‘True Detective’ Remains Addictive in Season 2 — Just Don’t Compare It to Season 1

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It seems like there is an unspoken rule that before we consider the second season of True Detective, we have to reevaluate the first, a tour de force that caught everyone off guard, and that either stuck or blew the landing, depending on who you ask. The bleak buddy cop show brought forth a (sigh) McConaissance, united the Internet in some of our favorite TV-related activities — predicting, theorizing over, and arguing about how it would end, and then continuing that argument long after we knew how it did end — and eventually even crashed HBOGo. So it’s only natural that this second season is one of the most highly anticipated follow-ups in recent memory. This means, of course, that it is also nearly impossible to live up to the hype — but the show does try.

To help quell the constant comparisons to Season 1, True Detective follows an anthology format, and writer Nic Pizzolatto introduces a new setting, a new cast of characters (and actors), and a new story with each season. This time around, there are four main characters: tormented, corrupt cop Ray (Colin Farrell); tormented detective and Official Woman Character Ani (Rachel McAdams), tormented veteran-turned-patrolman Paul (Taylor Kitsch); and tormented crime bigshot Frank (Vince Vaughn). Season 2 takes place in Vinci, California, a setting that is barely inhabited by people — “a city, supposedly,” Ray calls it, at one point. The entire city basically exists as a front for crime. But the sparse yet sprawling setting, which makes for an interesting character in itself, definitely speaks to the people who live (“live”) there.

There are parts of Season 2 that can be viewed as a direct response to Pizzolatto’s critics, most notably his inclusion of a woman lead — McAdams, who is lovely to watch here, though it remains to be seen whether her character will be well developed — along with Frank’s wife, Jordan (Kelly Reilly), who gets a few fiery scenes that already eclipse the entirety of Michelle Monaghan’s role last season. In fact, many of the women here are a bit fiery and love to point out the men’s flaws (albeit often through poorly written dialogue): Ray’s ex-wife (Abigail Spencer) plainly says, “You’re bad, Ray. You’re a bad person.” Paul’s girlfriend tells him, “You’re not right.” And Ani sternly instructs the guy she hooked up with to “have some dignity.” It’s not the best-written stuff, but then again, last year Pizzolatto took over the Internet by declaring that time is a flat circle.

For the most part, True Detective is, as it always was, incredibly dark. Everyone has issues weighing on their shoulders (oh boy, do we get glimpses of father/mother issues almost immediately), and the murder in the first episode is fairly gruesome. There are moments of slight levity, often the result of Farrell’s delivery, whether he’s questioning if someone shit in his son’s shoes or taking care of an adolescent bully. But for the most part, it’s a serious show about serious things. Once again, lofty masculinity politics abound, which may yield even more eye-rolls than McConaughey and Harrelson’s version; at least two men’s impotence is on trial, one more explicitly than the other.

But True Detective is still a series that you can’t take your eyes off. It’ll sink its hooks in you, even if it’s just to play on your curiosity, teasing out small reveals and character details. The case isn’t as cut-and-dry or immediately grabbing as it was last year, but the strangeness surrounding it is reason enough to stick around; at one point, Ray questions whether he’s “supposed to solve this or not,” because it’s not so much about punishing the suspect as it is about keeping up appearances and the town trying to save its own ass.

The actors all do a fine job with the material — yes, including the much-joked-about Vaughn, channeling his serious-bro days, which predated his more recent comedy-bro days. Especially strong are Farrell (playing a boozy father may not be his most out-there character, but he certainly gets the act down and has fun with it) and McAdams, who I love seeing in a tougher role than her norm. Taylor Kitsch, unfortunately, doesn’t have much to do, at least not during the first three episodes. It’s almost as if he was hired just because he, well, looks like Taylor Kitsch — no complaints here — but his lightly brooding presence, which was so perfect on Friday Night Lights is (so far) being wasted.

If there’s one thing that became apparent during the the first season finale, it’s that True Detective is a tough show to review, because when you think it’s one thing, it swiftly becomes the other. It’s highly unlikely that Season 2 will live up to the first, but that doesn’t really matter: It is its own entity, and will surely find its own way to be as exciting.