Nothing says ‘Happy Father’s Day’ quite like beating a kid’s Dad. In front of him. While also threatening to graphically assault his father’s rear while his mother’s corpse looks on. Heady stuff, but not if you’re the latest iteration of the Drunk, Bent, but My Heart’s (not exactly) in the Right Place cop played by Colin Farrell. Welcome to the second season of the critically acclaimed HBO series True Detective–I miss Rust Cohle already.
If you’ll recall, the first season was the swamp set, metaphysical jamboree with MC McConaughey playing the Lovecraft lyre. Sure, it ended up being a pretty typical cop show. Women assaulted, endlessly, as the plot engine. One main bad guy, propped up by “the system”, who ended up being a lot less Cthulhu and a lot more Deliverance. But the way the story was dressed, with endless philosophical rants by a far-out McConaughey, the half-joking, half-badass every-cop in Woody Harrelson, the super bizarre, not-particularly-important allusions to Lovecraft; it made a rather run of the mill, “country folk are weird” cop story pretty interesting! It was a show that had atmosphere, so much so that it obscured any other weaknesses the show may have had.
After watching the premier of Season 2, aside from a few interesting things like the excellent cast (and a fun, against-type role from Vince Vaughn), it doesn’t seem to have much atmosphere.
The set-up for the story is a missing City Planner who is supposed to be aiding a local crime boss, Frank (Vince Vaughn) set up some sort of land-grab scam having to do with building a railroad. Frank has–by way of a favor shown in a strange flashback–a crooked cop, Ray (Colin Farrell), in his pocket who helps him out with some of his dirty work (Not the dad beat-ups, those are extracurricular!). We also get to spend time with a couple of other cops, Ani (Rachel McAdams) and Paul (Taylor Kitsch), who really connect to everything at the end of the episode when [SPOILER ALERT] the City Planner is found dead.
The set-up and the execution of the story and characters is supposed to, I think, feel a lot more noir than it ends up feeling. There are lots of shots of California and beaches, lots of seedy bars and casinos, lots of lingering shots on the faces of people who look like they hate themselves and the world around them. These are interspersed with shots of infrastructure (the supposed theme of the season) with an overlay of noir jazz. It’s the seedy side to California that directors love to show us, the flip side to the coin of paradise.
The thing is, that’s the only side of the coin the director seems to want to show. This first episode was absolutely bereft of anything approaching fun, or humor, or anything besides bleak depression and anger. I get that these people have it bad, that things aren’t going their way, that it’s tough to be a crooked cop, in a crooked city. But geez, can’t you crack a joke or smile once in a while? I found myself inadvertently laughing at several parts; Ani’s weirdo guru father who looks like Don Draper 40 years later; the way Paul’s cheeks were flapping as he did his midnight ride; Paul’s ability to slow down from 100 mph to a stop on a motorcycle without being thrown into the ocean. If they could’ve played up any of these overly serious, silly moments for humor, it would’ve helped.
It could end up being a good show, it’s always hard to judge from one episode. The central mystery might, again, intoxicate viewers, there might be an otherworldly performance from one of these spectacular leads, there might be more amazing technical work (though not a given without Cary Fukunaga) from this season. If not, if the show begins to trend towards the center and doesn’t offer any of the strange and wonderful flourishes it did last season, then you can always switch over to Netflix and watch Chinatown instead.