There's pretty much only one question to be answered by the second season of HBO's True Detective: Can the show that grabbed the zeitgeist by the throat a little more than a year ago do the same without the grand monologues of Matthew McConaughey?
But the answer to that question is a little harder to come by. The anthology series' first season debuted with zero expectations. Thanks to a creepy, occult mystery set in the rarely-seen-on-TV Louisiana bayou and the aforementioned wide-eyed philosophical musings of McConaughey's Rust Cohle, the show quickly became the topic of watercooler conversation and the catnip of Internet theorists on every corner of the web. And while those crucial elements are absent in Season 2, so is the element of surprise. The result is a season that, in some ways, feels markedly different, but also a little too familiar.
The familiarity is owed to creator Nic Pizzolatto, who once again wrote every episode of Season 2 and is the one common thread between the two seasons. Pizzolatto is still obsessed with violence and cynical, hardened cops who prefer to spend car rides with their partners in silence and their nights slouched in a booth in the back of a dive bar. That said, the first three episodes HBO made available for review remain totally watchable, if maybe slightly less addictive than a year ago.
So, if you're ready to give Season 2 a shot (and, despite our reservations, you should), here's what you need to know:
1. The performances are still top-notch. Season 2 stars Vince Vaughn shedding his funnyman persona as Frank Semyon, a career criminal who is just on the verge of going legitimate with a huge land deal when one of his business partners is found murdered with his eyes burned out and his genitals shot off. On the case is a trio of cops: Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), a dirty detective in the town of Vinci, a fictional L.A. suburb; Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), a Ventura County sheriff's deputy with family issues and a love of knives; and Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), a brooding Army vet-turned-highway patrolman recently embroiled in scandal.
McAdams is probably the standout as she goes against type from her Mean Girls and The Notebook roles, but everyone sinks their teeth into their characters' bleak lives and hard-boiled dialogue. (We're less sure about Kitsch's arc, though an Episode 3 revelation could either change that opinion or confirm our fears.) And it's a particularly good look for Farrell, even when his character goes a bit too far with the noir tough-guy clichés. (Seriously, the way Velcoro deals with a kid bullying his son will not win him any Father of the Year awards.) The supporting cast is also filled with familiar faces: Kelly Reilly plays Semyon's wife Jordan, Abigail Spencer is Velcoro's ex, Ritchie Coster plays the perpetually drunk Vinci mayor and James Frain pops up as Farrell's commanding officer.
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2. It's a slow burn. Because the cast is larger -- and the show rightfully tries to develop all the characters -- it takes a while for the action to kick in. Aside from Semyon and Velcoro, who share a checkered past, none of the main characters cross paths until the closing moments of the first episode, when all of the cops are called to the scene of the crime. We appreciate a show that takes its time, but when there's only eight episodes in a season, the deliberate opening chapters might make some viewers antsy.
3. The women have more to do this time around. Or at least McAdams does. One of the biggest criticisms of the show's first season was the way that none of the female characters were developed in equal measure to leading men Woody Harrelson and McConaughey. (To be fair, none of the supporting characters were that well-drawn, irrespective of gender.) But Pizzolatto seems to be making an effort this time around, even if McAdams' character shows the exact same destructive tendencies (booze, meaningless sex) as the male cops she works alongside. The distinction between men and women, she reasons, is that men can kill another with their bare hands. So that's why she carries all those knives!
4. It's decidedly less weird. Sorry, in the early going, there is no mystical boogeyman like The Yellow King, and there's no philosophical talk of flat circles. (One character does have a copy of Hagaruke lying around.) But there is still plenty of existential dread, and the way in which the victim was killed (and the kinky things he left behind in his home) suggest there is still some oddness to go around. Even so, this plays like a much more straightforward potboiler, which while disappointing those viewers who like to "solve" their TV shows, might attract others put off by the first season's pretensions.
5. There's more than one director. Just as the story gets more conventional, so does the way the show looks. Season 1 was directed entirely by Cary Fukunaga, but that immense workload is being shared this time around. The Fast and Furious franchise's Justin Lin helms the first two episodes, and while he tries to recreate Fukunaga's style, swapping in shots of L.A.'s twisty freeway system for the rolling vistas of the bayou doesn't have quite the same impact. Later episodes will be directed by Janus Metz Pedersen, Miguel Sapochnik, and Daniel Attias.
6. Colin Farrell has a great mustache. Seriously, it belongs in the hall of fame. And it matches his bolo tie perfectly.
True Detective airs Sundays at 9/8c on HBO.