True Detective, “The Western Book of the Dead”

So, we have True Detective again. The much anticipated series is back and as brooding as ever. Except instead of mystical conundrums and serial killers in the sultry Louisiana sun, we get a fairly straightforward police procedural in the heart of LA. And instead of two buddy cops confronting a mysterious horror, we get a trio of very different people swept up in a wide-ranging case of corruption and rather standard-issue vice. Not the same at all, though it keeps the same name. The venture represents a huge investment of HBO in a production team to pull off something amazing. Did they?

Not yet, I think is the right judgment. But I’m willing to wait for things to come around.

The doubts many had at the end of the last season (after seeing the rather trite ending to that remarkable story) resurface here: Pizzollatto may just have lucked into something amazing last year, and when given free reign actually messes things up as much as he turns things into magic. But that’s as much as anyone does, of course, and while he’s perhaps not the genius he was promised to be, his skill in creating entertaining drama still manifests itself in the new series.

The first episode mostly spends time introducing us to the characters, starting with detective Ray Velcoro, a raging fuckup ably played by Colin Farrell. He’s at school, visiting his kid, doing due diligence so he can hopefully regain custody of him. Already the insecurities are apparent, as he tells the kid to “be proud” in a way that tries way too hard and watches, furiously, other boys make fun of his shoes as if an insult to his kid were an insult to him.

There’s nothing deep about these problems: they’re brutal scars and personal traumas—his wife was raped—that have ruined his life for him. Rust, by contrast, looked like Wittgenstein, was a genius who also happened to be a crack cop, and who came close to getting by on all this, living the good life to boot. He was damaged by loss, but then also made near mad. A strange combination of his own talent and tragedy that befell him. His problems were real, but they were also brought on himself, when they were brought on himself, in a noble way. Ray doesn’t quite do this. Something about him is more controlling, more brutal, but also weaker too, and his actions aren’t noble but simply compensatory: he later goes to the bully’s house and, in a glorious moment of Freudian craziness, makes him watch as he takes brass kunckles to the boy’s father.

As far as his talents as a detective go, they seem to amount merely to a willingness to compromise himself. He bends over backwards for a corrupt police department, that of the toxic industrial wastland of Vinci (a kind of grosser Carson). He’s only an average true detective, in other words, and none of his investigative work actually does anything to make up for the screw-ups in his life. This almost might make his redemption, if he ever has any, more satisfying. Still, it’s in the future: for now, he is stuck investigating the disappearance of the sex-addict City Manager, and passing along inside information to Frank Semyon, a dirty gangster who tipped Ray off long ago about the identity of the rapist.

We don’t really see much of Frank in this episode, though he’s a much more compelling character—largely due to Vince Vaughn, who plays him. Frank’s got a good life, and has made enough money through vice and corruption to get along comfortably. But he still seems to be low on the totem pole when it comes to playing power politics at the scale he would like to be. This may be because of his high ideals: he is proposing a huge business scheme to buy up land alongside a new high speed rail system to San Francisco, not for himself, but for his kids. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have any, and complains (to Ray) that it’s likely he won’t be able to. Maybe those with less scruples about the future are willing to seize more of the present. This impotence seems, however, to keep him driving forward in his minor schemes, and there’s something appealing about how he doesn’t lose sight of some high ideals, though he’s willing to compromise all the others. Vaughn has the right qualities to convey this strange mix of hope and desperation. For now though, there’s not much for him to do with it: Frank just seems to keep Ray busy, and to see hints of the sly machiavellianism by which he’s managed to get Ray in his pocket, after initially saying that giving him the name of the rapist was simply a favor, is the most entertainment we really get out of his character in this first episode.

If you like seeing frustration like his though, you’re in for more of a treat. Frank isn’t the only one with situational hangups: there is, too, Antigone Bezzerides, played by Rachel McAdams, of the Ventura County CID. She’s seemingly stuck cleaning up the messes of men, but she prefers it to the life of pointless permissiveness initially offered by her father, a new-age guru. In fact, she sees that permissiveness as far from pointless: she believes it is corrupting, all that talk of free love she was fed turning her sister, for example, into a camgirl. Patrolling the farms around Ventura County, and busting a camera operation in some farmhouse outside Oxnard or Somis, she actually finds her sister there, and gives her a stern talking-to and even makes her cry.

