This article contains no plot spoilers. It does contain some minor character spoilers.
The first season of True Detective hit the airwaves with a style and confidence not seen often in modern day television. It was raw and gritty. It pulled no punches and delivered outstanding performances. It wasn’t without its flaws, the conclusion left people wanting and some of the characterisation was a little cliché, but overall season one was a solid piece of television and made for compelling viewing. Season two hits some of the same notes, but so far hasn’t hit the same highs as Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson’s adventure in the deep, dark south.
The Western Book of the Dead, season two’s subtitle, is stylistically and structurally different to season one. The story is larger and has more moving parts and players than before. The setting has shifted from a damp and dreary take on the Deep South to a decaying industrial city plunged in all manner of depravity. Whereas season one took “noir” to a fresh place with its setting, season two likes to play with some of the tropes were accustomed to in cop drama. The dialogue is laden with cop lingo, our detectives are burdened souls trying to survive in the horrible worlds of their own making. Gambling and substance addiction, sexual frustration, abandonment issues, questions of morality and mortality and corruption are just a few of the issues hauled by our cast of three reluctant heroes.
Bigger isn’t always better though. The problems season two faces are of its own making. The times when it gets things right, it gets them really right. Too often, however, the show is left meandering through dialogue that needs a Cop-to-English translation dictionary to be understood. It often feels over written in places and the narrative has so many moving parts that it struggles to pull them all together into a tight and compelling narrative.
Taken on their own, the shows many narrative sub plots and characters are perfectly fine. Detective Velcoro’s apparent corruption and his issues with his family work great. His walk between corrupt officials, gang ties and moral quandaries is fascinating to watch. It’s the strongest part of the show, with Colin Farrell putting in a muted but fiercely strong performance as our weary detective. Rachel McAdams is fierce in her own right as Ani Bezzerides, a detective assigned to the special task force charged with solving the murder mystery that serves as the main narrative plot points for the show. She and Farrell balance each other out perfectly. You get the impression she is a much more capable police officer and their interactions are often strong. Especially when discussing e-cigarettes.
Our third tortured soul, Woodrugh (played by Taylor Kitsch) is probably the weakest of the three. This is no fault of Kitsch’s, the characterisation is just a little too cliché. Woodrugh is plagued by a haunted past and has sexual identity issues, and it is hinted that he was maybe abused as a child. He has trouble trusting or getting close to people – and the list goes on. The problem with Woodrugh is that he is almost too tortured. He feels out of place in what is already a steeply noir cop-drama. He’s one step away from narrating his every move as he stands under a streetlamp watching a broad walk by in a red dress.
Finally we have the wild card – Vince Vaughn. Who, when I read was cast to be in season two, I was really worried about. Vince’s Frank Semyon, however, is wonderfully executed. Vaughn has a wonderful awareness of the ironies of Semyon’s life. Semyon has some of the more trite dialogue in the show but Vaughn manages to pull off the delivery just right. There’s a dark humour to him but he is also oddly imposing. He comes across as very real as he struggles to decide on what to do next as his life is unraveling around him.
At this half way point, True Detective Season Two: The Western Book of the Dead, has been an interesting change to its predecessor. At times it doesn’t come close to the heights achieved last year, but in others, it works wonderfully. The smoky bars, two shots of Blue Label and a tortured live performer singing her heart out on the microphone, are the times when Season Two shines. It’s clichéd. It’s filled with tropes we’ve seen before. But it manages to play with them and to present them in an interesting setting. It’s too hard to tell how Season Two will ultimately stand against its formidable older sibling but so far it has been an enjoyable watch. It’s well worth your time.
Oh, and the opening is pretty bad ass.
Look for my full review of this season as it concludes in a month.
Taj Sandhu is an editor and co-founder of NovaCritic.com.