The anthology crime series relocates to California: grisly murder abounds

In his 2014 song “Nevermind”, Leonard Cohen explores notions of exile and betrayal during wartime. “I had to leave my life behind,” he reflects. “I dug some graves you’ll never find / I was not caught, though many tried / I live among you, well disguised”. Part of Cohen’s song has now been redeployed as the theme music for True Detective Season 2; allowing the song to take on a subtly different meaning in this fresh context. We can now infer that Cohen’s observations on defeat, dishonour and division are no longer restricted to the battlefield alone. In this instance, they also extend to the officers of different California law enforcement agencies, who are forced to work together to solve the grisly murder of a city manager. Describing a specific situation in this new series, one character says, “Two tons of shit. Collapse of civilization. Revenge flick.” Essentially, this is a useful shorthand for the show itself.

Looking back, the first series of True Detective posed a significant gamble for showrunner, Nic Pizzolatto. Fundamentally a standard police procedural, Pizzolatto’s witty chronology, auterist trappings and more outré plot points hinted tantalizingly at something weirder lurking behind its murder plot than just the usual serial-killer gubbins. But once you’d stripped away the cosmic jabbering, the allusions to Lovecraft, Vonnegut and Thomas Ligotti and the search for various esoteric truths, the show really did end up as a variation of the usual serial-killer gubbins. Carcosa and the Yellow King really were just fancy McGuffins: who knew? Pizzolatto might argue that the journey was more important than the destination itself, although for Season 2 he conspicuously dispenses with virtually everything that made the show a hit in the first place. On a superficial level, the setting is different – an industrial city a few miles south of Los Angeles replaces rural Louisiana – while the buddy-cop dynamic of the first series has been substituted for an expanded cast including three police officers and a career criminal trying to go legit. The hints of the supernatural are gone; though the pseudo-intellectual lingo remains: there is expansive talk of “a meaningless universe” and “the final age of man”.

Critically, for Season 1 Pizzolatto had Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as his two leads. For Season 2, it was unlikely he’d be able to successfully replicate their particular dynamic – or enjoy the benefits of a cultural spectacle like McConaughey’s career resurgence. But his casting choices this time round are, at the very least, interesting: Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Taylor Kitsch and Vince Vaughn. All of these actors will generally profit from the show’s profile – from Farrell, whose box office stock is low, to McAdams, for whom the show could effectively break her free from vanilla, good girl roles. But perhaps it’s Vaughn who may enjoy his McConaughey moment as career criminal Frank Semyon. Witness his monologue at the start of episode two, where he recalls being locked in a cellar as a six year-old, beating rats to death with his hands; a valuable reminder that Vaughn is a capable actor (it reminded me, too, to revisit his chillingly blank performance in Gus Van Sant’s Psycho).

Admittedly, these are essentially familiar characters. Farrell’s detective Ray Velcoro drinks hard and is swift to anger; he is heavily compromised; outside the job, he is slipping into a custody battle with his ex-wife. McAdams’ sheriff Antigone “Ani” Bezzerides comes with her own set of dramas – an estranged father, a troubled relationship with her sister – but she is outwardly tough, presumably to compensate for being a woman in a largely male environment. Taylor Kitsch’s Paul Woodrugh potentially might be the most interesting of the three, simply because on the strength of the first free episodes he remains the least knowable: secretive, stoic, possibly sexually confused, very definitely troubled by his war experiences. It doesn’t take a lot to work out they all have issues and chunky secrets; hopefully subsequent episodes will subvert the clichés accompanying them. As it is, the heavy lifting done by Farrell, McAdams and Kitsch is strong: Farrell’s handgdog moustache arguably deserves its own show. Incidentally, Farrell gets a couple of memorably explosive moments. “I’ll butt-fuck your father with your mom’s headless corpse on this lawn,” he bellows at his son’s bully, after repeatedly beating the boy’s father in the face while wearing a set of knuckle-dusters.

All four of them are drawn into a Chinatown-style plot based involving the California transportation system. The setting is Vinci, a fictional city in Los Angeles county: restless overhead tracking shots show factories belching smoke into the air or the freeway system at night. Vinci is, we learn, the worst air polluter in the state. One of Pizzolatto’s themes here revolves around institutional corruption: out here on the fringes, the police, property developers and local government all appear to have their own things going on, and the grisly murder of city planner Ben Caspar might bring to light a number of misdeeds. There is certainly internecine conflict between the various police agencies, which looks set to pit Velcoro against Bezzerides. So far, the story looks as if it will also extend to the sex industry and a cult-like “institute” run by benevolent/creepy David Morse (though I wonder how good Peter Fonda would have been in the role).

All of this is admittedly pretty diverting viewing, misgivings and all. It’s a relief that Pizzolatto has dropped the quasi-mystical Donnie Darko-isms of the first series in favour of something than feels more like a recognisable noir. Instead of 19th century horror writers, the reference points this time out are Chandler, Ellroy, Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Pizzolatto’s own (excellent) novel, Galveston. The sultry Southern Gothic vibes have been replaced by the murky Californian underworld. Uncut readers will also enjoy the show’s use of music – overseen by T Bone Burnett – which includes Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ cover of The Gatlin Brothers “All The Gold In California” as well as tracks by Bonnie Prince Billy and Black Mountain. Indeed, just as it’s possible to glimpse the direction of this second series of True Detective by Leonard Cohen’s ruminative opening song, you might also deduce some additional clues from the Gatlins song: “Trying to be a hero, winding up a zero / Can scar a man forever, right down to your soul”. It feels very much on message with Pizzolatto’s own storytelling instincts.

Follow me on Twitter @MichaelBonner

True Detective is on Sky Atlantic HD, Mondays at 9:00pm

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