Three episodes were provided for review prior to broadcast.
On its decade-long journey from the smoky clamor of a Manhattan social club to the sunny overlook of a California commune, Mad Men often debated whether change was possible, or even desirable. Early in the show’s third season, Don Draper offered a concise summary of the idea: “Change is neither good or bad, it simply is. It can be greeted with terror or joy. A tantrum that says ‘I want it the way it was,’ or a dance that says ‘Look, something new.’” Let the wisdom of this recently departed prestige show guide your expectations for the return of another. True Detective has some intriguing new moves to demonstrate in its approaching second season. All viewers need to do to enjoy them is not get in a fit over the show no longer being what it once was.
The truest of True Detective followers have been bracing themselves for the change ever since it was announced that the series would exist in an anthology format. Like many evocative and out-of-the-blue successes, True Detective quickly developed a trademark dialogue and visual shorthand. Eight hours was all it took for writer/creator Nic Pizzolatto to craft a distinct (and ripe for parody*) calling card, one celebrated by viewers and critics for putting an existentialist spin on detective stories. Sunday’s premiere features dank bars and coastal new age clinics, but it proves how True Detective has already taken on more radical changes between two seasons than Mad Men did in its entire run.
*It’s to the show’s credit, not detriment, that the new credits sequence, set to Leonard Cohen’s “Nevermind,” is just the right amount of different from the first season’s to seem like an expertly done mock-up.
Developing Season 2 as a completely new chapter in the show’s mythology was bold of Pizzolatto, especially when you consider what that meant giving up. A fresh start on a fresh case meant no more Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, two stars big enough to draw your eye to one murder-mystery show among the many available on TV. A move to the West Coast meant no more Louisiana landscapes, or direction from Cary Joji Fukunaga that made the boggy hellscape so captivating. And save for a single flashback in the premiere, there’s no more hopping through time; Season 2 has the series walking the straight and narrow of linear storytelling.
Considering that True Detective owed a significant amount of its mojo to Pizzolatto’s clever structure, that last rework for Season 2 is somewhat concerning. The final two episodes that tied up Rust Cohle and Marty Hart’s investigation into a murder cult were arguably the weakest entries of the first season. Cagey interrogations into the past gave way to grunt police work. An expedition into the bayou’s heart of darkness ended like a slasher pic. By the time avowed nihilist Rust was waxing optimistically about the state of the universe, you had to wonder whether Pizzolatto got cold feet about pushing True Detective too far outside the norm.
The premiere’s title, “The Western Book of the Dead,” references a ‘60s beat sheet for the rise and fall of man that Rust no doubt memorized, suggesting that Season 2 will return the series to its otherworldly roots. Indeed, the first three hours of are not devoid of Pizzolatto’s musings on life, the universe, and everything, or trippy urban-natural compositions choked by dread. Justin Lin helms the first two hours, Janus Metz Pedersen the third, and both reaffirm True Detective’s reputation for eerie and frightening beauty.
But what Season 2 reveals about the series is that those two final episodes of Season 1 were the real True Detective all along. Pizzolatto’s angst, McConaughey’s dead-eyed drawl: it was all the same accent, an accent you heard applied towards disguising a meat ‘n potatoes crime story as something more than it ever was. The show hasn’t changed this year so much as embraced its true nature as a pretty standard cop series with above-standard production values and talent. This will come as a crushing disappointment to fans won over by the confident airs of greatness True Detective once put on, but for lovers of solid, engaging genre television, it’ll still get the blood pumping.
Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, and Taylor Kitsch play a trio of L.A. county officers, all three eventually connected through an investigation into a missing city manager. Farrell’s brooding Detective Velcoro is caught between his waning sense of justice, and the debts he owes both the bent Vinci police department, and Vince Vaughn’s Frank Semyon, a gangster looking to go legit off the development of a trans-state railway. McAdams’ detective Bezzerides is maybe the only cop we can trust, though she’s not without her vices. Imagine Karen Sisco, but angrier, and with more knives. And as a highway patrolman pulled into the case accidentally, Kitsch’s Officer Woodrugh is the frail hunk trying to keep his head down so he can lick old war wounds.
Compared to the early highs that came with mainlining the secret truth of the Pizzolatto’s universe in Season 1, Season 2 is a methadone regiment of police story plotting and familiar archetypes. The philosophers and existentialists that deserved co-credits on some scripts have been replaced by James Ellroy and Raymond Chandler-types, pulp entertainers just interested in spinning a good yarn about the bad elements of Los Angeles. Season 1’s premiere opened with a dead body, and Season 2’s premiere ends on one. The time spent eventually connecting the leads to the vic lets us figure out who they are, and how they fit into the larger sprawl of the new story.