect and deepen, though, the series starts to come together better, even though the question of why viewers should care about the murder — or anyone investigating it — remains unanswered. On the other hand, that apathy fits in perfectly with True Detective‘s dark, disaffected style.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
True Detective Season 2 premieres Sunday, June 21st at 9 p.m. on HBO. Check back on Collider for recaps of each new episode.