Everybody Get’s Touched

HBO’s breakout 2014 cop drama True Detective finds itself in an unenviable position as it enters its much-anticipated second season. By removing a ton of the elements that made the first season such a flawed, yet mesmerizing gem, creator/writer Nic Pizzolatto is taking a big chance in letting his sophomore offering make an impression without any recognizable components (besides a continued preoccupation with hyper-masculinity, of course). The question on everyone’s mind is if this season can live up to the first without the presence of Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, or director Cary Fukunaga and his eye for Southern Gothic imagery. While the season premiere “The Western Book of the Dead” doesn’t provide much in the way of answers yet, it has enough things going for it to suggest that True Detective season 2 could emerge out of its predecessor’s long shadow if it tightens up its storytelling and character development in the coming weeks.

Right off the bat, it must be noted that “The Western Book of the Dead” is not as immediately compelling as the first season’s premiere episode, “The Long Bright Dark.” Gone are the drawn out conversations between reluctant partners Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, replaced here by terse, hardened individuals who don’t want to debate the finer points of time and flat circles. While extended conversations and an unsettling aesthetic were pretty much True Detective‘s main selling points the first go-round, Pizzolatto deserves credit for attempting to craft a different form of noir detective drama with a new setting and cast of characters. It’s those characters in particular that help save this first episode from being a mediocre affair, as the mystery surrounding a murdered city manager that’s introduced in the episode’s final moments is not given enough time to be considered anything more than an excuse to tie these characters together in some way.

Colin Farrell’s Detective Ray Velcoro is given the most screen-time and development here, a crooked cop with a dark past and a violent temper. Velcoro runs dangerously close to being the stereotypical bad cop with conflicted allegiances that have been featured in practically every hard-nosed police drama for the last few decades, but Farrell imbues the character with enough pathos and inner-conflict to make the character compelling, if a little too familiar. We learn that Velcoro’s wife was raped years ago and that he is now locked in a custody battle for the son that might not even be his. A flashback scene (surprisingly the only one in the episode) recounts how Velcoro went to professional criminal Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) to find out the identity of the rapist. While we don’t see anything else involving Velcoro and the rapist, it definitely feels like the show is establishing this as the moment when the detective lost his humanity and became the violent loose cannon of the present. It’s safe to assume that Velcoro’s past will be explored more in future episodes, which is a welcome proposition considering that right now it’s one of the show’s more interesting mysteries.

Speaking of Vaughn’s character, his Frank Semyon is not given anywhere near as much development as Farrell’s, operating as an enigmatic criminal business leader in the fictional California city of Vinci who seems to be dealing with reporters and police catching onto his activities. While Vaughn seems good in the role and will probably only become better as the season continues, there is frustratingly little to say about Semyon by the end of the first hour. It’s obvious he’s connected in some way to pretty much everything that’s happening (his relationship with Farrell’s character is the closest thing there is to a Rust-Marty dynamic), but it’s not even really clear what he does (he owns a casino, it seems) or what his game is. He’s has interests in some kind of land scheme involving a new rail transit project, but he remains almost as much of a mystery by the episode’s end as the identity of the murderer who commits the central crime.

If Semyon remains an enigma by the end of the premiere, than Taylor Kitsch’s traffic cop Paul Woodrugh is an outright mystery. Kitsch is only given a few scenes and definitely gets the short shrift in terms of development. At one point, his girlfriend/lover asks him if he got his prominent body scars in the military, which pretty much encompasses all that is known about the character by the episode’s end. Kitsch is so overlooked, his discovery of the city manager that Semyon has desperately been looking for feels shoehorned to just have his character somehow interact with the others. Now that he seems poised to have interactions that go beyond soliciting sexual favors from attractive women caught speeding in sports cars, Kitsch will hopefully have the opportunity to chew on more meaningful material in the coming weeks.

The best character work is reserved for Rachel McAdams’s Ani Bezzerides, an officer with the Sheriff’s department who is easily the most interesting of the four main characters (a point of merit considering season 1’s poor track record with female characters). Although it feels like Ani is characterized with a few too many masculine tropes at times (she’s tough, doesn’t want to talk about sex, and swears like a sailor), McAdams absolutely steals the show and feels fully fleshed out by episode’s end. Her screwed up family, including a sister working in an underground pornography ring and a father who is the leader of some sort of religious cult, is used effectively to frame her motivations as a hard-driven police officer. Her father asks her at one point if she even enjoys what she does and it’s hard to see Ani answering in the affirmative with all the anger she’s harboring.

“The Western Book of the Dead” has the bones of a good cop drama, but doesn’t quite have the same hooks that made the first season so eminently watchable. To be fair, while the absence of the Southern Gothic imagery is disappointing, episode director Justin Lin (Fast Five) and cinematographer Nigel Bluck do a fine job of capturing the seediness and washed-out haze of the California setting, which is an admirable feat considering how done-to-death violent stories set in the Golden State are. It’s still too early to write-off True Detective 2.0 as an inferior follow-up, even if it does stumble out of the gate. A few more weeks should reveal whether the series really is a unique dramatic TV event or if those early accolades were just a fluke.

Random Thoughts:

  • The way Velcoro is revealed to be more and more of a scumbag as the episode progresses is well done. The opening scene with his son on the first day of school sets him up as a pretty decent father, but that quickly falls away once he starts berating him for getting bullied.
  • Furthering that point, Velcoro’s assault on that bully’s father is particularly unnerving when framed against the very real backdrop of police brutality in America right now. This is not a guy to root for.
  • While Vaughn’s Semyon doesn’t get much development, it will be intriguing to see just what kind of criminal presence he is on the show once things get rolling. He manages to smash a glass in anger, but it will be thrilling once he really cuts loose, considering how restrained he is here.
  • It feels like the subplot involving Ani’s investigation into the missing woman will probably have a pretty gruesome resolution.
  • Still waiting for a character to pull off a five minute tangent on the mysteries of the universe ala Rust Cohle.
7
Good
True Detective's season 2 premiere lives up to season 1 in the acting department, but falls short in offering a compelling narrative.