“We get the world we deserve,” observes weary, bleary, hungover, and altogether raggedy detective Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), early in the second season of “True Detective.”
The world the fans of the first season of the acclaimed HBO crime drama apparently deserve is yet another desperately dark — but curiously beautiful — look at the seedy underbelly of humanity.
Like FX’s “American Horror Story” franchise before it and “Fargo” soon after, “True Detective” is working from an anthology model, with each season offering a change in setting, time frame, and characters.
Out are Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart and Matthew McConaughey’s jittery philosophizer Rust Cohle, the swamps of Louisiana, and the voodoo that they did so well the first time around, nabbing the rookie series a heap of accolades and awards.
Taking their place in the show’s second, eight-episode season, which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m., are a quartet of characters with a vested interest in solving the murder of a city manager in grimy, corrupt Vinci, Calif. Although the locale has changed, much of the vibe of the first series — a constant sense of dread, a humid heaviness hanging over the proceedings — remains since the show is once again written in its entirety by creator Nic Pizzolatto.
That fearsomely gifted foursome at the center of the show — Farrell, Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams, and Taylor Kitsch — go a long way toward keeping the first few episodes interesting. That’s because — even though there is no supernatural element in season two — the sheer number of story lines and characters at the outset can get confusing. The central murder vies for attention amid a missing person investigation, family dramas that are either integral or tangential to the crime, and fertility issues.
Kitsch (“Friday Night Lights”) plays California highway patrolman and war veteran Paul Woodrugh, who discovers the body of the city manager, setting off the cross-county investigation. Farrell (“In Bruges”) is Velcoro, a Vinci detective in the pocket of career criminal Frank Semyon, played by Vaughn (“Wedding Crashers”), who is partnered with Woodrugh and Ventura County sheriff’s detective Ani Bezzerides (McAdams). (Greek tragedy enthusiasts take note: Ani is short for Antigone.)
They are all deeply damaged individuals who prove to be both scrappy and self-destructive — in ways both similar and different to one another — as the story unfolds. And to a one the actors go deep, living inside characters who could come off as hammy or boilerplate in other hands.
Vaughn in particular puts his charismatic menace to good use here, imbuing the most banal of lines with readings that underscore the danger of his presence, even as he occasionally cracks a joke. Farrell does well as the picture of a man almost completely unraveled by family tragedy and the demands of serving two masters while also trying to serve justice. Kitsch and McAdams prove more stoic but are solid in quieter performances.
As such, the banter between the protagonists isn’t quite what it was in the first season, but a few comical lines make it through and, mercifully, the “time is a flat circle” pontificating is kept at a minimum. When the characters finally start converging near the end of the first episode, things start to crackle, and a shocker in the second episode amps up the intrigue.
The secondary and recurring cast is also stocked with strong performers, including W. Earl Brown as Farrell’s path-of-least-resistance partner and Rick Springfield as an especially creepy psychiatrist.
It may be impossible for it to strike TV lightning twice, but “True Detective” in its second iteration definitely has a charge.
Starring: Colin Farrell, Taylor Kitsch, Rachel McAdams, Vince Vaughn
Time: Sunday, 9 p.m.