Review: Has ‘True Detective’ fallen victim to the sophomore slump?

Midway through watching the very first episode of “True Detective” season 1, Matthew McConaughey's Rust Cohle delivered what was already his fourth or fifth monologue about the pointlessness of existence, and I jotted down the following note:

Do I want to watch many hours of McConaughey saying this (stuff)?

As it turns out, I did. McConaughey was just that mesmerizing, Woody Harrelson wasn't far behind, and the direction of Cary Joji Fukunaga was so stunning that I was able to look past Cohle's lectures, the thinness of the female characters (or, really, anyone who wasn't Rust or Marty Hart), and the serial killer tropes and other recycled devices and even lines of dialogue peppered throughout Nic Pizzolatto's scripts. It had its flaws, but it was still one of the best things on TV a year ago.

Pizzolatto's writing was memorable, mixing in hard-boiled detective cliches with Cohle's nihilist philosophy, literary allusions and hints of something supernatural, and toggling between multiple time periods as it presented its story as an interlocking pair of tales told by the two ex-partners. It was filled with familiar devices of crime fiction, but was aware of how familiar they were and let its heroes – often looking directly into the camera (and at the viewer at home) – comment on them and preempt criticism of them. The closer we got to the end – particularly once Cohle and Hart exited their respective police interviews and we witnessed all action in present day – the more conventional the series felt, to the point where the finale involved them chasing a bogeyman through a haunted house. But there was an alchemy going on between his purple prose, Fukunaga's direction, and the transcendent performances of his leading men. You could suggest that, of the show's three core elements, the scripts were in obvious third place behind the acting and the directing, but Pizzolatto was the one who gave McConaughey and Harrelson the material they played so beautifully, and that Fukunaga found such visual inspiration in.

And without his original collaborators around, Pizzolatto struggles often to turn leaden stories and dialogue into another season of Golden Age drama.

With “True Detective” season 2 (it debuts Sunday at 9 on HBO), Pizzolatto is still writing all the scripts. McConaughey and Harrelson, meanwhile, have been replaced by a new cast of movie actors willing to give a few months to this new anthology miniseries format, including Colin Farrell, Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams, and Taylor Kitsch. Fukunaga, who helmed all eight episodes last year, has given way to Justin Lin and an eclectic group of other directors. (The third of the three episodes HBO made available to critics comes from Danish documentarian Janus Metz Pedersen, and Miguel Sapochnik – who was responsible for orchestrating the zombie chaos of “Hardhome” for “Game of Thrones” – was behind the camera for a later installment.)

The story this time involves a fictionalized city on the outskirts of LA called Vinci, which has a population of 95 but has attracted enough industry to make it a gold mine for its corrupt officials and the gangsters who support them. The city manager disappears – having absconded with $5 million that local wiseguy Frank Semyon (Vaughn) was using to go legit – and the case results in a task force including crooked Vinci cop Ray Velcoro (Farrell), Ventura sheriff's detective Ani Bezzerides (McAdams), and war veteran turned highway patrol officer Paul Woodrugh (Kitsch).

It's twice as many main characters as last time, each with a conflicting agenda, and the supporting cast is more robust and prominent – and, like last year, features a bunch of familiar HBO faces like W. Earl Brown (Velcoro's partner), Ritchie Coster (the perpetually, epically drunk mayor of Vinci), James Frain (one of Velcoro's commanding officers), Michael Hyatt (a state prosecutor investigating Vinci corruption), and David Morse (a local New Age guru). Pizzolatto endured many complaints last season that Rust and Marty were the only well-defined characters, but there was also something to be said for that streamlined narrative and the intense focus it allowed on those two men.

For that matter, that there's a woman among the four leads – and that Kelly Reilly, playing Frank's wife Jordan, gets more to do in the early going than Michelle Monaghan did a year ago – feels like a response to criticisms that Pizzolatto didn't write women well, or at all. That he deliberately makes Bezzerides someone who has shed as much of her femininity as possible to survive in a very male, violent world – “Fundamental difference between the sexes,” she tells Velcoro, “is one can kill the other with his bare hands” – is itself a familiar and well-honored piece of police fiction (see also Kima on “The Wire”), but it also plays as an easy way for Pizzolatto to incorporate a woman into his usual fascination with masculinity.

And boy oh boy, is “True Detective” season 2 fascinated with masculinity – at times to the point where scenes play like unintentional self-parody.

