TV review: True Detective 2.1 — “The Western Book of the Dead”

True Detective season two premiere

The term “water cooler show” was pretty much invented to describe what the first season of True Detective became during its eight-episode run on HBO in 2014. Creepy, enigmatic and compelling, show runner and writer Nic Pizzolatto, with series director Cary Fukunaga, crafted a sprawling, borderline supernatural mystery, spearheaded by two unforgettable performances from Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson.

Obviously, the second season has big shoes to fill. And judging from our latest taste, “The Western Book of the Dead,” it’s probably best to not draw too many comparisons right out of the gate. This new season is, by design, meant to be taken on its own. Divorced from what we knew before.

Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) is a burned-out, alcoholic cop (yes, I said this was different) in the industrial L.A. ‘burb of Vinci. He’s rebounding from the failure of his marriage after the rape of his wife, while trying, and failing, to become a responsible step-father to the product of that rape, Chad (Trevor Larcom). Ray, a well-intentioned but terrible parent, is also corrupt — under the employment of the former gangster-cum-businessman, Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn), who curried Ray’s allegiance by fingering the rapist who fathered his step-son. Now Frank, and even his superiors in the department, use Ray to do their dirty work (when he’s not up to his own).

Meanwhile, Frank is trying to put together a land development deal, and a lucrative casino purchase, under the auspices of Vinci’s city manager, who has mysteriously disappeared before the big sale. We meet Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), a sheriff’s deputy who discovers her sister is working as a web-cam girl and whose mutual father, Eliot (David Morse), is a cult leader whose Zen indifference to his daughters life choices inflames Ani’s steadfast moral center. Last, we encounter Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), a CHP speed freak who gets off on the job in more ways than one.

A lot of what separates this new season opener from the first is its construction. While “The Western Book of the Dead” hits the ground running, it feels like it’s tripping on its feet through the first half. This is more of an origin story for the characters, one that is inverted from the approach of the first series, where we got a bizarre murder and began the slide into how it effects our anti-protagonists. Their deconstruction here begins immediately, and awkwardly, as Pizzolatto and director Justin Lin set the stage.

What we do get a taste of is the byzantine narrative aesthetic, gunning for classic L.A. noir, as opposed to the southern gothic varietal of the first season. The pieces in place already share the convoluted tropes of films like Chinatown or Inherent Vice, combined with Lin’s chilly visuals and Pizzolatto’s hints at a twisted, venal, ominous underworld — infused with a distinctly James Ellroy machismo. “Western Book of the Dead” wants to come out swinging. And it does, though it doesn’t always connect in the way it intends.

Justin Lin doesn’t possess anything like Fukunaga’s directorial assurance, though he ultimately melds the hard-boiled themes and operatic characters into a Lynchian package that suits me. The look is dystopian and dark and cold. Lin has a knack for that. But he stages many scenes unevenly, sometimes finding generic performances in uniformly fine actors, while other times nailing every element of a scene. Where McAdams feels genuine one moment, she’s on the rails in the next. Farrell seems born to play Ray Velcoro, while effectively becoming the worn caricature that takes you out of his performance. Meanwhile, Vaughn, perhaps sensing career rehab, is killing every scene. When was the last time you could say that about Vaughn as a compliment? That’s not a rhetorical question (see: The Watch). Every one of them has a moment to shine, but Lin can’t find the consistent, organic, earthy cohesion that defined Fukunaga’s run.

It’s certainly amplified. It’s definitely different. Justin Lin is only on board for one more episode and Pizzolatto has earned the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it’ll take hold again and everyone will buy another obscure Gothic novel from Amazon when he drops some freaky literary plot twist that informs the mystery he’s concocting. I laughed a couple of times, unintentionally. Some of his dialogue is boderline atrocious. But there’s really no way to tell what this season of True Detective will be until another seven weeks have passed. This is a rebuilding of the engine, and the fact that it might perform differently, change directors or even suck a little is still kind of exciting.