Slow-paced but intriguing and already promising some stellar performances, the second season of True Detective kicks off in a characteristically bleak way.
With the first season of True Detective being the critically-acclaimed masterpiece that it is, coming to any kind of a conclusion about the start of its second season is difficult at best. So much is the same in this first episode as it was in 2014. It has the same lingering pace that draws you in without you realising it, the plot never advancing until you notice that it suddenly has. It has the same presentation of usually bleak, characterless settings with a kind of enthralling, grim beauty (before the Louisiana landscape, now the cityscapes, factories, and highways of backwater California). It has the same enigmatic, veiled characters that are by far the most intriguing, captivating aspect of the show; and the same strange-yet-perfect casting decisions.
The episode (and, presumably the season) follows four characters in Vinci City, California, and the surrounding area. Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) – a very angry, very jaded detective – Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) – another detective, who has lots of knives in her home and on her person – Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) – an ex-military, Highway Patrol Officer adrenaline junkie – and Frank Seymon (Vince Vaughn) – a wealthy entrepreneur and part-time mobster-esque criminal. Each character exists in their own separate sphere, unaware of one another until the very end of the episode, in one of those plot movements that creeps on you and catches you unawares in the best way.
All four principle actors give good performances. Farrell’s opening scenes have strong hints of McConaughey’s performance from the first season, but he quickly leaves that behind and makes the performance his own, displaying pitiful vulnerability and horrifying invulnerability, with lots of brooding anger in between. Similarly, the first scene we see Vaughn in is jarring, but after the initial shock of seeing him play someone other than himself, that separation slides away and you stop watching Vince Vaughn and start seeing Frank Seymon, which when you stop to think about it, is quite delightful. Vaughn’s casting was easily the most worrying aspect in the build-up to the second season, but he firmly dispels any doubt within his first fifteen minutes of screen time. McAdams and Kitsch also do well, though they have less to work with than Farrell and Vaughn, whose characters receive a touch more focus in the episode. Nonetheless, by the end of the episode, all four embody their characters, giving all of them a fleshed-out and realistic feel.
All of this is excellent so far, but the glaring problem with the episode is that it is the first in the second season of an anthology series – Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) is nowhere to be found in the second season, nor is the nebulous, sinister criminal ring he uncovered, and yet they loom large in your mind as the episode opens. Comparisons come, helped on by the similar feel the two seasons have, and the episode fails to really hold up to its predecessors. But, crucially, it doesn’t have to. Nic Pizzolatto’s plot in the first season went from unclear to confusing to mysterious right up until its end, at which point everything came together and it all started to make sense. This isn’t a criticism, it’s wonderful, intelligent storytelling, and a big part of what made the first season so successful. After just one episode there is no way anyone could know how this plot will develop, or how the characters will grow, or even what each of the characters want, and it is unfair to compare just an introduction to a completed story. Ignore everything about the previous season (because it doesn’t belong here), and this becomes the opening of what could shape up to be a fantastic season in and of itself.
True Detective airs on Sky Atlantic on Monday at 9pm.