Let’s get one thing out of the way first: True Detective Season 2 is written by the writer of its first season, but other than that it has nothing to do with Season 1. True Detective‘s second season tells a new story with an entirely different cast of characters in a new setting. This needs to be stressed because the series’ second run has been met with a lot of strange and unfair criticisms. Many critics seemed to cling to Season 1 and couldn’t watch the eight new episodes with an open mind; they wrote about how Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson’s characters were sorely missed, about the first season’s occult undertones, and about Cary Fukunaga’s immaculate direction that now wasn’t there. While those elements certainly set Season 1 apart and made it the success it was, that’s in the past now. Season 2 should be approached as a new series, looked at with a fresh set of eyes, and enjoyed as an autonomous and separate entity. When viewed that way, it works absolutely beautifully.
Season 2 takes place in California and centers on four main characters: Colin Farrell’s Vinci Police detective Ray Velcoro, Rachel McAdams’ Ventura County detective Antigone “Ani” Bezzerides, Taylor Kitsch’s Highway Patrol officer Paul Woodrugh, and gangster-turned-business man Frank Semyon, portrayed by Vince Vaughn. When a corrupt city manager is found murdered these characters are drawn together and what follows is an intriguing noir detective story that takes its time but slowly gives way to more and more layers, both plot- and character-wise. Writer Nic Pizzolatto has crafted a story that’s dark, twisted, dense, and rich with detail and poetic prose. Occasionally it’s too plodding for it’s own good, though; there are moments (particularly in the episode ‘Down Will Come’) that are downright repetitive, and several lines of dialogue are far too vague and pretentious to ring true. Those small quibbles aside, what Pizzolatto’s style allows him to do is to create a very strong atmosphere and mood, which is reinforced further by the writer’s influences: there are a lot of moments that are definitely inspired by the oeuvre of David Lynch, and you can’t quite watch True Detective Season 2 without thinking about the film noir classic Chinatown.
While Pizzolatto’s dialogue is very stylized, most of the time the cast totally has you buy into whatever their troubled characters say. It’s funny how Farrell, McAdams, Kitsch and Vaughn take these archetypical characters and make them feel fresh and human, instead of trite and clichéd. Take Farrell’s Ray Velcoro for example: he’s a corrupt, hard-drinking and -drugging, aggressive detective who tries to be good father to his kid, but (strangely) can’t seem to make that work. Given this description, you’d think that Velcoro is just another stock character, but Farrell adds much-needed humanity and dimension to his detective, not only making him a guy you can relate too, but you even root for. McAdams, Kitsch and Vaughn are just as great at bringing Pizzolatto’s characters to life and making them feel like actual human beings. It’s what hooks you: True Detective Season 2 offers terrific character studies in addition to its puzzle-like murder mystery, and its writer manages to give you wholly satisfying character arcs by the time the end of the season rolls around.
T Bone Burnett’s contribution to the material also can’t be denied: he’s back again as the season’s music supervisor and composer, and has delivered a gorgeous one-of-a-kind score. Burnett’s industrial droning beats, rumblings and electronics instill the show’s moments with unease, unpredictability and danger, and the inclusion of jazzy trumpets, synths and organic instruments either adds that detective movie flavor, provides a dose of warmth or boosts the season’s surreal qualities. Burnett’s work, combined with the beautiful cinematography and wonderful work from six directors, makes sure you’re on the edge of your seat the entire time, and you’re continually wondering how the show’s investigation will develop and what will happen to Season 2’s central characters. Everything ultimately culminates in a fascinating and satisfying finale that makes you pause, look back at the entire season, and makes you wonder what Pizzolatto will come up with next.
True Detective Season 2 tells a dark, meaty and enveloping detective story. Its cast delivers mesmerizing performances and thus brings the show’s flawed but truly fascinating characters to life. 8/10