Season premiere review: 'True Detective' - 'The Western Book of the Dead': My least favorite life
"True Detective" is back for a new season. I posted some overall thoughts on the early episodes on Wednesday, and I have a review of the premiere coming up just as soon as I display some Meryl Streep-type expressive creativity...
"Everybody gets touched." -Jordan
The first season of "True Detective" opened with a lot of layers of storytelling — meeting Marty, and then Rust, being interviewed by the cops in 2012, with their stories sometimes bringing us back to the case from 1995, and sometimes bouncing to other stages of their partnership — but what was at the moment a relatively compact story itself. In the 1995 scenes, these guys were already partners, albeit relatively new to each other, they got a case, and they followed it. That allowed Nic Pizzolatto and company to dive in deep on exactly who these guys were, since ultimately the show was much more interested in being a character study than a mystery about a serial killer. And the interlocking timelines and narratives not only quickly deepened our understanding of both men, but added shading to what was, in hindsight, a pretty threadbare plot at times. (This became more clear in that season's later episodes, once our heroes walked out of their respective interviews and the storytelling became more straightforward.)
With season 2, Pizzolatto has inverted that approach. This is a more complicated case, involving not only the murdered Vinci city manager, but whatever corruption he was involved in with both the city and Frank Semyon's new business venture. We have twice as many main characters, each with a different agenda, and only two of whom even know each other before this episode's final scene. But the plotting itself is much more streamlined. The first scene with Ray Velcoro meeting with a lawyer is shot to very much resemble the Rust and Marty interviews, and there's a brief flashback to how Frank and Ray's association began in the wake of his wife's rape, but everything else happens in present-day, even if so much of it — Ray being on the take, Ani Bezzerides becoming the polar opposite of her New Age guru father, Paul Woodrugh's scars from his time overseas — is informed by its characters' dark and twisted paths.
Of the four, Ray certainly gets the splashiest introduction, first discussing the attack on his wife (and, in flashback, plotting his revenge), then threatening his own son just so he can get the information necessary to go threaten his son's bully in the most violent and profane way possible. Where season 1 left some ambiguity in the early going as to whether it was endorsing Rust's nihilistic philosophy or presenting him as a cautionary tale, there's no doubt we're supposed to view this guy as an utter train wreck.
Of our other three leads, Frank talks the most, Paul the least, and Ani falls somewhere in between, but spends a lot of time listening to other people — the guy she's sleeping with, her damaged sister and then her smug father — tell her who she is and what she's about. It's a way to establish character when you have a lot of people you're trying to introduce and haven't designed her as someone given to Cohle-ian monologues, but it also leaves open the question of whether we're meant to believe what her family says about her — that she's angry at the entire world, "and men in particular" — or assume this is them bringing their own hang-ups and complicated history into an analysis of her. But all four of our leads clearly carry scars, even if Paul's are the only ones visible when he takes his shirt off.
"The Western Book of the Dead" has certain aspects of the first season dialed up. The language is even more stylized, with characters often speaking more formally (Frank's "Behold, what was once a man"), and everyone's even more of an archetype than last year, from the big players like Ray and Frank to relatively minor ones like Ray's drunken partner Teague Dixon. (When people are drunks this season, they don't do it by half.) The names remain elaborate, with Ani's full name revealed to be Antigone, and her sister to be Athena, after figures from ancient Greek myth.
But the look established by Justin Lin is much flatter and more conventional than we got last season, with only a couple of scenes — Paul's brief flirtation with suicide on the black top, and Ray and Frank staring each other down at the bar to discuss the job Ray did with the reporter — looking different from what you might get from an average police procedural. There's some lurid sexual imagery at the home of our murder victim, and perhaps the killer's bird mask will invite some Yellow King-style speculation from the audience (or not, given how little all that stuff wound up playing into the resolution of season 1's case), but this episode on a whole felt a lot more like a lot of other crime shows, albeit with a great cast and Pizzolatto's brand of dialogue.
Some other thoughts:
* The new title sequence continues the motif of laying multiple images on top of each other, this time mostly involving silhouettes of the actors and still more overhead shots of the freeway system. The theme song, meanwhile, is Leonard Cohen's "Nevermind."
* Among the notable guest stars and/or supporting players in this one: Ritchie Coster (one of the degenerate gamblers from "Luck") as the drunken Vinci mayor, W. Earl Brown (most recently of "American Crime," but most notably Dan Dority from "Deadwood") as Teague Dixon, David Morse (of a million things, but recently on HBO with "Tremé") as Ani's father, Timothy V. Murphy (one of the Irish gun dealers from "Sons of Anarchy") as Frank's foreign contact Osip, Michael Irby (from "The Unit") as Ani's partner Elvis, Leven Rambin as Ani's sister, and Molly Hagan (most recently Liv's mom on "iZombie," but whose role on "Herman's Head" comes to mind given the release of "Inside Out") as the attorney Ray hires for his custody fight.
Finally, we'll see how things go in terms of weekly coverage. As you could tell from that pre-season review and from this, I didn't love the start of this season, but there are interesting things in it, and I intend to see it through to the end. Pizzolatto and these actors have greatness in them, and maybe another way this season will differ from the first will be that it'll be stronger at the end than the beginning. But whether it's something I want to be writing about every week — or that you want to be reading from me every week — remains to be seen. Since I definitely have screeners of these first three, I'm planning to write them up. After that? We'll see.
But as for the premiere, what did everybody else think? Did it live up to (or surpass) the start of season 1?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org