HBO’s “True Detective” was a breath of fresh air when it debuted last year, even when you could smell the swampy ozone as its heroes tracked a faceless evil through Louisiana.
The second season, debuting Sunday, cuts all ties to the people and places that fascinated “True Detective” viewers the first time around. But intricate conspiracies, introspective men in crisis and flashes of deadly violence have returned.
Instead of trying to force new actors to reproduce the first-season rapport between Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, “True Detective” hangs this story on four major players. It also moves the action to a polluted patch of California where homicide investigators have to ask the mayor, “Am I supposed to solve this or not?”
With the help of silk-suited mobster Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn), the tiny hamlet of Vinci has been twisting arms and buying votes to keep its property taxes from leaving for Sacramento. It’s a billion-dollar swindle arranged by city manager Ben Caspar, so when he goes missing, Vinci’s unofficial chamber of corrupt commerce panics.
Luckily for them, Colin Farrell was available to play Ray Velcoro, a burnout case on the Vinci Police Department who works for Semyon on the side. Velcoro lets Farrell return to his strengths as an actor: wearing a porn-worthy mustache and bolo tie, beating up nice suburban dads and nosy reporters, and eventually passing out drunk in public.
When Velcoro starts poking around Caspar’s house, he finds evidence that the missing official had a sex life on a level with Charlie Sheen and the Marquis de Sade.
The ensuing trail of frightened escorts, sex clubs and bondage closets confirms the show’s return to the theme of a supernatural evil driving the human kind. The show’s creator and writer, Nic Pizzolatto, said this season would explore the occult origins of the U.S. transportation system. It turns out he wasn’t kidding.
Once again, Pizzolatto has created a world where murders and government graft are covered up alongside secretive “Eyes Wide Shut”-style orgies. So maybe it’s a good thing that cops from two other jurisdictions join the hunt for Caspar. Velcoro is going to need all the help he can get.
Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) joins the team as a highway patrol officer recruited by the state’s attorney’s office. His motivation: solve the case so he can get back to patrolling the Pacific Coast Highway on his motorcycle.
Detective Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) represents the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department on the unofficial Caspar task force. After the examination of masculinity that nearly pushed women entirely off camera in Season 1, McAdams’ presence feels almost exotic. Bezzerides goes about her daily business looking a little disheveled, a clear indicator that McAdams will get to do some real acting.
Meanwhile, before they team up with their Snow White, Vaughn, Farrell and Kitsch might as well be dwarfs named Smarmy, Swarthy and Scowly. It’s not until everyone’s working together — despite conflicting motives — in the third episode that this “True Detective” finds its feet.
Last season’s self-serious story was bolstered by the unsettling visuals of director Cary Fukunaga, who had made introspective films like “Jane Eyre” before teaming up with Pizzolatto. To give this season its own distinctive feel, Justin Lin helmed the first two episodes, bringing along his action-sequence sensibilities from his work on the “Fast and Furious” franchise.
Not everything from Season 1 has changed. White men dominate the screen. Most of the female supporting roles are prostitutes or drug addicts, and Woodrugh’s girlfriend exists just to wait for him in a pair of cute panties.
Although it was wise not to try to repeat the double interrogation format of the first season, there are clever nods to those closed-room confessionals, and the show eventually eases into rewarding drive-and-talks between Farrell and McAdams. He compliments her on not looking stupid while smoking an e-cigarette. She explains why she’s always packing so many knives.
“I want you to know that I support feminism,” Velcoro tells her. “Mostly by having body image issues.”
What keeps this “Detective” from being quite as compelling as the first is the lack of early focus. Hints of Woodrugh’s past as a mercenary overseas are intriguing, as is a visit to Bezzerides’ hippie guru dad. He runs a retreat named after the ancient Crimean city of Panticapaeum, which will remind first-season fans of the mythological mutterings about Carcosa and the King in Yellow. Get Googling, obsessives!
Between the railroad kickbacks, fertility treatments and custody battles these characters are juggling, you could almost miss that shadowy guy wearing riot gear and a goat fetish mask.
A spot-on soundtrack kept the first “True Detective” grounded and gave it a voice, and this season will need more clever choices from musical director T Bone Burnett to keep it together. When Caspar’s body is finally found missing some highly symbolic parts, “True Detective” goes for the literal choice: a cover of the 1979 Gatlin Brothers classic about all the gold in California.
“It don’t matter at all where you’ve played before,” the music reminds us. “California’s a brand-new game.”
WHERE TO WATCH
Season 2 of “True Detective” premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday on HBO.