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Through its dense first season, HBO's True Detective became a pop culture phenomenon that inspired increasingly ridiculous and ambitious forms of clue-gathering and solution-mongering, when it was basically just a straightforwardly offbeat detective drama. For Season 2, creator Nic Pizzolatto left out the Yellow King and the potential for the supernatural, but still compounded the dark and gritty for a similarly captivating and convoluted murder case that falls a shade shy of nihilistic. But everyone is still incredibly shady.
Meet Detective Ray Velcoro, played with a mustachioed and drunken urgency by Colin Farrell. His years in the field have only raised his intensity and fractured his relationship with his bullied son and his jaded ex-wife, and he shares a particularly damaged past with the latter. The “good cop” side of Velcoro is balanced by a long line of bad decisions that he wears around his neck like an albatross.
Meet Frank Semyon, one of Velcoro’s bad decisions, as portrayed by an indecipherable Vince Vaughn. Frank used to be a small-time criminal and has grown into a full-time dirty business man attempting to get a massive railway system built, with connections to a shoddily developed area called Vinci. He has put all of his money and faith into a man named Ben Caspere, who ends up deader than a doornail, and Frank has got major issues with the after-effects. He and Ray use their “scratch my back” alliance to further their own causes.
Meet California Highway Patrol officer Paul Woodrugh, a damaged (and mostly empty) soul played by a scarred-up Taylor Kitcsch who unwittingly gets himself involved in this investigation after falling victim to a trashy bit of controversy. Truth be told, this is an actor who has not done much for me in the past, but I am possibly too damned intrigued by Paul’s tortured “I ride motorcycles at insanely high speeds because that’s the only way I know how to be free” persona. It’s ridiculous, don’t get me wrong, but it makes me interested in what inspired his half-suicidal tendencies.
Finally, as far as main characters go, meet Detective Ani Bezzerides of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department as played by a more-hardnosed-than-usual Rachel McAdams. She also gets roped into the central mystery of “What Happened to Ben Caspere?” but she’s got some major baggage in her life involving a sister having sex on camera and a hippie-ish father who she doesn’t get along with. (He’s played by David Morse, so I automatically take his side.) Bezzerides feels like one of the only virtuous characters in this show, as she’s side-tasked with looking into Velcoro’s dirty side, which almost certainly means that her fate will be the most mangled in the end.
It’s absolutely best not to give too much away when talking about True Detective Season 2, at least when it comes to the plot, as these characters’ problems are plentiful and seemingly neverending. And discovering how they will all tie together is part of the fun here. At least if you get joy out of watching damaged psyches get further splintered. And while I did enjoy the first three episodes provided for review, I was a little bowled over by how self-serious it all is, retaining none of the Season 1 humor provided by Woody Harrelson’s dick jokes and Matthew McConaughey’s esoteric day-calendar observations. I don’t mind bleakness for bleakness’ sake, but this season desperately needs some light poking through.
While the humor is virtually absent, there is still much enjoyment to be had in recognizing the smorgasbord of actors populating these beautifully shot locations. Kelly Reilly stars as Frank’s strong-backboned wife Jordan and Timothy V. Murphy is there as part of the development deal. W. Earl Brown plays Velcoro’s partner, and Ritchie Coster plays the dirty mayor pulling Velcoro’s strings. We’ve also got Michael Irby, Ashley Hinshaw, James Frain, C.S. Lee and many more. Even if the names aren’t immediately familiar, you’ll constantly be pointing at the screen saying, “Oh, it’s him/her!”
Another one of Season 2’s strengths is the gorgeous cinematography and direction, as delivered in the first two episodes by Fast and Furious helmer Justin Lin for the first two episodes, with Armadillo director Janus Metz Pederson taking the third. While nothing is going to top Cary Fukunaga’s excessively gorgeous work in South Louisiana for Season 1, a similar style is utilized for this new location, with much attention given to the headlight-filled highways and interstates. And the shot that caps off the first episode, “The Western Book of the Dead,” is absolutely magnificent.
True Detective‘s sophomore season doesn’t hit many of the highs of its first, and definitely gets stuffy under the weight of its own mysteries and forced complexities. Still, if you’re okay with watching talented actors tap the depths of grimness for a lurid tale of sex and depravity, there’s nothing quite like it anywhere else. I did say David Morse was a hippie here, right?
True Detective Season 2 will premiere on HBO on Sunday, June 21, at 9 p.m. ET. You owe it to yourself and Vince Vaughn to watch. Maybe pop some amyl nitrate before you start, though.