HBO’s first Sunday evening of programming since Game of Thrones’ season five finale left us so demoralized we would’ve done anything to watch Daenerys soar into the sky atop Drogon once more—ahh, the memories. Alas, we couldn’t turn to Veep, the most potent chaser of them all.
Instead, the network gave us the ballyhooed return of its noirish crime drama True Detective, a season two premiere that began with an off-putting theme song from Leonard Cohen with his vocals at their harshest as the opening credits dripped with weird melting imagery of L.A. and its freeways superimposed on the cast members’ faces. From there it quickly went downhill, with dumbfounding one-liners and shoe-horned psychobabble that doesn’t quite feel as poetic now that Matthew McConaughey isn’t the one delivering the lines and Woody Harrelson isn’t the one reacting to them. The episode’s final moment—a breathtaking view of the California coast—was the most pleasing. Everything else felt like a complete waste of time. And Tim Robbins and Jack Black in the pseudo-political satire, The Brink, making light of a coup in Pakistan, made us only long more for Julia Louis-Dreyfus running amok in the White House, but her show is on hiatus.
So here we are in this summer of our discontent, trying to make the best of HBO’s most hyped night-time offering, and it raises a few questions:
Are we going to be forced to watch Ray (Colin Farrell) self destruct into a father-pummeling, journalist-intimidating, chemically imbalanced corrupt cop for the entire season? Was there no better way to introduce a strong female character like Ani (Rachel McAdams), a sheriff, than by portraying her sexual promiscuity, her dysfunctional relationship with her cult-leading hippie dad, and her apparent icy emotional detachment from her male partner? On the other side of the coin, we see California Highway Patrol officer Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), appearing on our TV screens for the first time, questioning an erratic driving, clearly inebriated female celebrity who suggests he escort her back to her place nearby where she left her license, presumably soliciting her body to get out of trouble. The ambiguous scene led to Paul being put on administrative leave during an internal investigation, revealing that he’s an Iraq war veteran still struggling to adjust to civilian life, but was there no other way to get there? Perhaps he could’ve pummeled someone instead, like one of the script writers. Or better yet, punch out Ray. He actually deserved it. And what was up with that damn bird head on the passenger seat beside the city manager? Was it a stuffed stool pigeon? A raven mask? What a pile of horse-feathers, we say!
It appears the show runners—who must have just graduated from film school—are trying their darnedest to put a million miles between this season and the last—which was hugely successful and garnered several high-profile nominations, but they can’t budge an inch because they’re stuck on the 405 Freeway in rush hour with a trunk load of pretention. So, instead of the vast murky nothingness that was rural Louisiana (season one’s setting), we get urban southern California, and all the refinery smoke stacks, casinos, and garish colors that come with it. At least the ocean looks nice.
And the prolific and profoundly interesting two character leads (McConaughey and Woody Harrelson) of season one have been replaced with four key figures, the three aforementioned cops working in separate agencies on a murder investigation and Vince Vaughn, who plays a career criminal named Frank with fantasies of making big bucks the, ahem, legal way. His girlfriend tells him he’s the best of the bunch. Then he enlists Ray to beat down the poor journalist investigating corruption in his city. Sigh. The episode devoted most of its time developing the foursome, a seemingly cumbersome task that may eventually be this season’s undoing.
Frank is emboldened to secure a profitable land deal in Vinci, a fictionalized corrupt city, whose city manager—Frank’s business partner—has gone missing. The politician’s lifeless body—minus his eyeballs—is discovered propped up on a park bench by Paul, who moments before had seemed intent on committing suicide by crashing his motorcycle but suddenly thought better of it. He swerves to a stop, and there in the motorcycle’s headlights, is the murdered victim. How convenient.
We don’t ever actually meet the dead city manager—only his corpse—but we do get a look inside his kinky private life when Ray and his stereotypical partner, a raggedy, overweight detective straight from central casting, break into the guy’s house in search for clues to his whereabouts and find a skeleton in costume, graphic depictions of sex acts, kinky adult toys and canvases emblazoned with naked women decorating the walls.
We are left to assume that the land deal and the city manager’s death are linked, but no one tells us for sure. It doesn’t matter—we’ve seen this plot before. We get a lot of character development but it’s unclear where any of these twisted characters are headed in the darkness that passes for their existence. Will Ray, Ani, and Paul join forces to find the city manager’s murderer? Will they compete for glory? Should we even care?
The first episode gives us few clues to these eternal questions.
Maybe the bird head is meaningful. Who knows? Remember the Maltese Falcon? We do, and so do the show runners. Only that bird has flown.