'True Detective' Season 2: TV Review

True Detective Season 2 Screengrab - H 2015
Let's just say it's no season one.

Nic Pizzolatto's anthology crime series is back for a second season on HBO, this time with Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn in the lead roles.

If you were watching carefully as HBO's True Detective rolled through its critically acclaimed first season, it wasn't hard to predict that it would be difficult to pull it off all over again.

The show was marked by exceptional work from Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, with Emmy-winning director Cary Fukunaga bringing creator Nic Pizzolatto's look at two complicated and diametrically opposed partners to fruition in a moving, existential and even funny way. It was a series that worked best with McConaughey and Harrelson riffing off of each other (or yelling at each other), and less well as it tried to solve an over-arching, far-reaching set of occult murders that seemed less important than the relationship between the main characters.

That is to say that whatever True Detective accomplished in season one — tons of acclaim and 12 Emmy nominations (with five wins) — was directly related to the core group at the center of the show and how Pizzolatto's words and Fukunaga's incredible sense of place and composition managed to be more riveting than the whodunit nature of the plot. Its accomplishments were born of a rare alchemy that's hard to accomplish and even harder to duplicate.

Read more 'True Detective' Season 2 Gets Moody First Teaser, Premiere Date

Season two may yet reach those magnificent if flawed heights, provided a little bit of magic dust falls on the right places. But after watching the first three episodes that HBO sent to critics (of eight total episodes), the completely revamped cast of this True Detective has its work cut out for it. And not because any one individual has to one-up McConaughey or Harrelson, but because expectations and interest will be (fairly or not) higher than the first one, which came in as an intriguing idea on paper and then went way past that with its execution.

If season one was a brilliant surprise, season two sure isn't sneaking up on anyone. It stars Colin Farrell, Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams and Taylor Kitsch, with a string of impressive names in the ensemble including Abigail Spencer (Rectify), Kelly Reilly (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows), W. Earl Brown (Deadwood, American Crime), Ritchie Coster, Afemo Omilami, James Frain, Lolita Davidovich, David Morse and Rick Springfield.

Hell, the casting for season two got more ink than nearly all the pre-premiere hype of season one.

True Detective's second season employs the same flashback and time-jump elements as season one, but not nearly as confusingly, which is a bonus in the early episodes. It does, however, set up a complicated game of trust and allegiances — and the entirety of the first episode is spent a little too emphatically letting viewers know that everybody involved here is broken in some way. There's a heavy-handedness to the direction that raises some early red flags: The stylized coolness starts to feel a bit overdone. An eye-rolling final shot in the first hour looks excessively ominous. Director Justin Lin (of the Fast & Furious franchise) looks to be going for the impact of a Hollywood movie rather than the more hard-earned granular approach that characterizes most great drama on the small screen.

Farrell plays Ray Velcoro, a troubled detective (we are reminded of this a lot) whose wife, Spencer, was trying to get pregnant before a terrible incident in which she was beaten and raped. Right after it happened, Velcoro turned to mobster Frank Semyon (Vaughn) for help in avenging his wife; Semyon, unsurprisingly, now owns Ray. To complicate matters, the couple went on to have a child nine months after the crime, but didn't do a paternity test.

With his constant boozing and occasional cocaine use, Ray has fallen so far that he now works for the city of Vinci, near Los Angeles, population 93 —primarily inhabited by dirty manufacturing companies that pollute everything around them. Not even Vinci's corrupt mayor Austin Chessani (Coster) lives in Vinci; he opts for Bel Air instead.

Our mobster Semyon has made a run at going legit, buying up parcels of land along the high-speed rail corridor that will run through the middle of California. At least he thinks he's bankrolling a buy-in to that bright, legal future — but his ticket was a city manager with a very creepy hidden life who turns up dead, and wasn't using Semyon's money to influence the deal anyway.

The dead man is found by troubled CHP officer and war vet Paul Woodrugh (Kitsch), whose 911 call brings in the sheriff's department and very troubled detective Ani Bezzerides (McAdams). As they linger around the dead man, Ray shows up, too. Go ahead, count the troubled cops. And then wait for the slow pan to all of their faces.

