'True Detective' Recap: Season 2 Premiere Displays a Different Kind of Ambition

Creator Nic Pizzolatto sets up a sprawling L.A. crime story.
Courtesy of HBO

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from True Detective's Season 2 premiere.]

The opening of True Detective season two seems at first blush to be less ambitious than its bravura first season. The grand soliloquies are gone; the case is more run-of-the-mill; the direction feels more workmanlike.

By the end of Sunday's premiere, though, it's apparent that season two is differently ambitious, not less so. The murder of a corrupt city manager from Los Angeles County's industrial hinterlands that sets things in motion isn't revealed till the final moments.

Instead, creator Nic Pizzolatto spends the time sketching in the four principal characters whose careers are about to crash together: Corrupt detective Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) of Vinci, the tiny city from which the city manager, Ray Caspar, disappears; Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn), a criminal turned businessman who has a long history with Ray; Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), a scarred (inside and out) war veteran and California Highway Patrol officer who finds the body; and Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), a flinty detective from Ventura County, where Caspar's mutilated body is dumped.

All four of them have deeply troubled backstories, and their clipped encounter at the end of the episode suggests a bunch of competing agendas. The premiere is not subtle about these issues.

Ray

Farrell's character is a drunk with a violent streak and an estranged son who may not even be his. His then-wife was raped nine months before giving birth, and he toggles back and forth between fiercely protecting the boy and actively resenting him. When he discovers his son was bullied at school, he finds the ringleader and savagely beats the kid's father, warning that he'll be back for worse if he ever hears of his son being harassed again.

Frank

A former gangster who hasn't quite left that life behind, Frank is hoping a huge land grab surrounding California's high-speed rail line will cement his legitimacy. Caspar's disappearance throws a huge wrench into those plans. Years before, he helped Ray (then an L.A. County sheriff's officer) track down the guy who raped Ray's wife and still uses him for dirty work.

Ani

Ani — full name Antigone — has a penchant for knives and a massive chip on her shoulder. Over the course of the premiere, the audience learns her actress mother committed suicide, her distant father (David Morse) is a faded New Age guru and her sister, Athena, is "acting" in webcam porn.

Paul

He's a motorcycle officer with the CHP who's suspended after accepting a starlet's offer of sex in exchange for letting her out of a bunch of traffic violations. Much of his left side is scarred from...something. He served in the military, but says his scars are from before that, and now he's an emotionally detached shell who needs Viagra to be with his hot and willing girlfriend and likes to ride his bike at dangerously high speeds at night.

When the three cops meet up, Ray is all about containing the fallout from Caspar's disappearance and murder, as it threatens to expose the endemic corruption in Vinci. (To that end, and at Frank's behest, he also beats up a reporter working on a newspaper series about the city.) Ani is a crusader who likely will take just the opposite approach, particularly if and when she discovers Caspar's penchant for weird sex (as evidenced by his home, which looks like a set from Eyes Wide Shut). Paul, meanwhile, is going to see a way to get back on the right side of things at the CHP.

That is a setup for a potentially really interesting California crime story. In its scope, True Detective season two wants to be talked about with the likes of Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. It's way, way too early to render a verdict on its success, but you can't fault Pizzolatto for his reach.

The sprawling narrative and the tough-guy way the characters (including, maybe especially, McAdams) speak owe a huge debt to Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy and other great chroniclers of L.A.'s underbelly, and it seems to suit nearly all the principals. Vaughn is perhaps a little too reined in at the start, but considering Frank's circumstances it's not unreasonable that he would be a little uptight.  

Kitsch's character is still a bit of a cipher, but Paul's brooding nature suits him well  he's Tim Riggins with PTSD. McAdams clearly relishes playing outside the romantic wheelhouse for which she's best known.

Farrell gets the meatiest bits in the premiere, and he tears into them, fully inhabiting Ray's wrinkled clothes, droopy mustache and weariness. There's precious little thus far to suggest he has many redeeming qualities, but Farrell conveys a suggestion that Ray might just have enough pride left to do the right thing here.

True Detective airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO. What did you think of the premiere?

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