Those expecting anything approaching the magic conjured by the original Matthew McConaughey-Woody Harrelson pairing should immediately temper their enthusiasm for “True Detective’s” second season. Impeccably cast around its marquee stars, the new plot possesses the requisite noir-ish qualities, but feels like a by-the-numbers potboiler, punctuated by swooping aerial shots of L.A. courtesy of new director Justin Lin, whose intense close-ups bring to mind a Sergio Leone western. Although generally watchable, the inspiration that turned the first into an obsession for many seems to have drained out of writer Nic Pizzolatto’s prose, at least three hours into this eight-episode run.
Somehow, the first installment managed to take TV’s most venerable genre and put a fresh coat of paint on it, thanks to the intoxicating mix of McConaughey’s unorthodox, philosophizing cop, its grisly crime and the time-bending narrative. Here, Pizzolatto more straightforwardly plows ahead, featuring four disparate characters whose paths begin to intersect only near the end of the first hour.
The quartet features three cops and one criminal, the last played by Vince Vaughn, whose character, Frank Semyon, is desperately pursuing a land deal that will allow him to go legit. Still, a complication, in the form of a dead body, threatens to derail those plans, while creating an awkward alliance among a boozing detective (Colin Farrell, somewhat playing against type), a brooding highway-patrol motorcycle cop (Taylor Kitsch) and a sheriff’s detective (Rachel McAdams), each of whom sports a constipated look indicative of a painful past, a personal secret, a bad attitude or some combination of all three.
There’s a bit of happenstance in what unites them, which helps explain why the premiere requires considerable patience. Indeed, if ever a high-profile series called for a binge model to get past the producers’ decision to slowly tease out plot, this would be the poster child.
Once the ball gets rolling, though, the new “Detective” feels increasingly mundane — in tone and style, a bit like a lesser Michael Mann movie stretched out in episodic form. Part of that might have to do with the necessity of serving the multiple leads, at the expense of the focus on two that the first enjoyed. While this all might converge in a way that knocks your socks off, there’s marginal evidence of things really heating up until after July 4.
In the process, Pizzolatto — whose directing partner on the first, Cary Fukunaga, has taken his distinctive vision and moved on — delivers a hard-boiled but cliched view of L.A., framed by overhead views of tentacle-like freeways and ugly power plants. The cops’ journeys yield encounters with scheming actresses, ghoulish clinics for the rich, underground clubs and hippy-dippy spiritual retreats, set against a backdrop of money and corruption.
None of the shortcomings are necessarily the fault of the stars, who are saddled with a heaviness and gloom that pervades the entire production. As noted, there are first-rate actors down to the fringes — James Frain, W. Earl Brown, Lolita Davidovich, Abigail Spencer, David Morse and Kelly Reilly as Frank’s wife among them — reflecting all the trappings of a prestige project, even if what emerges doesn’t initially scale those heights.
Vaughn has the juiciest role out of the gate as the cornered crook, but as with everything else, his distinctive speech pattern feels pallid compared with McConaughey’s monologues, developed before anyone thought to try selling cars with them.
Having seen this much, there’s certainly a sense of curiosity regarding where the story ends up, and a relatively short commitment to reach the finish line. And expecting Pizzolatto to catch lightning in a bottle again, starting from scratch with a new directing team and cast, was perhaps simply too much to ask.
For HBO, the anticipation the first go-round engendered qualifies as a high-class problem. Although the gap between seasons one and two isn’t severe enough to merit the sort of angst in which these characters are mired, “True” fans might still come away feeling let down, if not downright blue.