Nic Pizzolatto, the ponderous mind behind HBO’s “True Detective,” is a very serious man, and judging by the early episodes of the show’s second season, he wants to make sure we know it. By dressing up familiar tropes—serial killers, tortured investigators, defiled corpses—in ornate mythmaking, season one became a genuine cultural phenomenon, colonizing message boards and subreddits with esoteric conspiracy theories. The new story brings things closer to earth, using characters and story beats we’ve all seen before: the crooked cop, the gangster trying to go legit, the taciturn army veteran. There are still bad dads, bare breasts, blowjobs, and even some antlers. But the lurid thrills and arcane monologues of the first season have been abandoned, along with Matthew McConaughey’s nihilistic musings and the swampy Louisiana setting. What they have been replaced with is relentlessly grim, a dour piece of California noir peopled by damaged men and (here’s an innovation!) one damaged woman.
Let’s start with the men. (It’s what Pizzolatto would do, after all.) Colin Farrell plays Ray Velcoro, a whiskey-soaked detective in Vista, a fictional city on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Vista is a harsh industrial wasteland, a town with a population of 95 that exists only as a low-tax paradise for businesses. (It’s based on Vernon, a real-life California town that The New York Times has described as a “bleak, 5.2-square-mile sprawl of warehouses, factories, toxic chemical plants and meat processors.”) Part of a corrupt police department, Velcoro is also at the mercy of Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn, scowling and speaking in runic dialogue), a criminal with legitimate business aspirations and a veneer of sweaty desperation. Semyon and Velcoro share a history and infertility problems, which neither are very comfortable discussing. “Behold, what was once a man,” Vaughn intones, while mentioning the IVF process he’s undergoing with his wife, played by a simpering Kelly Reilly.
Crippled masculinity is one of Pizzolatto’s big themes, and so our third male lead, Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), is impotent, popping Viagra before coming home to his half-naked girlfriend. As Woodrugh, a highway patrolman with chiseled features and a dark past, Kitsch is surprisingly effective considering the flat, by-the-books dialogue he is given. “The highway, it suits me,” he earnestly tells his boss. “I’m no good on the sidelines.”
It’s hard not to see Ani Bezzerides, the hardened detective played by Rachel McAdams, as Pizzolatto’s retort to the mountains of criticism he received for the massively underwritten women in “True Detective”’s first season, the wives and strippers and mistresses. Bezzerides is none of these things. (Don't worry: It still only takes the show 15 minutes to show us a sex worker’s rack!) Instead, she’s a textbook Strong Female Character, carefully stripped of any character trait one might find too feminine or girly or weak. She’s “angry at the entire world, men in particular,” one man tells her. She fucks without emotions, and keeps a copy of Hagakure, the Book of the Samurai, on her coffee table. She carries around knives to fend off attack. “The fundamental difference between the sexes is that one of them can kill the other with their bare hands,” she explains to Velcoro during a car-ride. “A man of any size who comes after me is going to bleed out in 30 seconds.” (Velcoro’s response to this—“Just so you know I support feminism; mostly by having body image issues”—is one of the few lines in these three episodes that elicited a laugh.) You get the sense she’d rather not be a woman at all.
Despite its excess, season one of “True Detective” was hard to look away from—there was the unexpected alchemy of an ambitious writer, a movie star at his peak, and the visual flair of a singular director. That director, Cary Fukunaga, hasn’t returned for this season; rumors of bad blood between him and Pizzolatto won’t be quieted by the barely-veiled appearance in episode three of an arrogant Asian movie director with an impressive ponytail. In the first two episodes, Justin Lin of the Fast & Furious franchise fills in, creating a dark, foreboding visual template for the subsequent directors to follow. But without Fukunaga, “True Detective” looks more like a conventional, somewhat entertaining TV show—which, incidentally, is exactly what it is.