“True Detective” series 2: Everyone says it’s weaker than the first one. Everyone is wrong.
It has everything that was good about series 1, to be sure: the cinematography, production values and atmosphere of weird underlying menace are perfect, the leads are all brilliant in their roles, and the general sense of Place (both in terms of magnificently shot scenery porn, and in feeling as though this world is alive, and its characters are actually adrift among its modern troubles, rather than just being pieces in a narrative of convenience), though that Place is the California valleys and the interplay of dying industries and new high-speed rail, rather than Louisiana wetlands where everything is simply rotting.
But, unlike the first series it actually has a plot. Things happen (for a reason!), and while our characters ooze overwrought melancholy in every scene, there is more going on than character studies in grizzled manpain. S1 had lots of good things about it but also some huge flaws: it was one of those shows which tries to be Art through deliberate obscurity, and ends up as a chore to watch (while failing to come anywhere close to the actual artistic high water mark of HBO drama, The Wire); its overriding theme was “masculinity”, which, yeah, just read the Iliad instead, nothing has changed; its plot didn’t matter, and its final twist didn’t actually make any goddamn sense. The plot was there to service the manly grimaces, not the other way round.
Here it’s the right way round, and although it starts a little weakly and ends a little predictably, it’s a wonderful example of the density of plot, character and detail you can force into a show while still having a pace that is resolutely unhurried. The fare is a bit more commonplace (political crooks, gangsters and PMCs rather than sisterfucking bayou satanists) and the hardboiled stereotypes are more modern but just as broad (crooked cop with custody issues, hard-as-nails lady cop with one of Those backstories, closeted veteran caught between who he is and his sense of who he needs to be, gangster kingpin learning that nobody really leaves the game); but it winds its threads around each other with great skill and concentration, and succeeds in its real goal – which is having the audience take it seriously, though perhaps not quite as seriously as it takes itself.