by: Steve Dixon
Los Angeles is notorious for many things. Sleaze, violence, drugs, sex, corruption and phony characters who aren’t what they seem. It’s also known for its spiderweb of highways and roads, crisscrossing on the outskirts cities, tying ribbons above street corners, and connecting places that perhaps shouldn’t be connected.
In fact, hardly anywhere in the Season 2 opener of True Detective takes us is far from any roads. A highway is always in the background, humming, bustling, and taking people to places both mundane and sinister. It is in this way that the four main characters of season 2 are initially only tied together.
As separate as they seem, we get a sense that these characters are indeed traveling the same roads, set on a collision course with one another that will propel us through the rest of the season. Indeed, it’s certain by the end of the episode that that’s where we are heading. But boy, getting there took a whole lot of head scratching and false starts.
The first episode of season two gave us an interesting take on character introductions, telling us a narrative that was set up in almost reverse order. We’re given snippets of these character’s lives first before we find out how they’re related in a format that blunders more than it intrigues.
Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn), is a mobster trying to carve out a legitimate business for himself by getting involved in a new high-speed rail line. Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) is a rough cop with a drinking problem, a dark past, and is bad with children. Ani Bezzirades (Rachel McAdams) is a sheriff who disapproves of her sister’s sex cam work and her father’s lofty New Age philosophizing. Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) is a war veteran turned highway patrol cop who has a few (many?) personal problems.
Where season one was tightly focused on the world of Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson), season two’s much broader scope gets off on the wrong foot by hiding how these characters are connected. We jump around their daily lives, listening to them deliver clunky dialogue to supporting cast members, and conduct business that feels meaningless and confusing.
The show also threatens to suffocate under its own darkness. Characters are drenched in shadow, and aerial shots of highways, plants, and cities have a brooding notion to them. This tone tells us that the characters we are following are clearly not okay, but they do a poor job of representing that inner darkness themselves. Harrelson and McConaughey felt deep and reflective, which made the tone feel like an extension of themselves and how they saw the world. Instead, season two, perhaps in an effort to match the strife of the first, feels it has to show us heavy drinking, cursing at kids, and dead-end pondering dialogue to try and make a point.
The problem is: we don’t know the point. Characters can philosophize all they want against the brooding backdrop, but without a main thread of conceit or plotline to string the story together, the first episode fails in making us care for these characters, their problems, or the setting.
The episode gains traction towards the end when it’s revealed that Velcoro is working, in unwilling debt, for mob boss Semyon. Here we are given a complex relationship, but no substance to go along with it. The show ends with the characters coming together, finally, on the side of a highway overlooking the ocean where the brutalized body of Semyon’s supposed-to-be face of the business is found. Here we have an idea what the setup will be and where the season is going, but perhaps it should have been introduced to us first.
True Detective gave us a poor first impression of its second season tonight, relying on tone to convey drama instead of characters conveying it themselves. Still, the show, almost torturously, pulls itself together and places these characters along the same road by the end. Only the following episodes will tell if these roads will take them apart, or bring them closer together in order to create something substantial for the characters and the audience.
Steve Dixon is a bus driver for four more days who likes to talk about stories too much. Follow him on twitter @Driver194.