BY OLINE H. COGDILL
Despite its flaws, the first season of HBO’s True Detective delivered an intriguing story about detectives, Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson), during two periods in their lives. Cohle and Hart were partners in Louisiana’s Criminal Investigation Division whose last case together changed their lives and forced them down a path from which they have never recovered.
I mention this initial season because what made that first venture work is, for the most part, missing from the second season of True Detective, which begins at 9 p.m. on June 21.
True Detective, written and created by Nic Pizzolatto, is billed as an anthology series, so the story of Cohle and Hart is finished. They are left to find whatever redemption they can find. No more Hart’s cynicism nor Cohle’s propensity for nihilistic monologues on religion, life, and families.
Instead, we have a new set of detectives for this second season—Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), and Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch)—a new location just outside of Los Angeles, and even a criminal/entrepreneur, Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn).
What’s missing in this second season is a story line and characters worth caring about.
True Detective Season 2 features the most depressing group of cops, working on a depressing crime in a depressing area. It makes the first season seem like a rom-com.
This second season is a soulless story, judging by the first three hour-long episodes offered to critics.
In the second season, three law-enforcement officers and a local mobster are tangled in a bizarre murder that will involve billions of dollars, a land scam, and politics.
Velcoro is a compromised detective in the all-industrial city of Vinci in Los Angeles County; Bezzerides, a Ventura County Sheriff’s detective; and Woodrugh, a war veteran and motorcycle cop for the California Highway Patrol.
The disappearance and murder of a city manager, whose body is discovered by Woodrugh, jump-starts the investigation that will put all three on the same task force.
Among the targets of the investigation is Semyon, a mobster trying to become a high-profile entrepreneur but who is in danger of losing everything.
Semyon is torn between his desire for power as a mobster, his desire to be respected by the community’s upper echelons, and the domesticity that he has found with his wife, Jordan (Kelly Reilly), who may be the only person on his side. “Sometimes your worst self is your best self,” says Semyon.
Each of these cops is, somehow, connected with Semyon, though none of them know the other’s relationship with him.
The second season’s main problem is that it so quickly succumbs to clichés.
To say that each of the cops has issues is putting it mildly; each also has an affinity for violence that can erupt any second.
Velcoro’s “retribution” on the man who beat and raped his now ex-wife Alicia (Abigail Spencer) did not sit well with her, who sees this as a violence he cannot control. And she is right. Velcoro’s relationship with his young son seems, at first, good, but he is as likely to blow up at the boy as he is to beat a father in front of his own child.
Woodrugh struggles with combat memories and battle scars, a controlling mother (Lolita Davidovich) who often is inappropriate with him, and a secret that is cleverly revealed by episode three.
Bezzerides is a coiled cobra of emotions, sexual and violent, many of which echo back to her father, Elliott (David Morse), a former leader in communal living who now lectures at the Panticapaeum Institute, the last place a missing woman worked as a housekeeper. (Morse is an insightful actor and probably a very nice man, but, come on, with few exceptions he plays a villain. His and McAdams’ scene tells the viewer all you need to know about their father-daughter dynamic.)
And, of course, Semyon also is haunted by an event from his past.
These characters all toil in the bleakest areas of Los Angeles County where the interstate resembles a ring of hell. The city of Vinci, which started as a vice haven, is now all-industrial and considered to be the worst polluter in the state. With a setting like that, there can be no joy here.
The swamps and fields of rural Louisiana of the first season were never this dreary.
The barren theme is set from the opening song—a purposely chilling rendition of Leonard Cohen saying his song “Nevermind.” The singer, who appears in a bar where bribes and deals with the devil are made, continues the bleak theme.
What does work in the second season is the terrific cast.
McAdams tamps down her normal girl-next-door persona to nail the role of an angry loner who trusts no one.
Kitsch, best known as the troubled high school football star Tim Riggins on NBC’s Friday Night Lights, shows his depth.
Farrell delivers his usual tormented character and is, also as usual, good-looking yet scruffy. (I always get the feeling that Farrell never takes a good shower and always smells a bit funky.)
With no trace of the glib characters he usually plays, Vaughn brings a nuanced portrayal of a criminal who wants it all—a happy life and violence.
True Detective’s second season will be eight episodes long. Enter at your own risk.
True Detective’s second season debuts at 9 p.m., June 21, on HBO. There will be frequent encores and it will be available on demand, as is the first season.
Photos: Colin Farrell, top, Rachel McAdams, second photo; Taylor Kitsch; Vince Vaughn. Photos courtsey HBO.