Pizzolatto sets up a complicated web of different agencies with different agendas who create a special task force where Ani and Ray are now partners. Paul, who had been on leave from the CHP after being framed by an actress (don't ask), is also on the squad. Then there are all the puppet-masters in the background, busy planning double-crosses to suit their own purposes.

Unfortunately, none of that is especially riveting. Too much of the first two episodes is spent letting us know just how damaged everyone is. Ray loves his kid (which might not be his kid), but he also isn't afraid to yell drunkenly at his son and beat up the parents of other kids who are not nice to his own. Ani's sister appears to be making porn in lieu of being an actress, following in the footsteps of her mother — until she killed herself in 1978. Ani's dad is a kind of self-help guru at a place that looks like it's a spoof of Don's digs in the last episode of Mad Men. Ani hates the guy. After all, Ani is short for Antigone, and her sister's name is Athena. (Dad's a hippie, remember?)

Ani also carries around a lot of knives. "Man of any size lays his hands on me, he's going to bleed out in under a minute," she says at one point. That dialogue is part of the problem in the second season of True Detective. Because it's everywhere.

Pizzolatto has inexplicably made every character in this season spout clipped and elliptical phrases. They begin to pile up so quickly that you soon realize there's no flow to the characters, no realism. "Children are a disappointment. Remain unfettered," says the mayor of Vinci with all the nuance of a walking, talking blunt force object. The mayor also happens to be drunk all the time for no apparent reason.

And now it's Ray and Ani driving together in an effort to summon the spirit of the first season's buddy road trip thing. But gone is the beautiful, philosophical Rust-and-Marty banter about the meaning of life as they drove the Louisiana back roads. As our new partners drive around Los Angeles, it all sounds diminished.

Ray: "You know that expression, 'Like flies in honey'?"
Ani: "What the f— do I want with a bunch of flies?"
Ray: "Well, if you don't have flies, you can't fly fish."

Yeah, it's not the same.

And these lines were not delivered with any suggestion that we might laugh. In fact, season two of True Detective is woefully devoid of humor. The only element in three episodes that seemed funny was people lightly mocking Ani for smoking an e-cigarette. But why choose for her to do that anyway? It seems forced, like a lot of the bits here.

Although Lin gives this new season a similar feel to what Fukunaga accomplished in season one — an abundance of helicopter shots, brooding opening credits and songs that soak in their own depression — it's not quite the same. Los Angeles's myriad and interlocking freeways can be a metaphor for disconnected people or just lost souls going nowhere, but like everything else in these early episodes, it all feels too stylized.

But three episodes in is still somewhat early. Things could turn around. There's the lurid nature of how the city manager died. There's all the impotent rage that former mobster-turned-wannabe good guy Semyon feels when he learns he's been ripped off. It all could be leading to something more than scenes of melodrama masked as stone-cold truth — a vibe that feels particularly pronounced in a scene in which Vaughn relays a super dark story about his father while laying in bed in a beautiful modernist house. (Yes, that happened. No, it didn't quite work.)

Maybe the scary, ethereal nature of season one will emerge here through the sexual depravity angle and create something that isn't just acceptably entertaining, but meaningfully unsettling.

Read more 'True Detective': Colin Farrell, Vince Vaughn Suit Up in Season 2 Posters

True Detective season one managed to hook us in the first hour, while season two still keeps us at a cold arm's length all the way through episode three. But the strength of season one lived in its many, intimate and humble moments of greatness — in a few lines of conversation, in a glimpse of a particular landscape, in a glance between Rust and Marty; the payoff was immediate with McConaughey and Harrelson, while the plot was mostly a letdown. It may be that season two's greatness is still waiting for us, lying not so much in character and place, but in the satisfaction of a story and plot that fulfills its promises and ends even better than it begins.

Or none of that could happen. And what we'll get is a sophomore slump. The pressure is now on for the remaining five episodes.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine