Last night saw the return of one of television’s most unique and innovative shows, an exploration into a world few viewers could know about. The escalating series of conflicts drove a strong narrative while never failing to be visually, even viscerally, thrilling; it’s no exaggeration to say sparks flew in every episode. The main characters were like no others ever broadcast before, accessible previously only to those who lived in its particular, heightened subculture; these characters were iconic while being, in the truest sense of the word, inhuman. I for one am glad to see its return.
Enough about Battlebots. True Detective launched its second season last night with an episode that did what was necessary for a second season premiere, with all the flaws and promise that suggests. The first season was remarkable and uneven; for me, it never settled on what it was supposed to be, quite possibly because it was aiming at a procedural/Southern Gothic hybrid. By moving to present-day Los Angeles County (it’s a nice touch that we only see the LA Sheriff’s Department, not the LAPD), Nic Pizzolatto takes the second season into more familiar territory.
Sometimes it’s too familiar. Joseph Wambaugh, James Ellroy, Shawn Ryan, and especially Robert Towne have been through this territory before. Towne and Jack Nicholson planned a trilogy on the three elements that made Southern California: water, oil, and land, with Chinatown and The Two Jakes making the first two. This season feels like it might be the third part of that trilogy. Vince Vaughn plays a criminal turned real-estate developer putting together a deal over a high-speed rail in the Central Valley, echoing how Southern Pacific bought up land when the rail first came to California. The city manager of the City of Vinci (if you think that name is too on-the-nose, know that Vinci looks like it’s actually the City of Commerce, which is adjacent to the City of Industry, and no I am not making those up) turns up dead at the end of this episode, with detective and officers Colin Farrell, Taylor Kitsch, and Rachel McAdams on the case.
Pizzolatto doesn’t escape cliché here; there are hard-drinking detectives, naked women, brass knuckles, criminals trying to go straight, movie stars on drugs, and fast motorcycles. He doesn’t always land the dialogue. He favors declarative sentences, often loaded with meaning, which worked well when Matthew McConaughey was the only one doing it, and when Woody Harrelson was there to listen. Here, it sometimes lands like an expression of a genuine feeling (see below), sometimes it feels like a chapter title (“this place is built on a codependency of interests”) and sometimes it’s Kitsch yelling “Black Mountain. We were working for America, Sir” which made me wonder if he was going to follow with “excuse me, but I was standing IN A FIELD IN AFGHANISTAN!” In terms of plot, character, and setting, though, this is a series rather than a season premiere, so if you’re gonna make a mistake, it’s good to make it on the side of clarity. It also makes sense not to take the story past cliché just yet.
The recurring theme of True Detective’s first season was, well, recurrence. No one can escape the past, not the hurt, not the families, not how it shaped the characters, and Pizzolatto created a nearly 20-year story to show that. Here, he shows it by starting the story in the present and only suggesting the past. There are so many scars here, literal and figurative; even the waitress at a small restaurant has them. It’s a smart move to get actors like Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn who can suggest so much just by their appearance. Farrell’s Sonny Crockett was the best part of Michael Mann’s Miami Vice film; knowing Mann’s practice of inventing backstories for his characters, I always thought Farrell’s character had thoroughly fucked up in the past. Here, we know he has, having most likely killed the man who raped his wife (and who might also be his son’s biological father) with information that Vaughn gave him. (In the present, he beats up a reporter getting dirt on Vaughn.) As for Vaughn, I’ve been wanting to see him in a role like this for a while now. There was always something scary in those eyes, something not engaging with the world, and no Gus van Sant, you didn’t use that in Psycho. Here, he’s all menace, all quiet, and still not at ease. He can command people in a dive bar but not in a formal dinner, and he knows it.
Director Justin Lin spends a lot of time just looking at the faces, often straight-on; there’s a good touch that McAdams never shows emotion to anyone but the camera. Lin and Pizzolatto don’t investigate the details in and around Los Angeles the way season one investigated Louisiana, at least not in this episode. The most favored shot is from helicopters, looking at the freeways, mountains, coastlines, and fields; the sense is less epic than documentary, like the placid footage in Koyaanisqatsi. It’s a noir but one that emphasizes open space.
Pizzolatto has a good instinct for the strange, something on display all through the first season, coupled with the sense of pessimism so strongly expressed by Rust Cohle. The strongest, and most unique, scene here has David Morse as McAdams’ father; he’s become the leader of an Ojai Institute-like retreat. He has gotten past the pain and responsibility of his wife’s suicide and believes “this is how we must live now, in the final age of man.” Like Cohle, it’s the conviction that makes it land–I don’t believe it, but I believe he believes it, and so does McAdams. Morse and McAdams are like the two halves of Cohle, one who got past the grief and one who didn’t. He also brings in some nice recurrences from the first season: the titles are done in the same way, with a different song and an emphasis on circles rather than crosses; and Kitsch suicidally riding his motorcycle without lights calls up the visions of Cohle, especially the final one.
Joan Didion once wrote that California was “a place where a boom mentality and a sense of Chekovian loss meet in an uneasy suspension,” and that’s much the feel here. Looking forward, my hope is that Pizzolatto keeps that going while sticking close to the requirements of a good modern procedural.
Reviews for this season of True Detective will appear weekly Sunday night/Monday morning.