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First Look: True Detective season 2

The first season of HBO’s True Detective was a critical and commercial smash, bringing star actors Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey to TV in service of a focused creative vision. Every episode was scripted by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Fukunaga. The plot was big on mood and low on coherence, conjuring a palpable sense of menace that took it from being a detective procedural into the fringe horror (like John Connolly’s Charlie Parker detective novels).

Inevitably a second series was green-lit. Fukanaga moved on, replaced by Hollywood A-lister Justin Lin (Fast & Furious 5 and Fast & Furious 6), and McConaughey and Harrelson return only as executive producers. Pizzalotto has opted to begin a new story in a new location with a new cast. Season one’s Louisiana setting gave a glimpse of a rural America unfamiliar to most viewers — even if it also supplied nearly indecipherable accents. In True Detective season 2 this is replaced by the sprawl of Los Angeles.

It is not only the locale that has become overdeveloped: in this episode the plotting also lacked the clarity of the equivalent season 1 episode, which began with the discovery of a body and then spun out from there. ‘The Western Book of the Dead’ (to use the full episode title) has a more nebulous story that just begins to cohere in the closing moments. We are presented in turn with three very different cops: a violent and corrupt detective; a driven Sheriff’s Officer with a gung-ho attitude and a chaotic personal life; and an ex-military traffic patrol cop. All are caught in the gravitational pull of a multimillion-dollar land deal by a missing project manager and his boss, a former criminal attempting to become a legitimate businessman.

True Detective season 2 episode 1

The cast is star-studded. Colin Farrell plays Detective Ray Velcoro. Velcoro has horrors in his past that he tries to numb with booze, and moonlights as a hired enforcer.  Vince Vaughn plays Frank Semyon, the shady businessman. Vaughn has been on a serious downward career trajectory lately, and it’s easy to see how this role presented an opportunity to prove his mettle as a serious actor. Taylor Kitsch plays Officer Paul Woodrugh, the highway patrolman with a military background.

A persistent criticism levelled at season one was mediocre female characterisation. Pizzolatto attempts to address this by casting Rachel McAdams as Detective Ani Bezzerides, the third cop in this tortured triangle. Bezzerides is an all action woman, who plays as hard as any man. However, her strange introduction and an awkward scene with her sister who she discovers working on a porn set suggest Pizzolatto still has some distance to cover in creating believable women characters. McAdams’ committed performance helps smooth out the bumps.

It would be grossly premature to dismiss this show on the basis of one episode. There is too much goodwill from the quality of the first season and far too much talent involved. But after the great first run it is disappointing be presented with what appears to be a more conventional crime drama loaded with clichés and directed with only a faint shadow of Fukanaga’s flair by Justin Lin.

Review by Stuart Barr.

What do you think of True Detective season 2 so far? Let us know in the comments below!

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