Cliche L.A. noir detective fiction in Sunday's opener, but gets better -- and more original -- over the subsequent two episodes.
THE SERIES "True Detective"
WHEN | WHERE Second season premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Det. Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) is a divorced father with father/son issues and a lot of other issues too, including old ties to Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn), a one-time hustler on the verge of his biggest score. Semyon is married to Jordan (Kelly Reilly), a former D-list actress who's found her soul mate. One fine and sunny L.A. day, Semyon's business partner goes missing. This mystery will pull Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), a sheriff's detective, Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), a motorcycle cop and war vet, and Velcoro together on a lonely stretch of highway. These three strangers share one other thing in common: Troubled personal lives. The eight-episode second season was also written and created by Nic Pizzolatto, creator of the acclaimed first.
MY SAY The hard, cold, and probably unwelcome news for "True Detective" fans is this: whatever brand of magic that made last year's "Detective" so determinedly watchable hasn't been re-bottled here. Something else got bottled instead, and whether that turns out to be as good or even better -- an unlikely outcome based on the first three episodes -- is not entirely clear. At least to Pizzolatto's and the cast's credit, guessing which way it goes could be most of the fun.
So what's wrong?
For one thing, this isn't "True Detective 1." Burdened by expectations, Season 2 is destined to fight the same rear-guard action of any sequel, namely fan ardor for the original. But "2" is the follow-up to a monster hit that launched a new HBO franchise. Some blowback is almost a given.
Anticipating this, Pizzolatto refused to repeat himself this time, so instead, the new season was relocated from Louisiana to Los Angeles, while Gothic horror elements were jettisoned along with that flash-forward/flashback narrative structure that energized the entire first season. And of course, there are new stars (Vaughn and Farrell replacing Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson).
The instinct to do something different may seem sound, but by setting a noirish detective series in L.A., "True Detective" has instantly found itself caught in the powerful orbit of "Chinatown" -- Robert Towne's 1974 masterpiece about evil under the L.A. sun -- and to a lesser extent the orbits of James Elroy, Raymond Chandler, Joseph Wambaugh and a half-century of noir in film, television and novel.
Good luck finding something original to say in that glorious and crowded genre, and Sunday's opener really doesn't. Director Justin Lin's moody pacing fairly screams "evil murder conspiracy." Aerial shots of tangled freeway overpasses are your guiding motif, suggesting arteries connecting some huge organism. A cancer grows somewhere down there among the palm trees. But where? (Joan Didion famously used the motif of a coiled rattlesnake in her 1970 classic about Hollywood depravity, "Play it As It Lays.")
The characters also initially feel boxed in by familiar antecedents or worse, by cliches -- all troubled cops with daddy issues who rely on booze or sex to get through the dark night of their souls. Velcoro is a corrupt burnout who can't contain his fury or self-loathing, but who also brings out the worst tendencies in the gifted actor playing him. Farrell oversells every scene, almost like he's trying to convince himself Velcoro isn't just one more minor variation on a thousand other TV/movie cops who pounded this particular beat. Even Vaughn's Semyon seems like another standard-issue L.A. mobster in a bespoke suit, with deep secrets, deep pockets and hollow soul.
But "True Detective" gets better. Pizzolatto is a terrific writer who crafts elliptical dialogue that builds the mystery and intrigue. The story, too, is the classic onion variety, with character reveals, motives and backstory arriving as each layer is peeled away. Semyon isn't who he initially seems to be, nor are the cops. Their stories and lives interweave in intriguing, potentially diabolical, ways.
"Potential," in fact, is the key word. It's definitely here, but "2" may also need all eight episodes to realize it.