At one point in True Detective’s season-two premiere, Detective Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) has a blunt conversation with her sister, Athena (Leven Rambin), after she discovers she’s working as a webcam performer. The siblings fundamentally differ in their opinions on pornography, with the detective taking the moral porn-is-the-devil position while Athena, who deems Ani’s viewpoint as high and mighty, considers her job of little consequence in the grand scheme of things. The underlying conflict of this exchange is whether porn is an evil that should be taken seriously or a frivolous indulgence in the grand scheme of things. It’s a brief argument, but it encapsulates the show’s troubling, unconvincing depiction of the Great White Cynic as America’s last true hero.
To be fair, this issue also initially debilitated True Detective’s inaugural season, only to be increasingly questioned and undermined as the series went on. The dark path that led the two detectives to Carcossa followed a rote narrative trajectory, but Cary Fukunaga’s alluring, atmospheric imagery and the consideration of how time effects memory, physicality, and empathy peppered the familiar story with a distinct visual flavor. The second season, set in modern-day California, in the city of Vinci, comes off as far duller in its mordant pseudo-realistic moodiness, which comes off as a well-crafted but tinny Michael Mann knock-off. The story concerns a group of cops corralled together to investigate Ben Caspere, a Vinci government official whose corpse turns up at a coastal picnic area, his eyes burnt out with acid and his crotch blown off by a shotgun. That last bit could very well be the poster art for the season, as the series seems deeply concerned with reminding everybody how very hard it is to have a dick, a point highlighted by the lugubrious tone and use of hard colors—browns, tans, dark blues, blacks, and deep greens—that goes from effecting to risible within the first episode.
Thankfully, the actors work the material for what its worth. Vince Vaughn’s take on Frank Semyon, a gangster who lost money and a big opportunity when Caspere was murdered, is genuinely menacing—that is, when he’s not simply asked to brood. The problem is that he, like McAdams and Colin Farrell, playing the hard-drinking, violent, and deeply corrupt Detective Ray Velcoro, is clearly weighed down by the tortured glumness that creator and main writer Nic Pizzolatto insists on. The gloom feels especially oppressive in the passages concerning Paul Woodrow (Taylor Kitsch), a motorcycle cop taken off his route due to a sex scandal involving an actress, and his otherwise complicated sexual psychology. In fact, sexual hang-ups provide the undercurrent of the entire season, from Velcoro’s inability to take up with a loving and literally scarred barmaid to Bezzerides’s fuck-and-run behavior with a fellow officer. The kicker is Jordan (Kelly Reilly), Semyon’s Lady MacBeth-esque wife, who won’t have sex with him to conceive a child and demands to be artificially inseminated.
There’s an intermittently engaging trashiness to this season of True Detective, but the overall production feels overbearingly self-serious, though not in any self-aware way that would excuse the entire death-drunk schematics Pizzolatto has designed here. For the first two episodes, Justin Lin takes the director’s chair and, much like his work on the Fast and the Furious franchise, his technical chops are the very definition of competent, only alluring in the occasional gleaming nighttime chases and insider baseball involving the high-speed railway that Semyon is trying to put his money behind. In fleeting glimmers, one can see the show’s roots in that great behemoth of California-set detective stories, Chinatown; in one of the better scenes, Velcoro’s father, played by Fred Ward, gets lit while watching William Wellman’s Detective Story, amid yet another loaded conversation in yet another dimly lit room meant to look potently funereal. In this case, at least Ward’s subtle, grumbling bitterness gives a clear sense of what Velcoro has been simultaneously running away from and toward during his entire career as a cop.
There are quite a lot of brooding conversations in dark rooms throughout True Detective, but the show’s signature visual move is the helicopter shots of California at night, the landscape littered with blips of yellow, orange, and blue light bouncing off industrial metal. Staring at this sprawling grid of lights, it’s hard not to think of the concluding sequence of the last season, in which Matthew McConaughey’s Rust pontificates about the stars in the sky symbolizing wonder and hope in a world full of darkness. Season two, conversely, turns that feeling on its head, seeing the lights piercing the darkness as quite literally manufactured, meant only to illuminate industry and the vast infrastructure that connects and runs through America. As much as these images reflect the quartet of lost souls at the center of the story, they’re similarly apt symbols of Pizzolatto’s largely unchallenged and absurdly cynical perspective on life.