Velcoro is a volatile, alcoholic repository of every self-destructive male archetype Pizzolatto hadn't already poured into Rust Cohle. At one point, he visits a doctor who advises him that while it's not impossible to live with unhealthy habits, he'd be better off not having every one under the sun. To make sure an intimidation victim gets the point he already made with blood, Ray warns him, “I'll come back and (violent sexual act) your (male loved one) with your (female loved one)'s headless corpse on your lawn.”

Frank, worried about the state of both his criminal empire and his sperm as he and Jordan struggle to conceive, considers himself and laments, “Behold, what was once a man.” Paul Woodrugh receives all the attention from women that someone who looks like Taylor Kitsch would, but he's struggling with physical and emotional scars from his time overseas, not to mention a secret that plays clumsily into Pizzolatto's favorite themes.

These are all excellent actors, most of them trying to push themselves out of their comfort zone in the same way McConaughey and Harrelson did, but with more mixed results. McAdams does very well at displaying a sharper edge than she usually gets to employ, and Farrell (hiding under a mustache so droopy, it must have been designed to put Rust Cohle's to shame) does what he can to find the man inside all the cliches. But while it's refreshing to see Vaughn embracing the darkness that typified many of his early roles before he became America's Favorite Bro, he struggles mightily to deliver the very mannered dialogue Pizzolatto has given him. And Kitsch simply doesn't have enough to play – or, at least, enough variety – to make much of an impression beyond his usual striking physical presence.

Fukunaga may have worked himself to exhaustion shooting all of season 1(*), but the end result was a show that looked incredible and distinct, and that had two magnificent performances at its heart. His replacements don't bring nearly as much to the table visually, other than a fascination with overhead shots of the LA freeway system. And where the show last season went out of its way to avoid showing you the many horrible things its heroes paid witness to, the new season has no compunctions about being graphic, including a loving glimpse of a corpse missing both eyes and its genitals.

(*) There were reports of discord between Pizzolatto and Fukunaga last season, and one of the new episodes features a visit to a film set with an Asian-American director styled to resemble Fukunaga, in a manner meant to be unflattering to one man, but which reflects more poorly on the other.

The case is more complicated than last year's, but also treated as besides the point. (“One question: Am I supposed to solve this or not?” Ray asks his superiors, who are more concerned with the idea that the task force is secretly investigating how they run the city.) Many season 1 viewers got upset after it became clear that all the mystical references weren't clues to the case, but simply local color, which rendered their various pet theories (and the time they had spent concocting them) moot. Here, Pizzolatto makes sure to keep everything relatively earthbound, but that does the plot no favors – especially since the most memorable early moment involves him opening the door a crack to allow something more metaphysical to briefly slip back in.

The first season snuck up on everyone, as much as an HBO drama starring McConaughey and Harrelson could. No one knew what to expect from this show and its neophyte creator. As a result, it moved through the hype/backlash/backlash-to-the-backlash stage with as much force and speed as any new show I can recall. This season has been exhaustively covered since before it was even officially ordered. It will sneak up on no one, and comes bathed in the harsh light of the objections that came late in the first season. Pizzolatto has structured the season to respond to many of those complaints, but not necessarily in a way that serves what he does well. It has more characters who at least have ambitions towards depth, even though it complicates the storytelling more than is ideal. It has a woman in a primary role, even if she carries herself like a man. And it has no obscure hints that will be over-analyzed to the point of disappointment, even if it makes the narrative less exciting overall.

Through his novels and the start of “True Detective,” it was clear that Pizzolatto has a certain kind of story (and character) he's comfortable with, and that he can tell incredibly well under the right circumstances. The second season has him at times contorting himself into doing things that don't play as well to his strengths, and at others cranking up his specialties – including a level of grimness so unrelenting, it's almost startling when Velcoro makes a joke in episode 2 – too high to deal with the pressure of following up his impressive debut without the collaborators who helped make it great.

When Pizzolatto and I spoke at the end of the first season, he said one of the governing principles of the series, no matter how many elements changed from season to season, would be that “everything is a story.” Many of that year's best moments involved the older versions of Rust and Marty looking at the interview camera and spinning some version of their past that didn't quite track with what Pizzolatto and Fukunaga would then show us in flashback. There's not nearly as much of that this year, unfortunately, though one of the new season's very first scenes puts Velcoro in a conference room to explain his backstory to a lawyer he's retaining for a custody fight with his ex-wife. When he's finished, she asks if anything he did in a previous job will hurt him in this matter.

“No,” he tells her confidently. “I welcome judgment.”

Judgment of “True Detective” season 2 will likely be harsher than that of season 1 – and, unless the season improves off this bumpy beginning, it may invite further judgment of what Pizzolatto and company did back then.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at