True Detective: “The Western Book of the Dead” Season 2 Premiere Review

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True Detective season two is finally here, but the first episode fails to recapture the spark that Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson immediately lit in the first season of the anthology series. This premiere instead brings us to a vague new world built on cliches and despicable characters. But at least it looks good.

Moving from Louisiana to Los Angeles, renamed here the City of Vinci, True Detective appears to have gone full-blown noir, which is far and away the best thing about the premiere. The slums of L.A. are gorgeously shot in the shadows, much like in relatively recent noir efforts on the big screen Collateral and Drive. Under the right cinematographer, Southern California grunge turns into urban art.

Obviously, the show can’t get by just on looks alone. It needs some humanity. The opening scene where Detective Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) encourages his son to get out of the car and be confident at school is one of the few traces of the script attempting to humanize it’s characters. But throwing it in the opening scene of course makes it obvious what the writers are trying to do, and that ends up the point. What at first seems off-puttingly obvious turns into a deconstruction of cliches. Yay, right?! Well, no. Ray proceeds to threaten his kid in public after drinking, only to later beat up his son’s bully’s father. Now, the character is hilariously unlikable. Fine, let’s look elsewhere.

We meet Detective Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) as she’s conducting a raid on a perfectly legal establishment for a porn site. She did it just to confirm her sister is working there. There’s no punishment for wasting her fellow officer’s time and efforts for a personal matter. Even then, she’s incapable of listening to her sister even speak. So she goes to visit her father (David Morse), the leader of a cult. He’s the best character. Immediately deconstructing why Ani is so hard-nosed (it’s because her father had no rules and she needed some), he already seems like the wisest figure on this season. But McAdams doesn’t pull her weight, reacting to every moment with the same cold demeanor. Sure, she’s strong, but the show immediately tells us why she’s so cold, instead of allowing us to see the humanity through her.

Finally, the detectives are rounded out by Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), a Viagra-popping cop who plays a little too close to the rules in this dirty, dirty town. Paul, like Ani, is a cliche that the show could deconstruct in future episodes. But for now, there’s too much of a familiar feeling here. It doesn’t help that Kitsch does little to differentiate his performance from McAdams’.

So that leaves Frank and Jordan Seymon (Vince Vaughn and Kelly Reilly, respectively), a corrupt businessman and his wife. Vaughn has a chance here to do something very interesting, as he’s the performer least versed in the crime genre. But, he too seems disinterested in distinguishing his character’s moods. Instead, Reilly looks to be having some fun as a potential femme fatale (another cliche, but a fun one at least).

By the end of the episode, we know that Ray is connected to Frank, and that the three detectives will be working on the same case together. There’s definitely some interesting dynamics to be found there, mostly how Ani and Paul will clash with Ray, but the characters need to at least feel human for the show to be worth watching. So after a premiere that does little to get us excited, True Detective season two is a big question mark. It’s missing the immediate chemistry last season’s stars had. Still, there’s enough here to at least check out next week to see if this cast and crew can pull together and make something great. Grade: C+

 

Some Other Notes:

– For the record, Farrell is actually sells most of his moments incredibly well, but the way the character is written is far less interesting.

– Why don’t officers from nearby towns know the City if Vinci? Isn’t it fairly nearby? And like, you can just call it L.A. You’re not fooling anyone.

– If Paul’s whole deal turns out to be that he’s gay, it’ll be the least interesting twist of the year.

 

By Matt Dougherty

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