Can the New Season of 'True Detective' Live Up to the Hype?

Our TV critic sifts for clues in the early episodes.

The second season of “True Detective” is here. We can follow it on Yes Oh simultaneously with our fellow American viewers and ask ourselves “Who shot?” and “Was it indeed a kill?” That’s if – like me at the time of writing – you’ve been left hanging from a cliff by series creator-writer Nic Pizzolatto at the end of episode two. Those of you who have already watched episode three (it’s on Mondays at 4 A.M., with a rerun that evening at 10 P.M.), please don’t call in with the answers to the questions above. Let’s not spoil each other’s fun.

In its first season, “True Detective” set quite an impossible standard of excellence (in terms of critical approval ratings) for a crime-procedural series. Part of it was the subgenre it created: It wasn’t a set of episodes, each about a crime committed and solved within an hour, loosely tied together by the chief sleuths with their personal stories, carrying the series from season to season. Instead, it was a fully-fleshed-out plot in eight chapters, in which the criminal and his nemeses are just a couple of threads in a very rich fabric whose texture is a very particular, typically local American locale.

Which means, among many other things, that each season is supposed to be not “more of the same,” but rather, a new novel each year, presented in a series of consecutive chapters, one every week.

So, what makes it a series of merit, raising the expectations bar? Most probably the title “True Detective,” implying that all other crime procedurals until now have been a contrived falsehood, a lie, a shred of fiction – contrary to the illusion they create and maintain of “life as it is,” which is why we follow them with bated breath.

Which sort of makes sense, when you think about it. In an average crime-procedural episode, truth will eventually come out, the villains end badly and the good guys and gals prevail. Our everyday experience, however, tells us it ain’t necessarily so, or seldom is.

To save us from all that, the first season of “True Detective” presented the antidote of “Southern Gothic” (Louisiana swamps, some spooky voodoo elements), plus two deeply flawed heroes given the inimitable life and souls of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson (their chemistry as a duo contributed a lot to the first season’s charm, and they remain as executive producers).

Given that the second series had to be in the same vein, yet needed to deliver “something completely different,” and expectations were absurdly high, the whole thing seemed to be “building up to an awful letdown” (as the Johnny Mercer-penned Fred Astaire song goes). The initial critical reception was – and remains, after episode three – skeptical, and “the jury is still out” on its merits.

Small city, big money corruption

The second season was already diagnosed, so to speak, by U.S. TV critics – at least as far as the “subgenre” is concerned – in terms of style and tone. In contrast to the first season’s “Southern Gothic,” the second season has been dubbed “California Noir.” It happens on the West Coast, but not in one of the expected hubs, i.e. Los Angeles or Hollywood.

It’s all about the fictional Vinci, a small and infamously corrupt industrial town in the real Ventura County. Instead of arid summer swamplands, we have intersecting and intertwining highways and byways, and it is mostly dark there – even in summertime. Instead of murky depths of rural witchcraft and disillusioned males, we have small city, big money corruption, wheeling, dealing and killing, with local and international (Russian) mob touches.

And, last but not least, one of the main characters is a woman. Yes, a woman as a heroine (there is much virtue in that final “e”), and not as a supporting character, sex object or merely as part of a backstory for the guys who are the soul of a story (for which women provide mainly the bodies).

She’s Ani (short for Antigone, of all possible first names) Bezzerides, played by Rachel McAdams. She serves in the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office, carries a couple of knives on her body at all times, is a loner and is wary of personal relations – especially men: It’s all connected to her growing up in a cult California commune led by her father, who’s also a character in the series.

The second episode has Ani in a motel room, late at night, wearing a short, white dressing gown and surfing the Web, possibly looking for clues, but equally possibly watching some kind of porn (or tracing her wayward sister Athena, who works as a Webcam girl).

When the body of Vinci city manager Ben Casper is found – dead and tortured, with a sleazy background unfolding and a trail of dirty money unwinding – Ani is one of the law and order functionaries in charge of the investigation. She’s advised not to trust Vinci Police Department Detective Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), who is, she is told, serving too many masters within city limits – some of them for a price – and is appointed to be her deputy on the case.

We soon learn he has some very bad habits (by his own admission), is on the take (from many sources), has a son who lives with his ex-wife, and a very twisted tangle of pecuniary and emotional interests. Corrupt to the core, he’s the one who voices doubt as to whether they’re supposed to solve the mystery or further obfuscate it, in the service of some shady interests of their superiors.

There’s also a criminal, Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn). He’s trying to crossover into “normative,” corrupt municipal politics, but is finding it hard to forego his old ways of getting his own way; he also has a lot riding on Casper’s life and death. Then there’s state policeman Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch – ah, what’s in a name), who’s on probation of sorts. As he found the dead body, he’s delegated to represent the state’s interests on the county and city turfs’ crisscrossing paths.

It’s much too early to know where it all leads, and even too early for me to say whether I care to find out or not. As it is, I’m there, at the end of episode 2, with the body of a VIC (very important character), whom for all I know may be dead. But “death” is a relative subject on TV series. I have to tune in next week to find out.

Truth or dare? Truth. Will I tune in next week? I dare myself not to. Will you?