Review: ‘True Detective’ Season 2 Falls Flatter Than a Flat Circle
True Detective just isn’t True Detective anymore.
I don’t say that as some damning critique, but a bare summation of Season 2 as we’ve known it; a muddled, if haunting crime drama scrutinized under a fandom that charts endless theories to connect films, and spins one TV series out of another to bridge some semblance of a “shared universe.” Conceptually, True Detective would have more in common with the American Horror Story franchise, keeping some key talent under the umbrella to maintain a vaguely cohesive brand-name.
Still, with creator Nic Pizzolatto’s voice the sole holdover from Season 1, and sorely lacking the uniform vision of director Cary Fukunaga, a more apt comparison might see Joss Whedon following the highs of Firefly with a season of Dollhouse, but calling both series by the same name. For all the talk of “lightning in a bottle,” True Detective was never necessarily meant for a second season; its climactic, if divisive finale tying off a simpler focused meditation on man’s nihilism, and the evolution of two distinctly well-rounded characters.
In attempting to recreate True Detective’s original spark, we got exactly the show we deserve.
True Detective Season 2 seems more of True Detective in name only, and might have been equally served as “A Different Dreary Police Drama Where People Are Still Existentially Angry.” Hallmarks of Pizzolatto’s work remain in place, with longwinded car chats, particular focus on masculinity, impotence, and a vague sense of impending philosophical doom, but the first three episodes can’t help feeling stitched together as a collection of unused ideas, rather than the beginnings of a single story. There’s a lot to breathe in, and some solid construction here and there, but like scenic California itself, more sprawl than substance.
The most damaged, McConaughey-aping characterization of the bunch proves to be Colin Farrell’s take on Ray Velcoro, a resignedly corrupt investigator from the fictional city of Vinci, California. Droopily mustachioed, alcoholic and bitter, Velcoro resides firmly in the pocket of Vince Vaughn’s Frank Seymon, after a complicated transaction involving a years-earlier incident with Velcoro’s then-wife (Rectify star Abigail Spencer). Already burdened by a fraught relationship with a son that may not be his, Velcoro finds himself tasked to the disappearance of a corrupt city official that also pulls together our other leading cast, but as Velcoro himself puts it to concerned (and equally corrupt) superiors, “Am I supposed to solve this thing or not?”
That sense of impotent purpose trickles down through Taylor Kitsch’s Paul Woodrugh as well, a California Highway Patrolman and veteran who stumbles on the case as a means to get clear of a recent solicitation scandal. Both men feel the weight of bureaucratic damnation crushing down, though in Woodrugh’s case, Pizzolatto’s focus leans more heavily on plumbing literal issues of masculinity, without opening Kitsch’s (ahem) stiff characterization too early on.
More scrutiny will likely fall on Vaughn’s Frank Seymon and Rachel McAdams’ Ani Bezzerides, the former a mobster made insolvent (read: impotent) by the city official’s disappearance, and Bezzerides the angry, knife-wielding detective borne of hippie-dippie parents and fiercely (perhaps misguidedly) protective of her siblings. Vaughn in particular displays the most colors early on, a far cry from the usual bro-berry roles we’ve come to associate with the ‘Delivery Man’ star, though the inaugural three hours keep Frank mostly in his own criminal woes, apart from occasional check-ins with Ray.
McAdams’ Bezzerides at least emerges as a clear standout of the bunch, however likely designed by Pizzolatto as a response to critique of his writing women of depth, and occasionally handled with all the grace you’d expect from a mind crafting comparisons of Bezzerides’ e-cigarette to “sucking a robot’s dick.” Thinkpieces will undoubtedly rain in all directions, though McAdams’ sharp and steely cynicism and edge go a long way selling some of the detective's stock father issues and self-destructive tendencies, offering our best hope of a lead as mesmerizingly broken as Rustin Cohle. It’s exactly the comparison you don’t want to make from a series attempting to strike out on its own, but McAdams still provides the clearest characterization thus far.
The only real Season 1 comparison worth drawing lies in the series’ ability to effectively lay out structure, something 2014's “The Long Bright Dark” deftly accomplished in sketching out Martin Hart and Rustin Cohle across multiple timelines. It’s understandable that True Detective Season 2 wouldn’t lean on the same temporal perspective to flesh out its characters early on, but the added burden of four leads and an ambiguous central case has the new iteration seeking a forest for the trees. By the end of least year’s premiere, we already knew a general trajectory for Marty and Rust, as well the basic case that would drive their emotional narrative.
By episode three this year, we’re no closer to understanding how any of its leads fit together in their differing dynamics, or which investigation (of several corruption scandals) to follow. The back five might well elevate Season 2 to heights its predecessor soared with ease, though by the its first three hours at least, True Detective has an unwelcome amount in common with Ray Velcoro’s core philosophy.
Namely, we get the world we deserve, and in unwisely attempting to recreate True Detective’s original spark, we got exactly the show we deserve.
AND ANOTHER THING…
- I was never entirely enamored of True Detective’s original opening credits (initial screeners lacked the intro anyway), though Leonard Cohen’s “Nevermind” feels tonally empty, if at least an earworm.
- The very first image of the season isn’t referred to or identified by later episodes in any way, so get your crazy fan theories ready!
- So many reflections on impotence, when not trafficking in actual impotence. So, so many.
- Similarly, one could easily craft a drinking game around the many overhead shots of California’s complex highway system, even if Season 1 occasionally indulged in the vantage point.
- Bezzerides’ own unique relationships aside, stronger portrayals of women aren’t exactly prevalent between sex-starved girlfriends and wives, webcam performers, trophy wives, and one creepily affectionate mother.
- Rick Springfield is in this. Rick Springfield is in this.
True Detective Season 2 will premiere Sunday, June 21 on HBO at 9:00 P.M.
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