Surf’s Up! But ‘True De­tec­tive’s un­der­tow is as strong as ever.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUMMER TV PREVIEW - BY HANK STUEVER hank.stuever@wash­post.com

We could all use a lit­tle dis­tance from “True De­tec­tive’s” first sea­son. Per­haps you found the HBO se­ries to be the most bril­liant TV watch­ing ex­pe­ri­ence you’ve had in some time. Oth­ers ( in­clud­ing me) couldn’t help but no­tice that, in spite of some good act­ing and im­pres­sive tech­ni­cal moves, “True De­tec­tive” had some un­der­min­ing flaws, par­tic­u­larly when it came to the writ­ing.

By the time it reached its slightly an­ti­cli­mac­tic eighth-episode fi­nale, “True De­tec­tive” func­tioned al­most like a test of the senses: In the show’s di­a­logue, fans heard an el­e­vated, poetic form; oth­ers heard one ridicu­lous clunker af­ter another. Some were en­thralled; oth­ers were bored. You raved; I sighed. And Matthew McConaughey, who turned in such a mem­o­rable per­for­mance as De­tec­tive Rust Cohle in Sea­son 1, col­lected his tro­phies and was last seen mur­mur­ing to him­self be­hind the wheel of a new Lin­coln.

More than a year later, as promised, cre­ator/writer Nic Piz­zo­latto has re­lo­cated “True De­tec­tive’s” set­ting from Louisiana to South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and, in Sun­day’s pre­miere, read­ies us for a dif­fer­ent mys­tery that in­volves a trio of de­tec­tives who are just as haunted and dam­aged (per­haps even more so) than ei­ther McConaughey’s Cohle or Woody Har­rel­son’s De­tec­tive Marty Hart.

It’s clear from the first new episode (there are eight again this sea­son) that “True De­tec­tive” is tak­ing full ad­van­tage of the op­por­tu­nity pro­vided by the show’s an­thol­ogy for­mat to move on and rem­edy some of Sea­son 1’s prob­lems — or, at the very least, head some of its crit­ics off at the pass. The an­thol­ogy con­cept can work won­ders when it comes to con­tained sto­ries; FX’s “Amer­i­can Hor­ror Story” sets a re­fresh­ing ex­am­ple, adding to it by draw­ing on a reper­toire of play­ers. An­thol­ogy can re­ward devo­tees with a fa­mil­iar style and vibe while en­tic­ing other view­ers to give the show another shot. More TV dra­mas ought to con­sider it.

Which may be a long way of telling you that “True De­tec­tive’s” sec­ond go-around ben­e­fits greatly from a re-start. Fans should find them­selves con­tent with the show’s in­tensely dour mood and a story flecked with sex­ual de­viance, grim vi­o­lence and as­sorted weird­ness that seems at least partly inspired by David Lynch movies. The first sea­son’s three track chronol­ogy struc­ture (flash­ing back and among 1995, 2002 and 2012, which was smartly ex­e­cuted) ap­pears to be gone, ex­cept for the oc­ca­sional de­pic­tion of a mem­ory. Skep­tics might no­tice that Piz­zo­latto (or some­one above him) has learned to whit­tle down his prose a bit, even though it’s still easy to dis­cern scenes where what’s on the page will sim­ply come off as pre­ten­tious on the screen.

Nowhere is this more ap­par­ent than in some early, very Piz­zo­latto-es­que mono­logues from one Frank Se­myon, a South­land mob­ster played by Vince Vaughn. Hav­ing built his em­pire in the un­der­world, Frank has risked his for­tune on a some­what more le­git­i­mate, but still un­der-the-ta­ble scheme: buy­ing his way into the un­fath­omably lu­cra­tive plan to de­velop land along a pro­posed high-speed rail line through Cal­i­for­nia.

View­ers may flag a bit when they dis­cover that “True De­tec­tive” is now ask­ing them to fol­low its rather com­plex look at cor­rup­tion in state and mu­nic­i­pal pol­i­tics, set mainly in a fic­tional city-within-the-city called Vinci. Within sight of down­town L.A., Vinci is an in­dus­trial mess of re­finer­ies, plants, trans­fer sta­tions and a casino. Though it has only 95 per­ma­nent res­i­dents, thou­sands of work­ers come and go ev­ery day. Vinci has a po­lice depart­ment and a bu­reau­cracy, in­clud­ing, of

HBO’s stylish an­thol­ogy moves from swampy Louisiana to sunny Los An­ge­les this sea­son but man­ages to re­tain the grim vi­o­lence and weird­ness.

course, a dirty mayor. The en­tire op­er­a­tion seems built on graft and kick­backs, and it is here where Frank has thrived.

Two events, how­ever, are thwart­ing Frank’s scheme to move up and out: The big lo­cal pa­per has started run­ning an eight-part se­ries on Vinci’s civic cor­rup­tion (this thread seems faintly inspired by the Los An­ge­les Times’s real-life probe a fewyears ago of city lead­ers in Bell, Calif.), and the city man­ager has gone miss­ing, just as he was sup­posed to be mov­ing Frank’s for­tune into the hands of rail­way de­vel­op­ers. I can only hope I’ve de­scribed this some­what ac­cu­rately; “True De­tec­tive” jumps around and is sadis­ti­cally un­help­ful to the ca­sual viewer who would pre­fer to know what’s hap­pen­ing as it hap­pens.

