Just about everything that made the first season of "True Detective" entrancing is missing from the second, wholly re-imagined second season. In truth, only the worst, most clichéd parts remain.
And yet …
The first season had some truly unique things going for it, chief among them the casting of Matthew McConaughey — who happened to win a best actor Oscar midway through its run — as an angsty, loquacious, existential train wreck detective and burnout. Just listening to the ramblings of Rust Cohle as he nursed a beer and toyed with interrogators was enough to keep your eyes glued to the tube.
Beyond that, there was the humid Deep South setting, ripe with atmosphere and danger, captured by the estimable director Cary Fukunaga who, in a radical move for television, helmed every episode of the season, bringing a continuity that counted for much. And there was the story's split timeline as it evolved in the past and present.
The new season has no past, only present. It has multiple directors, although creator Nic Pizzolatto still writes all the episodes. There is no central riveting character, and steamy swamps have been traded in for tiresome overhead shots of the L.A. freeway system. Intact, though, is the series penchant for red herring plot turns, vague misogyny and relentless stereotypes.
And yet …
This time around, we have three new brooding, troubled (so, so troubled) cops. And one of them is a woman, although we first meet her in her underwear, having just gotten a bit kinky. She is Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), a state's investigator, and early on we learn she is the daughter of a hippie cult guru and sister of a porn actress. So we know whence her troubles came from.
There's also Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), a dirty cop working for a corrupt L.A. industrial suburb. His ex-wife was assaulted years earlier, a son resulted that may or may not be his, he drinks way too much and has a tendency to do stupid, violent things. Troubled, troubled, troubled.
It's not quite clear — at least in the early episodes — why California Highway Patrol officer Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) is so troubled. After all, he gets to look like Taylor Kitsch. And yet there he is, riding his motorcycle way too fast at night without a helmet, obviously thinking dark thoughts. It doubtlessly has to do with some wartime experiences. All will undoubtedly be revealed.
These three are brought together when Woodrugh stumbles upon the body — eyes burned out with acid, groin shotgunned — of the city manager of Velcoro's dirty town. Fast as you can say "task force" they are joined together in a murder investigation, although Velcoro is mainly interested in a cover-up and Bezziredes is secretly investigating the town's corruption.
Factoring mightily into all of this is Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn), the proverbial gangster-going-straight character, who had serious ties to the deceased city manager and who pulls Velcoro's strings. He is advised-smoothed over by his wife, Jordan (Kelly Reilly, whose shaggy sexuality helps immensely in the opening episodes).
There's enough worrying over booze, push-and-pull personal politicking and dark secret-holding in the early episodes to make things almost laughable. Without a central character like Rust Cohle, everyone seems to be fighting for the title of Most Depressed-Depraved with no clear winner. Throw in some more outrageous stereotypes — a supremely oily mayor, a gold-toothed nightclub owner, Bezzerides' guru father — and all seems lost.
And yet …
The second episode, after way too much setup, explodes at the end. And then in the third episode what has looked like your basic murder turns far more mysterious. Everybody's still terribly troubled and brooding — do content cops even exist? — but something seriously strange and, so far, inexplicable seems to be going on.
It could devolve into a parade of false moves, no question. And making it through the first episode without laughing is a bit tough. But darned if the mystery that eventually unveils itself isn't intriguing. If you make it to the third episode, chances are you'll keep going.
9 p.m. Sunday