If its first episode is any indication, the second season of “True Detective” is about dealing with ghosts, but not the literal kind Bill Murray might list on his résumé. These are not the peevish phantoms of “Ghostbusters,” or the wispy sheets inclined to turn up at a seance. These are far, far worse — sins from the past that won’t stay there — because this is “True Detective,” a show so convincingly grim that last year, inspired by a character from the first season, I often described my life to new friends as “a cycle of violence and degradation,” hoping to find a kindred spirit similar to the one I found on HBO.
In this season, which premiered Sunday night, a corrupt detective named Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) drinks heavily and brutally assaults people because he can’t escape the debt of a crime boss who long ago did him a favor. Let me just say that I have nothing in common with him. Another detective, Antigone Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), comes with the baggage of a dysfunctional family and failed romantic relationships. There’s also a character named Caspere, you know, like the friendly ghost.
Even my vocation, print journalism, virtually dead by most accounts, is resurrected, threatening to expose the institutional corruption of Vinci, a fictional California city. The best line comes from the shady businessman Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn), who loses his cool as he reacts to the local newspaper’s investigation: “The fuck? An eight-part series!” Take that, Periscope!
Something else haunts the edges of the frame though, nearly dampening the mood of an already bleak affair: the specter of season one. Those eight episodes, written by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Fukunaga, took the pulpy genre of the murder mystery and elevated it with a sincere, existential curiosity.
The two lead actors, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, were extraordinary as state police detectives tortured by forces of their own making, and by the horrific violence of the world. Through McConaughey, Pizzolatto’s dialogue, no doubt clumsy on the page, became a nihilistic manifesto that was as funny as it was poetic. When his character, Rustin Cohle, spoke of a “psychosphere,” Fukunaga answered with a wide desolate vista, lawless and intoxicating. Even if you didn’t agree with Cohle’s philosophy, the power of the images that revealed it could not be denied.
Pizzolatto returned to write season two, which features a new cast, new characters, a new setting, and an entirely new story. Fukunaga is credited as an executive producer and Justin Lin, who helmed several of the “Fast and Furious” movies, directed the premiere. The episode isn’t as immediately compelling as season one’s premiere. Nor does it share the same harmony between writer and director, but it’s a fascinating, if somewhat slow introduction to the industrial city of Vinci and its neighboring areas.
The city manager of Vinci, who is expected to announce a $68 billion high speed rail project in front of key partners, is nowhere to be found. Velcoro, tasked with finding him, is also busy fighting for expanded custody of his son. Bezzerides, a woman with an overabundance of knives and a no-nonsense personality, works her own case only to run into some family members who reignite old tensions. Semyon, who has invested in the rail project, is forced to speak for the city manager at the event. Another cop, Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), has scars of unknown origin down the left side of his torso, and seeks dangerous thrills on his motorcycle. Aerial shots of the California highway system suggest all these plot strands are headed for the same intersection.
Lin reveals this information and more about as economically as possible in one hour, even though the details aren’t as interesting as the actors themselves. Instead of layering a lot of backstory into the narrative, he reveals character with a mastery of the medium close-up. One of them — Velcoro, centered in the frame, drunk and blowing cigarette smoke toward the lens — is sublime. Another, an unvarnished shot of Bezzerides, suggests an imminent breakdown. A late one, of Woodrugh speeding down the highway on his bike at night, is comical until he purposely cuts his headlights and hurtles into darkness. The best one, though, comes closer to the end. Lin, enamored of his actors’ faces, extends that love to a corpse. In “True Detective,” the dead get a close-up too.
A version of this review appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on June 25, 2015.