It gets more con­vo­luted. A Cal­i­for­nia High­way Pa­trol of­fi­cer, Paul Woodrugh (Tay­lor Kitsch), dis­cov­ers the miss­ing city man­ager’s mu­ti­lated corpse at a scenic pull­out on the Pa­cific Coast High­way in Ven­tura County, which falls in the ju­ris­dic­tion of a county in­ves­ti­ga­tor, the al­most re­sent­fully tough De­tec­tive Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McA­dams, ha­bit­u­ally va­p­ing on an e-cig­a­rette).

The state at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice de­ter­mines that the Vinci city man­ager’s mur­der is rel­e­vant to its on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the city’s fi­nances. There­fore, the state (im­plau­si­bly) de­cides that the mur­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion will be han­dled by three agen­cies: Woodrugh, who is on leave af­ter be­ing ac­cused by a Lind­say Lo­han-like star­let of so­lic­it­ing sex from her dur­ing a traf­fic stop, will in­ves­ti­gate on be­half of the state; Bezzerides will in­ves­ti­gate the case for the county.

De­tec­tive Ray Vel­coro (Colin Far­rell) of the Vinci Po­lice Depart­ment is also as­signed to the case. “One ques­tion,” Vel­coro asks his su­pe­ri­ors. “AmI sup­posed to solve it?”

Vel­coro is an al­most laugh­ably com­pro­mised law­man. He’s a binge drinker who, for one ex­am­ple, vi­ciously as­saults the fa­ther of the boy who is bul­ly­ing Vel­coro’s son — the same son Vel­coro’s ex is pe­ti­tion­ing to keep away from him. Vel­coro’s ties to Frank Se­myon are the first sig­nal to view­ers of how “True De­tec­tive’s” puz­zling new plot fits to­gether: Per­haps more des­per­ately than the state, Frank needs to find out who killed the city man­ager and how to get back his mil­lions. “I’m wait­ing on this Vel­coro burnout to make like Rock­ford?” he asks, and thus ini­ti­ates his own in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“True De­tec­tive” can’t re­sist giv­ing the dead city man­ager a dis­tinct set of sex­ual pec­ca­dil­loes, mainly for the ben­e­fit of provoca­tive set de­sign, en­sur­ing that the show’s cen­tral aes­thetic will fea­ture the same deprav­ity and ug­li­ness that col­ored Sea­son 1.

In­stead of hill­billy/cult wor­ship per­ver­sion, this time it in­volves fetish night­clubs, sex-traf­fick­ing and pur­vey­ors of high-end flesh — which guar­an­tees that most of the sup­port­ing roles and bit parts here for women will be of the whore va­ri­ety. This is ul­ti­mately am­at­ter of genre: Piz­zo­latto is work­ing from themes set forth by a cen­tury of fic­tional crime and noir (and the sto­ries of crime solvers), in which rape and degra­da­tion are part of the draw. That doesn’t mean you have to like it. In shows and movies like this, it’s an un­for­tu­nate habit.

As with last sea­son, the case that the de­tec­tives are try­ing to solve is sec­ondary. “True De­tec­tive” is a show about de­tec­tives. To­gether, Vel­coro, Bezzerides and Woodrugh are a psy­cho­log­i­cal minefield: Bezzerides grew up in a New Age move­ment cen­tered on a mind­ful­ness guru (DavidMorse) who hap­pens to be her fa­ther; now she’s an emo­tional ci­pher who arms her­self to the teeth with hid­den knives — and we’re clearly meant to won­der why. Woodrugh, whose mil­i­tary ser­vice led to work­ing as a Black­wa­ter-style mer­ce­nary, is car­ry­ing some wicked PTSD from some un­speak­able hor­ror.

The per­for­mances from these three — Far­rell, McA­dams and Kitsch— are strong enough in the first few episodes to po­ten­tially be­come as com­pelling as the work McConaughey and Har­rel­son did in Sea­son 1. Far­rell’s style seems es­pe­cially suited to the de­press­ing, hope­less feel­ing that “True De­tec­tive” aims for, but Vaughn, who is known mainly for his work in comedies, seems to strug­gle a bit as a con­flicted bad guy. (It’s al­most as if Vaughn — and his char­ac­ter — took a wrong turn on the way to guest-star in Show­time’s “Ray Dono­van.”)

There is some­thing still lugubri­ous and over­wrought about “True De­tec­tive,” but there’s also a mes­mer­iz­ing style to it — it’s im­per­fect, but well made. You can cer­tainly tell that it’s try­ing too hard, but I’ll leave it up to you to de­cide if try­ing too hard is a se­ri­ous crime.

True De­tec­tive (one hour) re­turns Sun­day at 9 p.m. on HBO.

KENNY PARK FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

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