While people disagree over what made the first season of “True Detective” such an addictive experience, most would agree it owed a lot to its mystery; a mystery enhanced by sure-handed direction, choice central characters and commanding performances that made creator Nic Pizzolatto’s words spring off the page with unique vibrancy. Yet the show wasn’t about the mystery. In the end, the plot was a means to an end, and that takeaway had much more to do with the characters than the crime. Season 2 keeps that crucial tradition alive, even as the plot gets in the way more often than it should.
Rebooted with new detectives and a new location, Season 2 doesn’t need to work as hard as it does to be its own story. It literally is its own story, totally separate from Rust Cohle and Marty Hart’s Louisiana adventures. Sadly, it’s quite nearly tonally separate, as well. Justin Lin’s first two episodes suffer most from a lack of hypnotic style, as the director of four “Fast and Furious” movies relies too heavily on overhead shots of interstates to create an atmosphere for the SoCal-set season, rather than digging deep into the ugly corners of every location like his predecessor Cary Fukunaga did during Season 1. The colors, framing and attempts at artistry aren’t for naught, but they don’t add up to anything visually cohesive — just random moments of stark beauty.
Pizzolatto’s script doesn’t do him any favors. Without being too spoiler-heavy — as most people reading this have likely already decided to watch at least the first few episodes — the new season is notably lacking in the colorful moments that helped make Season 1 so touching. Many attributed Marty and Rust’s cop car diatribes to the actors’ unmatched chemistry, but — as true as that last statement is — Pizzolatto seemed to know just when to drop in a joke to break up the drama. His Season 2 story allows for little to none of that, as it is much more tightly tied to its plot.
It’s also much darker fare than before. No women are tortured, killed and tied to a tree, but the lack of levity combined with a newfound need for exposition make the first three episodes a bit of a slog. During the premiere episode, Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) and her partner are shown driving away from an interview. A few curt words are exchanged and then we’re on to the next scene. It’s a notable exchange because Season 2 is full of instances that seem to exist mainly as a way for Pizzolatto to say, “We’re not doing that again.” No more long, philosophical bonding moments between partners. No more interrogation room chats leading to flashbacks (a trait quickly acknowledged and dismissed). No more decades-long search for a serial killer.
What’s frustrating about these deletions isn’t that audiences want exactly what they’ve seen before, but that this new story works best when Pizzolatto embraces the attributes he’s actively rejecting. Once it’s established that Vince Vaughn’s character (the only primary player who’s not a cop) isn’t necessarily the “big bad,” the plot picks up. Diving into the character’s backgrounds is done so thoroughly in the first episode, it’s borderline exhausting; but it pays dividends in Episodes 2 and 3. Eventually, Pizzolatto even works his way back to those car rides, and — though the rapport between detectives is less entrancing — they provide some of the most enjoyable moments of the young season.
It’s in these specific moments — when the story is stripped away and the characters can breathe — that “True Detective” feels like its old, better self again. Expectedly, they function best when they’re together. Be it during those less lengthy drives, while interrogating subjects, or when they’re called to action, the four leads bounce off one another with an enticing spirit. Be it Colin Farrell’s burned out bagman, Taylor Kitsch’s ex-military motorcycle cop, Rachel McAdams’ straight-laced hardass or Vaughn’s recovered former criminal taking a backslide, Pizzolatto’s characters are as top notch as ever. None of these fine thespians match the work of their preceding detective pair, but — thankfully — none of them are trying. I was most worried about Vaughn, the wild card of the bunch given his established background as a comedy star, but even he doesn’t swing for the fences. Each and every actor understands their role intimately, and you can see them building toward greatness throughout the first three episodes.
McAdams, in particular, stands out, and you get the feeling early on the second season as a whole will hinge upon her development. After three episodes, there’s no question she can handle whatever’s thrown her way. The popular rom-com star settles into Ani’s skin with surprising ease, instantly owning the role and overcoming some difficult introductory scenes packed with what’s nearly too much information. Instead of overplaying these difficult moments, McAdams cuts to the core of her character, refusing to play into stereotypes on either side of past “lady cop” examples. Not too hard, not too weak, Ani is the truest detective of the bunch.
And therein lies the key. Season 1 used its crime story to offer two detectives a path toward redemption. Season 2 finds four lost souls looking for a way out, and someone has to be steering them toward the light. With most of her co-stars being tasked to go too grim, too fast, Ani is that person. So far — despite getting a bit lost among the new format, more characters and a heavier tone — it appears she can still lead this group out of the darkness.