This is satisfying, but also disturbing. What McAdams stands behind is clearly the law, and its superiority to the lawless exercise of desire. The way she’s applying this law seems to be with a particular attention to policing (literally) sexuality. But it isn’t clear yet whether she is staging a pseudo-feminist complaint in a pro-sex world than revisiting her childhood, which is what her sister accuses her of. She is so tough with her sister because, well, there is a strong sense that her father’s values screwed everyone up. This might be a more retrograde motherly impulse than it appears, then, even if she tells her father herself—who explains this to her—that this reading of things is wrong. But then again, also retrograde is the anti-sex angle, which is the sort of perverse dilemma I presume the show is trying to stage. It’s not clear what is going on with McAdams, in short: the show has set up too many feints to be able to judge this, its greatest intervention into the formula of the original series, in advance. What is clear is that sex in the show in general is bad, and even more than that sex and free love is the opposite of policing: this might be, like a certain strand of detective fiction you can find in paperback, and very much unlike the first series, a very pro-cop show. And Ani’s general suspicion of it all might be just her playing her role in the values of the larger world she inhabits.

Frustration with sexuality is also what’s hounding Paul Woodrugh, a CHP officer played by Taylor Kitsch. He’s suspended after getting a blowjob from a starlet he busts for reckless driving out on PCH. But if sex appears at first a vice of his, an indulgence, wait until you see him at home, or rather at the home of his hookup buddy Emily (Adria Arjona). She practically tears his pants off, but he retreats to the bathroom. Later he ditches her to ride out on his bike, turns his headlamp off, to see how stupid he can be while showing to the world he’s divided on the issue. Sex! Yes? No? Let’s be self-destructive while we decide. Of course it’s an internal problem or dilemma of some sort, but we don’t know its origin yet or any real reason for it. So we’re left watching his face flap in the wind.

All this character introduction is well and good, then, but feels flat without a plot. All we get of this, throughout the episode, is a car with the City Manager’s body in it, driven by a dude with a crow mask. The car is on its way to Mugu Rock, where the body is dumped. Paul, on his bike, happens to skid off the road right where it is sitting, and calls 911. Ray is called out from Vinci, Ani because the body is found in Ventura County, and Paul, well, because he found it. They all stand around the body—and we zoom and fade out.

So everyone is brought together, basically, because of a dude in a crow mask killing a City Manager who blows a lot of money on sex parties. Will the show generate obsessive internet speculation over the man’s identity? I doubt it: he isn’t menacing enough to really be interesting, yet. Something falls flat about it, and about the whole episode. But it’s a serviceable first introduction to a new, highly sexually-frustrated and family-unfriendly world here, and Pizzollato seems to like to move slowly. Maybe there’s enough interest in that world to keep things at work for a while, in the absence of any real mystery or detection.

I’ll tune in next week, but in the meantime, here are some general notes:

Evil. What the hell happened to evil? The first show was so striking not for serial killers, mysticism, Louisiana, Nietzsche and nihilism, but their total combination, and the ability of this to suggest that evil was afoot and incarnate, roaming around on a riding mower. A victim wasn’t just another victim: it was a cosmic tragedy, and was something two strange buddies had to rectify. The show, at its best, was actually an experiment of combining a detective story with the horror genre, the sense that the world was actually a different and much more fearsome place than the one we think. Of course, it was only in the last episodes that we really realized how very much of a buddy comedy it was, too: the type of show where Marty can get hit in the chest with an axe and of course doesn’t die. But the point is that this was how the show made what felt like a genuine approach and revival of noir. Instead of the steely Philip Marlow indifference towards the dead as just another byproduct of society, the true detective was consumed by otherworldly forces that seemed to will wrongs to happen. That is completely gone in this new series. Utterly. Totally. What we’re given instead is a procedural. And so the most interesting element of the title—probably the only real reason for using the same series name—is also gone.

The milky lady in the City Manager’s apartment: Woah. What was that. It looked real. But then we find out it somehow is just another part of the dildo decor. I’m not sure if it is. Alan Sepinwall, as so often, had the best line on this: this was the opening of a door, only to shut it again. It felt like a mockery of everything mystical the first show involved, the way Rust’s hallucinations made the weirdness of the killer strangely more a part of the creepy insane world we were inhabiting. In that respect was very much like many elements of the show—such as the tape recorder Ray uses to talk to his son—which seemed to deliberately want to signal continuity only to reveal it to be a point of departure.

Narrative: The narrative is deftly put together. Pizzollato is, remember, the guy who put together most of the last series through retrospective narration, intercut with the present, and was responsible for one of the biggest yelps of joy my mouth ever produced when he brought his story into the present. Unlike some things that seemed excellent in the first series, this can only be pulled off with skill. Now, with a lot to juggle, and three characters to keep track of, the first episode moves along with surprisingly little effort, introducing us to people and a whole new world, at the same time as laying the groundwork for the rest of the show which will have them them together. I was impressed. Say what you will, the pacing is still great, and with that dead eyeless man driving through the whole story, the thruline is excellent. It could have been a little more suspenseful, yes, but no first episode of a series like this could probably pull that off. The shot of all three detectives that is the first episode’s culmination is a bit over the top, a little too triumphant—as if the story were saying, Hey! Yes! We pulled it off! They’re all here!—but the whole show is always over the top.

