It’s never fair to judge a season of a television show based on the first episode. Maybe that’s a little more justifiable in throwaway, self-contained CBS dramas, but more complicated series attempting to tell a complete story over the span of several weeks deserve some time. It would be similar to making a judgment call on a film after seeing the first ten or fifteen minutes.
I say all that as a sort of therapeutic way to remain hopeful for this second season of True Detective. I don’t want to make any snap decisions, because the story could absolutely find a groove quickly and the mess that unfolded in episode one could become a distant memory. But as it stands season 2 is stumbling out of the gates, and that is putting things mildly.
The action in this year’s True Detective has, of course, left behind the philosophical darkness of Rust Cohle, the complicated family world of his partner, Marty, and the bizarre supernatural world of gothic Louisiana. We now find ourselves in Los Angeles and its industrial suburb, the fictional Vinci. Writer and show creator Nic Pizzolatto has created an entirely new cast of characters who appear to embody every cliched vice or disorder one could think up. We have drugs, alcohol, sex, greed, corruption, gambling addiction, and some PTSD thrown in for good measure. Again, disclaimer, this could all work down the road, but it certainly is a lot to digest and, more importantly, a lot to buy into for episode 1.
The story revolves around four characters, central of which in this first go round is Ray Velcoro, played by a brooding Colin Farrell. Ray is not only a corrupt alcoholic cop with family issues, he seems to be all of the familiar troubled police detectives from the last fifty years of narrative storytelling rolled into one full-throttle train wreck. The booze, the drugs (multiple kinds), the troubled family life involving a child that may actually be the child of a man who raped his wife twelve years ago, all set up a character whose tragic arc seems to have come and gone. We are most certainly near the end with Ray. Of all of his problems, perhaps what will become the biggest is his involvement with Frank Semyon.
Semyon, played by a buttoned-down, rather boring Vince Vaughn, is a criminal trying to make it in the legit world of city planning, and he has Ray under his thumb thanks to their checkered past together. Too bad his big rail system starts off on the wrong foot when the city planner vanishes, setting into motion the investigation that will propel the show. Before I get too far, let me just mention that the city planner who has disappeared is also an over-the-top kinky sex maniac living in an elaborate Playboy mansion spinoff full of dildos and penis statues. Yeah, that’s what we’re in for, apparently.
Taylor Kitsch is the third spoke in this wheel of chaos, Paul, a California Highway Patrol officer suffering from PTSD and just all sorts of emotional issues. Let’s just say he has problems and leave it at that, because we don’t have time to get into his cookie-cutter demons, and Kitsch is by far the least interesting casting decision. Let’s move on to maybe the most promising character, at least the most believably drawn out, and that is Rachel McAdams’ officer Ani Bezzerides. Ani has some sort of sexual issues, but she is at least interesting. That being said, her involvement with the story is the least believable, and it brings in (or forces in) her hippie commune dad (David Morse).
Things are shooting in every which direction in this first episode of the new True Detective. There are promising glimpses of what could be heading our way, but these characters have to start making me believe that they are real and not just part of a catch all cliche machine. Pizzolatto has left behind any sort of philosophical musings that made the first season so compelling, turned McConaughey’s Rust Cohle into an anti-hero for a new generation, and instead has aimed his sights at a more direct procedural, albeit with enough weirdness for five shows. Police procedural is perfectly fine as long as there are strong personalities audiences can either identify with, root for or against, or believe that they are actual human beings.
I have left so many things out that I didn’t buy, like Farrell’s Ray and just about everything he does in the entire episode. My hope is that Pizzolatto will tap the brakes on the hopeless void of characterization long enough to let us care about some of these people. As of right now, they all wear me out in their own way. Thankfully, Justin Lin’s direction kept the visual artistry pleasing; it helped to soften the blow.