Look: This is a preview of the second season of True Detective and I’ve only seen the first episode thus far, so I don’t want to persuade you to watch or not watch it based one installment alone. In all honesty, I was only “intrigued” by the first episode of the first season, and it wasn’t until the third episode that I was fully hooked.
That may happen again this season, but based on the opening episode, I feel like it’s safe to say that the “magic” is gone, and that “magic” may have been Matthew McConaughey all along. I think until the season one finale revealed True Detective for what it was all along — a solid, but somewhat generic serial-killer thriller — that McConaughey obscured a lot of the series’ problems. Nic Pizzolatto dropped a few literary references, worked in some nods to the Yellow King, and built into our expectations the idea that some profound mythology was brewing beneath. The McConaughey monologues — which, as it turns out, were borrowed/lifted/inspired by Thomas Ligotti — sealed the deal until the bottom fell out in the finale.
There is none of that “magic” in the opening episode of season two. It’s early yet, but it feels more like an episode of Ray Donovan than it does True Detective. The despair is oppressive. There is no sense of humor. Some of the performances are heavy-handed, and for those complaining about the sexual content in Game of Thrones, you will get no respite here. In the first episode alone, Rachel McAdams’ character has a humorless conversation with a one-night stand about her fondness for anal sex; she busts up a brothel where her sister is a prostitute; Taylor Kitsch’s character fights stress-related impotence with boner pills before getting a hummer from his sexually-starved girlfriend; and an actress offers to blow him if he lets her out of a DUI arrest.
Unlike Game of Thrones, which can makes its case for amped-up sexual content based on “historical accuracy,” Pizzolatto and Co. will likely rest their case on noir. Sex and violence are part and parcel of the genre. Unfortunately, in the first episode, it feels like a Cinemax shortcut to character development. Taylor Kitsch’s character has PTSD, therefore he can’t get it up. Rachel McAdams’ character is “tough,” so she likes rough. Colin Farrell’s character is emotionally impotent, so he takes it out on the father of his son’s bully.
Sure, I guess.
The first season of True Detective took its sweet time. It doled out details slowly and seemed to blossom in the silence. It was in no real hurry to set everything up.
The second season, however, seems hellbent on throwing as much at us as possible as soon as possible, and none of it is particularly interesting yet.
Here’s the bullet points (and spoilers if you want to discover the second season’s plot details on your own):
— Detective Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) is a violent drunk. He has an ex-wife with whom he’s fighting for custody over a “fat pussy” of a son who was probably the product of rape.
— Detective Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) is a hard-drinking woman who apparently takes all her anger with her father out on one-night stands. Her Dad is some kind of new-age guru who screwed her and her sister up but can abdicate responsibility to their mother, who walked out on them when they were kids.
— Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) is a motorcycle cop and former veteran suffering from PTSD and impotence, which he combats with erection pills and long rides on his motorcycle.
— Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) is the career criminal who connects them all. He’s a casino owner turning legit who gets involved with a high-speed railroad project, only the city manager who was supposed to grease the wheels turns up dead.
— Velcoro, Bezzerides, and Kitsch — all with different jurisdictions over the murder of the city manager — end up working the case together, although we already know that Velcoro has ties to Semyon, to whom Ray owes favors.
That’s it in a nutshell.
If there were a single ounce of levity, maybe the despair wouldn’t feel so oppressive, and maybe the side-eyes, the slutty glances, and the clunky writing would sing instead of taking wet shits on the bed. The cumbrous writing is especially noticeable in the performance of Vaughn (who I normally like as a comedic actor, his politics notwithstanding). Maybe McConaughey could sell this line, but Vaughn absolutely cannot: “You don’t want to look hungry. Never do anything out of hunger. Not even eating.” Pizzolatto thought so much of that line that there’s even a callback to it. Worse, when it’s not badly written, it’s over-written, like this line delivered by the sister/prostitute, which doesn’t even make sense: “When you walk, it’s like erasers clapping.”
Again: It’s one episode with a new cast and a new case. Pizzolatto is starting from scratch, and it may take an episode or three to find his momentum, to work in some more intriguing mysteries, and develop his characters beyond the complexities of what you might find in a porn parody. Given the success of season one, Pizzolatto gets at least that much benefit of the doubt. I’ll only say that he’s got a hole to dig himself out of, and if the sexual content continues along at this pace, it’s going to be a long summer, dark and full of Internet think pieces.