In Season 2 of HBO’s True Detective, premiering at 8 p.m. Sunday, writer-executive producer Nic Pizzolatto has hit the reset button.
Different cast, different setting, different type of crime, different look, different overall vibe.
The first season — often trippy, sometimes exasperating, always brilliant — gave us Emmy-nominated Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as self-destructive police detectives and their near-20-year pursuit of a serial killer in the Louisiana swamps.
This go-round — not as surreal, except for the episode that opens with a cheesy lounge singer performing The Rose in someone’s Twin Peaks-style fever dream — is a straight-ahead, contemporary L.A. noir thriller.
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It focuses on three broken law-enforcement types, a crime boss on the verge of financial ruin, a hive of corrupt government officials, and a variety of crazy, decadent, seamy California lifestyles.
The one through-line is the casting of A-list movie talent in the principal roles. The marquee names this time are Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Vince Vaughn and Taylor Kitsch.
The crime involves the brutal murder of a crooked and sexually depraved city manager who’s attached to a multibillion-dollar high-speed rail project.
Meet the heroes (if you can call them that):
Ray Velcoro (Farrell) is a dirty detective from the fictional industrial city of Vinci, Calif. His life took a turn for the worse years ago when his wife was raped and he took revenge. Now he’s an angry, alcohol-soaked joke, clinging to partial custody of a son who’s afraid of him and performing unsavory errands on the side for the aforementioned mobster (Vaughn).
Ani Bezzerides (McAdams) is an E-cigarette-puffing sheriff’s department detective with uncompromising ethics and a bundle of relationship issues that date back to her dysfunctional upbringing in her father’s California commune. She doesn’t trust Velcoro in the least, but he’s pretty much all she’s got.
Paul Woodrugh (Kitsch) is the sullen war vet-turned-motorcycle cop who found the victim. He recently made headlines and was suspended after being accused of making sexual demands of a cute reckless driver. Now he’s on loan to the checkered task force.
The first installment of the eight-episode season closes with these three deeply damaged people forced to work together on a case that no one really wants solved.
Watching True Detective is not a feel-good experience. It’s bleak and brooding.
But after having to endure years of TV crime dramas that are formulaic cocktails of police procedure, forensic technique, cyber sleuthing, gruesome murders and glib banter, it’s refreshing for a change to watch a show that tries to do something different.
It should come as no surprise that Farrell is magnetically watchable; this role is right in his wheelhouse. But the edgier-than-usual portrayal from McAdams, who usually goes for perky and lovable, is a revelation. And Kitsch’s angst-ridden presence is sure to move him into the big leagues.
The biggest standout of all, though, is Vaughn as Frank Semyon. This erudite criminal invested everything he has in the rail project, hoping to shift into the life of a legit businessman, only to be left high and dry when the man he paid off wound up dead, the money missing. Now Frank is like a caged animal, willing to do whatever it takes to get out of this predicament in one piece.
Vaughn is really good when he goes dark and dangerous like this, but of late he seems to prefer putting his energy into goofy comedies.
When the next batch of Emmy nominations is doled out, Vaughn and McAdams are almost certain to be named.
But is the new season of True Detective as mesmerizing as the first? Based on an advance screening of three episodes, no.
It’s solid. I want to see more. I want to know where it’s going. But this story hasn’t got me obsessing yet about it the way that first crazy season did. That was a tough act to follow.
▪ 8 p.m. Sunday