In the winter/spring of 2014, the first season of HBO’s True Detective debuted to wide spread acclaim and love from viewers who were looking for a dose of metaphysical horror & lovecraftian mythos embedded within their crime fiction. Writer/creator/show runner Nic Pizzolatto started with what appeared to be your typical serial killer crime thriller and spun that out into a epic dark odyssey about ancient inner evil that spanned across a decade and dropped more philosophical knowledge bombs in eight episodes then you get from a four year liberal arts degree. As a one and done season, True Detective managed to get fanstastic performances from actors Mathew McConaughey & Woody Harelson while director Cary Funkunaga was a revelation with what is quite possibly the greatest tracking shot of all time and the high point of film making in 2014
More importantly to it’s context here, True Detective was profoundly influenced by Grant Morrison & Alan Moore, perhaps the two most important comics creators since Jack Kirby. That influence is embedded within the shows DNA and is inescapable without being derivative. Pizzolatto was clearly a disciple of the two creators which put’s him much closer to Jonathan Hickman, Warren Ellis, Ed Brubaker or Rick Remender then any TV show runner and by extension, made True Detective feel more like many of the best comics from the modern age then almost any comic book adaptation in film or television. Last Sunday True Detective returned with a new cast, new story and a new director, does it hold up?Two key differences that could have been problematic was the change in cast and director from the shows first to second season. While both McConaughey & Harrelson have had their ups and downs, by the time True Detective’s first season rolled around both were well respected actors with the former coming off an Oscar win and perhaps the most artistically satisfying run of his career. Moreover, while the first season had a larger cast, the story was principally focused on those two. Season two was already expanding on that formula by having four main characters played by all new actors. Colin Farrell has already proven he’s every bit the actor as McConaughey & Harrelson while McAdams is probably superior to all of them. But Vince Vaughn is a clown that long ago settled into playing the same character from Swingers over & over again to the most diminished of returns while Taylor Kitsch was supposed to be the next big star in Hollywood that instead acted wooden through three consecutive stink bombs in the summer of 2012 before fading into obscurity. More troubling was the change in director, which felt like going from a high end scotch to Jack Daniels in terms of quality. Season one director Cary Fukunaga had already shown what he could do in the excellent films Sin Nombre & Jane Eyre and he still managed to best himself on the True Detectives first season. With Fukunaga returning to film, the show did a total 180 on their decision making process in choosing Justin Lin, which, while much respect due for the pretty good Better Luck Tomorrow & creating salary cap fantasy basketball, is basically the guy that resurrected The Fast & Furious from a dying film series to the never ending franchise of ridiculousness that will forever keep Vin Diesel at the forefront of Hollywood & Paul Walker in our memories. Season two had a lot to answer for, chiefly being, could the infrastructure support the changes to it’s core? After last nights debut, it appears that it can, though whether it will is still up in the air.
To answer the immediate concerns proposed in the above paragraph, all the acting is great across the board and while Lin isn’t Fukunaga, he’s able to reign himself in enough to be absolutely fine in keeping with the shows visual aesthetic. Farell is especially brilliant as a drugged out over the edge city detective, while McAdams carries a sort of quiet anger to her acting that ratchet’s up the tension whenever she is on screen. Vaughn does a surprisingly subtle performance that underscores the character’s assumed inherent corruption and Kitsch nails down the meathead war vet state trooper style to a science. Season 2 takes place in the fictional Vinci California, allegedly the most “corrupt city in Los Angeles county” It follows the four main actors of the cast as they are each roped into solving the disappearance and ultimate murder of the city manager whose body is found along the coast at the shows conclusion. What’s most impressive this time around is how much story get’s packed into the first episode over a one hour period. Unlike season one, where the two cops jump into the mystery right away, the episode takes it’s time in letting the viewer get to know it’s cast and give the setting a sense of place. You get a full view of the community and people that distinguishes it all from any assumptions based on the previous season. Instead of relying on the inherent myth of it’s location like the show did with Louisiana in season one, here, the city of Vinci and it’s inhabitants are given a full and unique introduction. With the new setting and expanded cast, the first episode of this season set’s itself apart somewhat in being more sexual then it’s predecessor, from the moment the mystery starts going forward, sex as a theme becomes a through line throughout the first episode although it’s not made clear what any of that means at this point. Again, Lin isn’t Fukunaga but he has moments of inspiration like when we see Kitsch’s face as he rides his motor cycle down the Pacific Coast Highway with his head lights off or when Farell pulls on his ski-mask before roughing someone up. With all that said, Lin probably relies a little too much on overhead shots and score to convey mood and while it doesn’t kill the shows atmospheric qualities, it doesn’t enhance it either.
There are points where the plotting can be a tad bit lazy, particularly when Rachel McAdams just happens to run into her estranged sister doing porn and then her estranged new age mystic priest father to tell him about her sister doing porn on the same day while on the job. The part with her father is especially trying as it feels as if it’s solely a vessel of exposition designed to show us where McAdams is at with the shows philosophical leanings in the moment. Her acting keeps it from going off the deep end but it’s pretty awkward and clumsy regardless.
Comics wise, this felt closer to Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips existential horror meets California noir work from Image then anything else. While Pizzolatto hasn’t explicitly named checked those creators, there are shots in the first episode that look like they were directly lifted from Fatale. That said, LA Noir, tough guy cop; it’s all a pretty clean comparison no matter how accurate it ends up being in the long run. This is to say that the metaphysical aspects that show shared with Morrison & Moore haven’t popped up in the narrative yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s something that we see build out over time.
In it’s second season debut, True Detective is focused on building for the immediate future and it’s does that very well. There is nothing here yet that matches the transcendence of it’s first season and it’s possible that we may never reach the high point that was that seasons fourth episode with Lin as a director. But in it’s second season debut, the show stays true to it’s ethos while leaving the rest of the series wide open, taking only a small step into the abyss for now.