Ten minutes into True Detective’s season premiere, Colin Farrell says, “I welcome judgement.” Well, he better, because audiences are still high on Woody Harrelson’s and Matthew McConaughey’s performance from last season. And if season two doesn’t live up to that in every single way, and even go a teensy bit above and beyond, the masses will be waiting in line to dump all over it. Don’t mess with them. They’re serious.
Let’s be honest. This season of True Detective, at least the premiere, isn’t as good as what’s come before. That threw me for a bit. That’s because I, like so many others, recognize Nic Pizzolatto as a talented writer, and naturally expected anything that came after the first season to match it. It took me a little while to put my finger on what I thought was missing, because, at first glance, the show does seem to be checking off a lot of boxes.
We’ve got our damaged characters. I don’t want to say they’re too damaged, but from its drab color palette to its booming score, I think the show was trying really hard to let us know that these people are coming from dark places. First, there’s Colin Farrell’s Ray Velcoro. An officer with the fictional Vinci Police Department and ripped straight from the pages of a James Ellroy novel. A decent chunk of Velcoro’s scenes in the premiere are given over to him tracking down a 12-year-old kid who’s bullied his son at school, beating the kid’s father bloody with a set of brass knuckles while his son watches, and then telling the kid that if he ever messes with his son again, he’ll really go to work on his family. His solace is found at the bottom of a bottle.
Rachel McAdam’s Ani Bezzerides works for the local sheriff’s department. What I think is interesting about her character is that she seems to have lacked any meaningful structure growing up, but has finally found it in a job with law enforcement. Now, she uses that structure to keep some of her more dangerous impulses in check. Still, she harbors a great resentment for the world, and members of her family in particular, a few of whom you’re introduced to in this episode. The show took some heat last season for its lack of strong, female characters. So I’m excited to see where they go with McAdams.
Taylor Kitsch’s Paul Woodrugh is a little tougher to pin down. There’s something missing from his life. Some high he gets from police work. And so when he’s benched after allegedly soliciting sex from a woman he pulls over, you see him coming undone, worried about what will happen to him without police work to keep him occupied. I like to imagine that this character is a straight continuation of Tim Riggins from Friday Night Lights, and that in the season’s final episodes, his knowledge of football will be instrumental in cracking the case.
Lastly, we’ve got Vince Vaughn’s Frank Semyon. Semyon is an organized crime type trying to make it as a legit businessman. This is a character we’ve seen before. Think Stringer Bell from The Wire. He’s had Velcoro in his pocket ever since he gave him some information on a man who raped his wife years before. Oddly enough, he comes off as the most down-to-earth of the whole bunch. But it’s still early days. Give it time. You just know he’s gonna do something crazy.
So yeah, with maybe the exception of Vaughn, all of these guys are a bad day and a sad episode of Highway to Heaven away from breaking down, getting under their covers and sobbing. But I think we expected this. Check it off the list.
A few people got a little tired of Matthew McConaughey’s cornpone philosophizing in season one. If you count yourself as one of them, you’re in luck! The dialogue here isn’t too impenetrable. Watching the episode, you’re not going to be lost as to what’s happening. We’re caught up on everyone’s personal baggage. We’re shown that Vaughn is trying to push through a high-speed rail/commercial development deal that’s going to make him a lot of money. And that, as luck would have it, one of the people instrumental in getting this deal done hasn’t shown up for work in two days. When we see a dead body being driven around southern California’s sprawling highways, you have to ask yourself, could these two things possibly be connected? Things that make you go, hmmm.
Where I thought the episode started to pick up a bit is where Velcoro and his partner — played by Deadwood alum W. Earl Brown — began investigating this guy’s disappearance. It’s True Detective, after all, so the occult and some crazy devil-worshiping stuff needs to come into play at some point, and we see hints of that when the guy’s house is searched. Sadly, this part of the episode is a bit fleeting. Much like the ideals that Rome was built upon, whisper their names, and poof, they’re gone.
So, some good characters, they toned down some of the language, and there’s a missing persons/murder case that’s showing some potential. On their own, all of these things are good. So why weren’t they clicking once they were put together? I sat and thought about it. Days turned to weeks. Weeks turned to months. The seasons changed. My children grew old and died. And then it came to me. What was so great about Woody Harrelson’s relationship with Matthew McConaughey was that he balanced him out. McConaughey was pretty far up his own butt with his talk of flat circles and missteps in human evolution, and Harrelson was there to tell him he sounded like an idiot and bring him back down to Earth. Actually, I think this is why the scenes between Farrell and Brown worked so well. Farrell is the bad cop, and I doubt that Brown is any saint, but what little we saw of his character seemed like someone we could relate to. Characters who provide that voice, especially in a show like True Detective, can make good entry-points for the audience. But in this episode, at least, that voice is largely missing. Right now, we’ve got all the seriousness, but none of the levity.
Of course, this begs the question of whether or not that levity is needed for the show to tell a good story. Maybe me scratching my head and asking, “Where’s the jokes?” is just the stupid American in me screaming out, desperately searching for a kick to someone’s, anyone’s, crotch. Maybe I just need to sit back, recognize that Pizzolatto gave us a great first season that really went beyond what I think anyone was expecting from another cop show, and let him do his thing in season two without getting so worked up about it.
Maybe it serve everyone well to just wait and see what the season has in store. Academically, I think we all realize that the show’s second season was going to be judged much more harshly than its first. We recognize that fact, that it’s unfair, but are more than willing to cast the first stone. Let’s just give the thing a chance.
Of course, that could just be me rationalizing. But I’m gonna try to be more optimistic.