True Detective’s first season was a detective story slathered in a unique Bayou funk. A sweaty, metaphysical, eerie take on buddy cops who jawed about philosophy instead of doughnuts, it turned its audience into sleuths for the Yellow King. The series was also a collaboration: between Matthew McConaughey as the soulful nihilist Rust Cohle and Woody Harrelson as hammy good ol’ boy Marty Hart, and between series creator Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukunaga, whose copious talents cannot overshadow his statuesque man bun (it’s that good a man bun).
The second season of True Detective, which begins Sunday night on HBO, is also a collaboration, but it is no longer among equals. McConaughey and Harrelson are gone, replaced by a quartet of famous actors, who, unlike McConaughey on his role, could stand for some of True Detective’s shine to rub off on them, not the other way around. Fukunaga, who did not even thank Pizzolatto when he won an Emmy for directing True Detective, is gone as well, replaced by a number of other directors, as is typical for a season of television. The only man left is Pizzolatto.
Since True Detective began, quickly becoming a much obsessed-over cultural phenomenon, Pizzolatto has done all he can to establish himself as a member in good standing of the cadre of “difficult men” who make the challenging, serious, prestige dramas that are the most celebrated hallmarks of the so-called “golden age” of television—men like the Davids Chase, Milch, and Simon. Membership in this club seems to require (except in the case of the menschy Vince Gilligan) a certain kind of hubristic swagger. Pizzolatto, by all reports, does not lack for such swag.
The first season of True Detective, and Rust Cohle in particular, owe a big debt to the work of horror writer Thomas Ligotti, a debt Pizzolatto openly acknowledged before Ligotti started getting too much credit. There is the contretemps with Fukunaga. In a nauseatingly obsequious profile of Pizzolatto in Vanity Fair, writer Rich Cohen frames the entire second season of True Detective as a means of creating “a model in which the stars and the stories come and go but the writer remains as guru and king”—this in a medium where the head writer and showrunner is already widely regarded as king. As Pizzolatto says, the connection between the two seasons is “Me. Crime, detectives, intimacies, and ideas … but it’s all just me. That’s what makes it the same show.”
Is that enough? The new season of True Detective is, especially given the burden of expectations, remarkably solid. It’s not a belly flop. It lacks the obvious hook of its predecessor, but I still am eager to see how it develops. And while watching the first three episodes, all that were made available to critics, I realized it was a kind of insanity to expect more. It is a sign of how far—too far—auteur theory has come in television (and also a sign of how great—too great—sequel mania has become) that any sane person could reasonably imagine that season two would be able to recreate the most magical and essential aspect of season one on command: the alchemical pairing of an actor like Matthew McConaughey at the height of his drawling movie star powers with a character as substantial and singular as Rust Cohle. Even the most powerful writer-king can’t summon the force of the McConaissance at his will.
The new season of True Detective is set in a California loophole, the city of Vinci, a place with almost no residents, a great deal of heavy industry, and even more graft. A city manager turns up dead, and three law enforcement officials from competing agencies are called in to work the case. Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), a dirty detective for the city of Vinci, has been tasked with “solving” the murder in a way that doesn’t bring undue attention to the locale’s endemic corruption. Antigone “Ani” Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), a fierce, knife-strapped officer for Ventura County, has been directed to solve the case and get whatever dirt she can on Velcoro and Vinci while she does so. Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), a state motorcycle cop on probation, discovers the body and, with nothing else to do, is told to join the investigation.
All three officers have traumatic pasts: The taciturn, shut-down Woodrugh is a Viagra-popping veteran whose body is covered in burns and who regularly rides his motorcycle at suicidal speeds. The tough, bitter Bezzerides, in addition to having one serious head trip of a first name, grew up neglected on a hippie compound. Her mother killed herself. Early in the first episode, she tries to bust up a streaming porn-cam business that employs her younger sister. Velcoro, played by an excellent, hangdog Farrell with a fittingly weepy mustache, is a former family man who became indebted to local gangster Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) in the early ’90s. See, Semyon gave Velcoro the name of the man who brutally raped, and almost certainly impregnated, Velcoro’s wife, effectively turning Velcoro into, among other evils, a dirty cop, full of alcohol and self-loathing.
Semyon is the fourth key member of the cast, a former criminal trying to go legit. He has invested heavily in land soon to be used by a high-speed railroad, hoping to procure an above-board legacy for the children he is desperately trying to conceive with his wife, Jordan (Kelly Reilly). But the dead city manager is Semyon’s business partner, and he seems to have taken Semyon’s money without procuring him the land. A now broke Semyon is as keen to solve the murder as the officers, because he believes whoever is responsible for his partner’s death is out to get him as well.
