Eight years ago, HBO ran a season of a drama called “John From Cincinnati” that was a beacon of pretension and blather. It was about being, nothingness, nihilism, absurdity, emptiness, Zen, art, motorcycle maintenance, and the existential pain of lugging around our mortal coils in this cruddy, damned world, or something like that.
I was glad to forget the show, a low point for David Milch of “Deadwood” and “NYPD Blue,” and to put all the windy bombast and the expletives-as-poetry behind me forever. But the new season of “True Detective” has brought memories of “John From Cincinnati” back to me like a cluster headache. In its second incarnation, “True Detective” drops the pluses of season one — the evocative Louisiana locale and culture, Woody Harrelson — but holds onto all the big negatives, most notably the script’s affectations of profundity and its forced, self-conscious Big Ideas. It’s like “Cincinnati” in LA, with enough cinematic murk to fuel a thousand noirs.
In season one, I had trouble believing that Matthew McConaughey was playing a real person. I didn’t much care about his character, who seemed like a construct, an instrument through which show creator Nic Pizzolatto could vent some of his philosophies. This season, I find almost all of the characters to be unlike real people, no matter how “realistic” the actors are trying to be. There isn’t one character who has even a hint of the authenticity that Harrelson brought last year. It’s all just a big humorless interface of personality excesses, faces twisted up with angst, and the script’s obvious symbolisms.
Colin Farrell’s angry, alcoholic cop Ray Velcoro is a poorly assembled anti-hero who is supposed to be mildly sympathetic for having fallen apart after his wife got raped years earlier. He bullies his son, probably because he’s not convinced the boy is his. Whatever. If Ray truly is dead, as it seemed at the end of the last episode, I’m not going to be moved in any way, just surprised that one of the biggest actors on the series will be gone so quickly.
Ray’s not alone in his masculinity issues — excuse me, Masculinity Issues; Vince Vaughn’s Frank Semyon is not happy about baby-making with his wife. He’s angry, like everyone else here, but beyond that he’s just a generic crooked businessman. A scene in which he talks about his father locking him for days in the basement of his childhood home strains, unsuccessfully, to make him more person-like.
Rachel McAdams’s Ani Bezzerides is also simply a vessel for anger and for the other side of the masculinity issues — the woman who doesn’t need men, who finds femininity to be a burden — that Pizzolatto keeps plying here. Ani is one of the few women on the series who isn’t shown as a sexual object; she’s the reaction to that kind of treatment. When her boss tells her to use her sexuality to gain power over Ray, she’s disgusted. There’s not a lot of nuance in McAdams’s performance; just irritation and intensity.
The only character who evoked a hint of compassion early on, who seemed potentially multi-dimensional, was Taylor Kitsch’s Paul Woodrugh, a cop on suspension. Was he so broken from his time in Iraq that he needed to take Viagra in order to perform sexually with his girlfriend? But Paul has quickly become a bland stereotype, it appears, a shame-ridden gay man hiding behind cool masculinity, the son of a mother without boundaries who, in a not-at-all subtle Freudian scene, treats him like a date. Kitsch can be an effective actor, but I don’t expect him to rise above such a tired, overused trope.
Even the town, called Vinci, California, doesn’t seem like a real town so much as a group of buildings that play a town on TV.
The case that brings all these people together is laid out with willful evasiveness, probably to mask the fact that it’s just another broad story of corruption and greed and the baddies who traffic in them. Frank has put all his money on a shady land deal, which is falling apart due to the murder of his business partner. The homicide brings together the three very different officers, Paul, Ani, and Ray, with Ray in Frank’s pocket for criminal acts surrounding the man who raped Ray’s wife. The bad guys the cops mingle with are all seedy thugs, standard crime-TV worker bees in the hive of urban decay, all pretty forgettable. Like everyone else in this shallow drama that feigns depth, they are flat and, of course, angry.