‘True Detective’ Season 2 Review: So Is This Thing Good Or What?

The first season of True Detective burst through the door like cops on a drug raid. Created by a largely unknown writer, and carried by serious performances from actors largely associated — at that point — with goofball off-screen personalities, the series captivated audiences and critics as it spun a time-shifting tale about damaged cops and creepy Louisiana murders. Seriously, people were Going. Nuts. for this show. Go back and check if you don’t remember. People had theories, and examinations of potential literary influences, and bad drawings (you’re welcome), all the way up until the finale, which let some people down because they felt it bailed out of an escape hatch rather than confront all the things it spent hours setting up. It got a little out of hand, to be honest.

Point being: True Detective returns for a second season this Sunday, June 21. Gone are your McConaugheys and Harrelsons and potential spaghetti-faced serial killers, replaced by a new set of actors — Colin Farrell, Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams, and Taylor Kitsch — and a plot about crooked and occasionally murdered California politicians. HBO released screeners for the first three episodes, which I watched earlier in the week. Hopefully I can help you out with any questions you have about the show. Please, fire away.

Is it good?

I mean, that depends. Did you like the first season? Because if you liked the first season, there are a lot of things you’ll probably like here. Colin Farrell’s character is another self-destructive, mustachioed cop with a troubled past. The characters played by Rachel McAdams and Taylor Kitsch are self-destructive, non-mustachioed cops with a troubled pasts. Sometimes they make pronouncements about The World and The Way Things Are. There’s not necessarily a playbook Nic Pizzolatto is using here, but there is a framework. Although I suppose it wouldn’t have made much sense to take a successful detective show titled True Detective and make it about, like, trapeze artists in a traveling circus or something, even though trapeze artists traveling the country solving murders would be a great show.

So it’s bad?

Nope, I wouldn’t say that. There’s plenty of positive things in the first three episodes. The characters are a lot more than different-shaped Rust Cohle clones. Farrell’s character, Ray Velcoro, has some depth that they lay out pretty quickly, and McAdams’ character, Ani Bezzerides, is a hard-drinking, hard-gambling, porn-loving, knife-wielding daughter of a hippie, which is better than it sounds, I promise, and just about the furthest thing from Regina George you could ever imagine.

But the most surprising thing — and I kind of can’t believe I’m going to say this — is that Vince Vaughn is pretty good as the mob boss, Frank Semyon. I was expecting the full Vince Vaughn, all chatter and “ear muffs” and what have you. What we get instead is a pretty understated, menacing criminal. Things kinda hit the fan for Frank early on, and Vaughn does a surprisingly good job with the desperation and simmering rage.

So… it’s good?

At one point Farrell’s character sees McAdams’ character vaping and says smoking e-cigarettes is like “sucking a robot’s dick.”

So it’s bad then?

But even the occasional clunking dialogue and vaping cop aside, there are a lot of intriguing boxes opened up in the first three episodes. Without getting too far into things and dropping some #spoilers, the sprawling plot about criminal politicians and shady underworld deals is a lot more ambitious and, potentially, more satisfying than a season-long whodunnit. And the first couple episodes are really pretty to look at, thanks to the directing job of Fast & Furious veteran Justin Lin, whose steady hand drives home the dark, dark themes Pizzolatto sets up.

Okay, so it’s good?

Well, if last season was any indication, Pizzolatto is great at opening up the boxes and building lots of intrigue. Bringing it all to a satisfying conclusion is where it gets a little dicey. (Note: I liked the Season 1 finale more than some critics, but even I’ll admit it tried to wrap up a complicated plot awfully neatly.) That’s not to say he didn’t learn some lessons from Season 1 and come in this time with adjustments and a plan to wrap this sucker up like a birthday present, just that this part — the first part — was his strong point.

Also, unlike the first season when Cary Fukunaga handled the whole thing, this time the show will swap out directors throughout the season. So Lin is out after the first two, handing off to someone else, who will hand off to someone else, and so on and so forth, like a traditional drama.

So it’s… dammit. Will you just tell me if it’s good or bad?

Here’s what I’ll say: I was pretty skeptical heading into this. I had real doubts about the show’s ability to re-invent itself, and some of the casting, and whether I’d be able to get past all the hype of the first and fatigue of the whole #TrueDetectiveSeason2 thing. But after watching the first three episodes, I can safely say I’m in. There are some things that worry me a bit, sure. I watched all three episodes in a 24-hour span, and it might feel like it’s moving a little slow in one-hour increments spaced a week apart. And each of the four main characters is teetering a line between being complex/interesting and being a bit of a caricature (a troubled cop with daddy issues and a death wish, a criminal with daddy issues looking to get out after one big score, a knife-wielding ladycop who vapes and has daddy issues, etc.). Right now they’re all on the good side of the line in my ledger, but I reserve the right to update that as the series progresses. A lot could go either way.

But is it good? Yeah, it’s good so far. If it all lands, it could really be something. And if it doesn’t, it could really get messy. Either way, it’s definitely worth watching.