The direction: The direction seemed good. Some nice scenes of the ocean particularly. It’s not the first series, and remains throughout strangely imitative of that first show. Should this be the case?

The setting. L.A. is not La. When I first heard the show would be taking place in the north suburbs of Los Angeles, and that the Ventura County Sheriff would be involved, I was excited. I grew up around there. It’s a land of farms dotted with oil fields, dirt and dry grass next to the beaches. Something could be done with this that was similar to what the first series did, only now it’d look maybe like a mix of the Southern California of There Will Be Blood and Collateral. But then most of this episode was set in and around Vinci, which seems merely to be the industrial crud of Carson or somewhere nearby. This is disappointing, since it offers nothing of the sense of strandedness and isolation that is involved in the first series: indeed, the landscape was just as much a part of the show as anything else. There is still a lot of driving, but Ray also gets a parking ticket. The location, in short, is part of a much more social world than the last series, full of anything but lonely, empty plains and hidden, twisted communities that we came, weirdly, to enjoy traversing—though there is a sex cam shack hidden, rather improbably, in the middle of an Oxnard farmhouse. The episode ends at Mugu Rock, north of Malibu, however, and traverses a lot of PCH, so perhaps more action will take place along that strip.

Antigone: McAdams’ character Ani was easily the most appealing character in the show. She didn’t have the fucked up charm of Woody Harrelson, but she has something similar. She’s wound too tight on the one hand but also likes what it turns her into. She suffers no fools. But this toughness also seems like a weakness, and in that respect is just like the toughness of all the male characters on the show. It may be too close to father’s day, but I couldn’t help but feel that the confrontation with her father ended up attributing this disposition to his treatment of her, even when the scene was meant to prove the opposite. Her hippie dad (played by David Morse) doesn’t want to impose values on her, even accuses her of having a daddy-complex; she tells him to blow off, but ends up obsessed with values all the same, and isn’t afraid of telling people about them. There was a short shot of all the men roaming around naked in the locker room, contrasted with her putting her gear on by herself, which seemed genuinely interested in her lonely position on the mostly-male police force. But her emasculating conversation with her boyfriend was much more interesting, and seemed to be where the show really is concerned with her: “now’s not the time you want to talk about this,” she says to him when he wants to bring up something about “the relationship.” That’s not just straightforward, that’s right, and shows her toughness comes from a moral obsession as well as a knowledge of what commitment to any higher ideal means. Her dressing down of her sister, too, who she finds working in that strange sex cam house in the fields, is almost entirely in terms of a struggle to live life in terms of higher ideals. It may be that the show can really only get at her situation as a woman by seeing it as a moral one. Still, that’s more than the first show did with any woman, and it’s an interesting angle. Whether it makes her more like the boys, will be the question.

Flappy-face Kitsch and the ridiculousness of male drama. Men, on the other hand, are as ridiculous as ever. Colin Farrell seems serious enough to respect as a character. But oh Taylor Kitsch, what the hell are you doing here? Do you have a role? All you do is apparently screw hot women and then get angry about it. I’m really not certain what the hell he is here for. The scene of him on the bike, oh my. And his line about America. I’m perfectly willing to love the cliché in this writing: what are detective stories but clichés after clichés, well worn formulas that manage to turn out different each time. But “we fought for America”—a reference, I presume, to some sort of service with his higher-ups in Iraq—is something delivered in passing, it’s too pathetic an appeal even to be mocking. And so, in that flappy face of his on the motorcycle, we find really what’s going on: something trying to be too serious.

The music and the tone. I couldn’t help cringing a little throughout the show whenever I heard the music: those creepy strains were too serious for the sunny and generally cliché content. For some reason, the show has everyone always wondering how to address clichés. We’re more sensitive now about how the presence of cliché can reinforce things as much as play with them, because we understand well how postmodern irony and unseriousness can also be used to further agendas. There’s a way that the clichés of True Detective are a little too tortured. Vinci? Ray Velcro-I-mean-Velcoro? They sound like B-movie names. Maybe that’s what Pizzolatto is going for. But the truth is, we are willing to accept clichés now on TV when they’re a matter of psychology, when they explain behavior, not only because then we’re free not at all to participate in them, but because this gives them some clear purpose. So I can clearly say Ray’s beating the bully’s father figure is so over the top, and so classically, hilariously Freudian, it’s probably the best part of the first episode. But I feel certain in saying that only because it is also done by someone who I can also dismiss as a horrible asshole. When the whole show is cliché, we don’t have the same freedom to pick and choose what seems camp and what seems simply over the top, what’s simply play and what is trading in and reproducing well-worn and ugly ways of viewing the world. Making us guess like this is a way of restoring freedom to an author, though.