TV Review: True Detective Season 2 (USA, 2015)

The second season of True Detective was always going to be a hard-sell. The first season of Nic Pizzolatto‘s crime anthology series combined exceptional writing, acting, direction and cinematography to great success. As a result, the pulpy and philosophical series became an instant classic amongst critics and audiences. However, this left the inevitable follow-up burdened with expectations it was likely impossible for it to meet. You have to wonder if it’s even possible to divorce Season 2 from the shadow of its predecessor.

Season 2 of True Detective is fascinating in the way it tries to be so aggressively different from the first season – yet when all is said and done, a lot of the series’ structural and stylistic elements persist. The overgrowth of Deep South gives way to the Californian urban decay and the scope of the series narrative is magnitudes larger. Pizzolatto boldly throws out all the texture and characterization that arguably defined that first season, but retains the rulebook that guided the series’ trademark intensity and style. It’s a big gamble that begs at your attention – and even if it’s an ultimately unsuccessful gamble, you have to appreciate the intentions, ambition and guts behind it.

Like the first season, it focused on the sprawling investigation of a city official in the corrupt town of Vinci. Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) and Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) make up the task force set up to investigate the city manager’s murder – local gangster Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) has his own reasons for being caught up in the proceedings. I found Farrell and McAdams to be the most compelling while Kitsch and Vaughn were more forgettable – even if they do represent some really interesting potential ideas that I’d have liked to see develop.

I really enjoyed how the show didn’t shy away from complexity here with each member of the task-force bringing their own agenda to the table. Ray is there to protect the mayor’s interests, Ani wants to try and bring to light the corruption the victim was involved in while Paul simply wants to clean up his own reputation. These criss-crossing motivations see the team more resistant to working alongside each other in a dynamic that’s refreshingly different from the partnership between Rust and Marty in the first season. That said, it does come with the drawback of weighing the pacing down with dense and convoluted exposition. This isn’t always a bad thing, but it does prevent the season from being so immediately watchable in the way that the first was.

Though the second does a serviceable job of translating the style of the first season into a new environment, the loss of director Cary Fukunaga is definitely felt. The direction isn’t poor necessarily, but – like the season as a whole – it lacks the courage to creep out from the shadow of its predecessor. The dialogue suffers from similar inconsistencies. A lot of critics have crucified the season for its overwritten and overwrought dialogue but I think a lot of it very much in line with the pulpy precedent left by its predecessor. That said, there’s little that comes even close to some of the energetic and memorable ramblings of Rustin Cohle.

Despite its abandonment of the frame-narrative structure, Season 2 often finds itself treading a lot of the same story beats as Season 1. There’s plenty of slow and methodical investigation sequences, car-trip philosophy debates and a big action sequence at the halfway mark. However, for all these small moments, the show just doesn’t have the same spark and energy that elevated it last year.

If this series wasn’t attached to the True Detective franchise, maybe it would be greeted with more praise but the series’ flaws would persist. There’s something tragic in that despite all that Pizzolatto has done to try and move away from the bar set by the first season, it’s impossible to not make comparisons between the two. And, when it comes down to these comparisons, Season 2 just isn’t as good.

Let’s hope that Season 3 is a return to form.

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

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