I have never looked forward to a second season more. “True Detective” had rung my bell like no serial before it. Void of any cookie-cutter, made-for-TV crime drama cops, True Detective is driven by a duo of flawed heroes, each with an excess of personal demons. Theirs is a tarnished world full of ignorance and vice. The atmosphere is eerie without being overdone, and the bad guys are bad — really bad. The pacing and plot build a captivating mystery that draws the viewer in completely.
At least that was season one. “True Detective” season two is a bewildering sophomore slump. Before I really lay into why it made me feel so hollow, I must acknowledge that writer and creator Nic Pizzolatto faced an impossible task. The show is structured as a start-to-finish story per season, so he couldn’t piggyback off of anything. He had to build a new story with new characters from scratch.
This season’s tagline, “We Get the World We Deserve,” makes an overt connection between human character and environment. The action takes place in the fictional city of Vinci, California, a seedy industrial center with streets as dirty as its oligarchy of mobsters and corrupt officials. The concrete jungle imagery is well-done, as streets twist through underpasses and over canals before shooting off in every direction of the horizon.
But the tale that takes place in Vinci is a disaster. Instead of two protagonists to follow, we now have four, and that’s not the only thing that has proliferated. Pizzolatto throws subplot on top of plot, then heaps useless sidebars onto those subplots. The effect is that we’ve no clue which discoveries are going to be irrelevant or paramount as the show progresses.
There’s no straightforward story about detectives solving crime. Instead, we have a slow motion reveal of an intricate maze of betrayal and revenge, of which the initial victim is a reformed gangster named Frank Semyon.
Semyon, played by Vince Vaughn, opens the season in dire straits. His money man, Caspere, is found murdered on the side of the road, and what’s worse, he was holding Frank’s life savings at the time of his demise. Semyon calls his favorite cop on the take, Detective Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), to assist him in unraveling the mystery of Caspere’s death.
Velcoro is a reckless drug abuser who would self-destruct were he not clinging to a withering bond with his son, a relationship his estranged wife is trying hard to eradicate. Joining Velcoro in the investigation are Detective Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) and bike cop Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch). Both lug around ghosts from their past and have large question marks hanging over their sex lives.
These four take on the entrenched powers within and without Vinci, a tortuous Venn diagram of villains that includes a corrupt mayor, a criminal police gang, Mexican drug lords, sex traffickers, a Russian strongman and a shotgun-wielding bird mask-wearing mystery man.
To the extent that the show works, it does so due to Ray Velcoro. Colin Farrell brings all his anxieties, shortcomings and paltry aspirations to life. The only member of the foursome who has meaningful interactions with all three others, he feels like the hub of what’s going on.
Beyond Farrell, there’s not a lot to connect with. I wanted to root for Vince Vaughn, but he’s not a convincing gangster. He can’t escape that familiar hectoring monotone he assumes in his comedies, which is not something the audience needs to be reminded of when watching “True Detective.”
His marriage to Jordan (Kelly Reilly) is the most prominent romance of the season, but their long-winded conversations on family and future have all the thrill of any standard counseling session. Jordan’s ruby red hair is very easy to look at, but she’s permanently set somewhere between drowsy and mopey no matter what the situation. In one scene, she walks into an office to find the just-gutted body of a man she knows well, and her reaction is so lifeless his blood might as well be red wine spilled on the carpet.
McAdams and Kitsch both put on laudable performances, but their characters feel redundant and distracting. Bezzerides (McAdams) keeps stumbling upon findings related to the main plot by sheer coincidence. Woodrugh (Kitsch), a war veteran, is hounded by media accusations of Afghan War crimes in an utterly unnecessary subplot that goes nowhere.
A handful of their individual trials and investigations are left rotting on the vine for multiple episodes at a time, so that by the time they return, we’ve forgotten what they were all about in the first place.
These two characters are symbolic of what’s wrong with this season as a whole. Pizzolatto wants us to care about too many things, and the audience’s sympathy gets so diffused it evaporates into apathy.
Furthermore, the show’s central characters feel like bystanders. The main character turns out to have been Caspere all along — the dead guy we never got to meet.
And the crime that really matters — the thing that’s turning all these wheels — is something we never see.
Now, I’m rarely the smartest or most observant person in the room, and when I watch a movie I often have to nudge the person next to me to clue me in on what’s going on.
But if I find myself doing that week after week, and the person next to me is as oblivious as myself, then something is seriously flawed in the storytelling.
Let’s hope Pizollatto has another act up his sleeve, one that’s dumbed-down enough for yours truly.