The major players established, the three cops, joined by Velcoro’s scuzzbag of a partner, set out to solve a true California crime, one that brings them to mansions and movie sets, skid rows and sodium-lit factories. Gone are last season’s trailer parks and abandoned churches, replaced by sunlit apartments scattered with sex toys, mansions full of drug-addled mail-order brides, beautiful bartenders with disfiguring scars running down their faces, crowded nightclubs where pimps operate with impunity, and psychotherapists who have had too much plastic surgery. As in famous California detective fictions from Raymond Chandler to Chinatown to Mulholland Drive, the seamy underbelly of the state proves spiritually indistinguishable from its sunny carapace, all that good California light hiding the truly hideous in its deep shadows.
Still, even as these mysteries flay the California dream, they give audiences the thrill of swanning around in distinctly California locales, from bungalows to back lots, palm trees swaying in the warm breeze, all very glamorous sites for sleaze. (To be fair, none of the new directors come close to making California look as good as Fukunaga did the Bayou.) Velcoro and Bezzerides work a movie set, because, this being California, the dead city manager was also a movie producer. The detectives briefly question the director, whose film appears to be a piece of schlock. He is a tall, trim Asian fellow with, yes, a handsome man bun, making him a not particularly pointed in-joke at Fukunaga’s expense.
This is not the only moment when Pizzolatto appears to be talking directly to his critics. On the subject of women especially, he has a lot to say. Last season was called out for containing no meaty parts for women, while freely using female bodies as sex objects and corpses. This season, the corpse that launches the show’s mystery belongs to a man, and it is severely disfigured: Acid has been used to burn out the victim’s eyes, and a shotgun blast has taken off his genitalia. Having been accused of using the bodies of dead women as titillation, Pizzolatto seems to be offering up a male corpse, mutilated in even more perverse ways, to prove he will use any gender as a prop.
Then there is Bezzerides, the major female character last season lacked, and a woman deeply entrenched in a male world. She’s no-nonsense and tough, a copy of the Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai lying around her apartment. She is also, in the words of her estranged father, “Angry at the entire world, men in particular.” Riding around with Velcoro, Bezzerides explains that she carries knives all the time because she is constantly aware of her relative physical weakness. “The fundamental difference between the sexes is one can kill the other with their bare hands,” she says. “Well, I support feminism,” he replies, “mostly by having body image issues.”
It’s hard to know quite what to make of this rejoinder, because Farrell doesn’t play it as a joke. Without the instincts of McConaughey or Harrelson (who definitely could have made that line laugh) or the direction of Fukunaga, humor has fled the scene. It’s there, hiding, in the dialogue. There are lines that other actors would be able to load up with a jaunty spin but the assembled cast only throws straight. There is, for example, an extended riff about Bezzerides’ e-cigarettes—both Velcoro and Woodrugh remark on them—that Harrelson would have deadpanned, but Farrell and Kitsch underplay. When Velcoro asks Bezzerides if she’s ever heard about catching more flies with honey, McAdams spits back “What the fuck do I want with flies?” in complete earnest.
The humor matters. Among other things, it tamps down the actors’ charm, hamstringing them in a head-to-head comparison with McConaughey and Harrelson. Vaughn, who obviously knows from funny, has apparently been instructed that his very dramatic part requires him to behave very dramatically all of the time, even though a bit of his comedic flair would only make Semyon more menacing. “Never do anything out of hunger—not even eating,” is a better line when the person uttering is only half joking. Semyon, who speaks in a bogus-sounding gangster-ese (“It worries me, you talking so stupid”), also has to deliver the most execrably heavy-handed—we’re talking Low Winter Sun level—speech in True Detective history. Inspired by a water stain on his bedroom ceiling, he delivers a monologue about a traumatic childhood incident involving an alcoholic father; abandonment in a dark, locked basement; and rats. As Vaughn tears into this speech, the camera pulls in closer and closer on his face, a visual cliché to echo the verbal hooey.
But as earnest as the new season can be—and True Detective Season 1 was in its way entirely sincere—Pizzolatto does still have a way with dialogue, especially the sort that cuts to his characters’ cores. In that Vanity Fair piece, he wondered rhetorically: “Do you really just want to see two stars riding around in a car talking?” But Pizzolatto is a master at writing dialogue for actors in cars, where the close quarters make the deep thoughts feel natural. A long scene of Velcoro and Bezzerides driving, trying to get a handle on each other, is a standout of the first three episodes, even if neither is quite the philosopher Rust Cohle was. “Bad habits, I haven’t lost one yet,” Velcoro says, a line that, in the forced intimacy of an automobile, sounds downright elegant.
What True Detective Season 2 shares with True Detective Season 1, besides a mystery and a malaise, is the ingredients for friendship. In the first season, Rust Cohle and Marty Hart transitioned from strangers to brothers, a far more satisfying conclusion—if you ask me—than the revealed identity of the murderer and the Yellow King or Rust’s last-minute embrace of spirituality. As Velcoro, Bezzerides, and Woodrugh sniff around the case and one another, we’re being placed not just at the beginning of a good mystery, but, hopefully, a long partnership.