How 'True Detective' season 2 differs from season 1 (beyond the obvious)

Rick Porter
True Detective Season 2: Second Trailer Released
True Detective Season 2: Second Trailer Released

It's not news that the second season of True Detective differs widely from the first one. The HBO series' new cast -- Colin Farrell, Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams and Taylor Kitsch -- and details of its new case have been exhaustively covered in the runup to Sunday's season premiere.

The changes in season two, however, go deeper than that. Creator Nic Pizzolatto once again wrote every episode, and it's unmistakably his voice: As he says in that fawning Vanity Fair profile, "Crime, detectives, intimacies and ideas ...; but it's all just me. That's what makes it the same show."

It may be the same show, but it's not the same story. Pizzolatto has (probably wisely) tacked away from trying to re-create the dynamic between Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in season one. Season two has a similar feel, but the devil is in the details.

The setup

Five minutes and change into True Detectiveseason one, the audience is presented with a lurid image of a dead girl in a field, naked and trussed up like a deer (complete with antlers). The previous time is spent introducing Harrelson's Marty Hart and McConaughey's Rust Cohle and establishing a dual timeline that will run through the season.

In contrast, the season two opener takes its time getting to the case at hand, instead spending most of the first hour with its four principals: the cops played by Farrell, McAdams and Kitsch and a gangster turned businessman (Vaughn) who will become entwined with them. Plenty of dark deeds are intimated (and occasionally shown) in the first hour, but those looking for a money shot of a dead body will have to bide their time.

The setting

Season one featured a lot of beautiful aerial shots of the stark Louisiana landscape, endless fields broken by the occasional oil refinery. Yet it could also feel sweaty and claustrophobic as Hart and Cohle probed dark corners of the state's mythology and power structure. Director Cary Fukunaga managed both with aplomb.

Season two is set in Southern California and fully commits to the sprawl, with action taking place along the Pacific coast above Malibu and the industrial interior of Los Angeles County. The signature aerial shots are still there, but Justin Lin, who helmed the first two episodes, focuses on freeways and industrial tracts. There's an admirable attempt made to probe parts of L.A. not usually seen on screen.

The influences

Pizzolatto grew up in Louisiana and has said his memories of his time there helped inform the somewhat otherworldly vibe that permeated season one. Rust's nihilist philosophy was inspired by writers including Thomas Ligotti and E.M. Cioran, and "The Yellow King" was in part a reference to a Robert W. Chambers story.

Fans of L.A. crime fiction will find a lot to dig into in season two. Farrell's morally compromised detective could have walked out of a James Ellroy story, and there's a bleakness and world-weariness among all the characters that evokes the likes of Raymond Chandler and John Fante.

There are also several real-world analogs to the industrial city of Vinci at the center of the story: Vernon, which has about 110 residents and a long history of corruption scandals; Bell, whose former city manager colluded with several council members to bilk the city out of millions of dollars; and Industry, which recently sued its former mayor for allegedly misappropriating millions in public money through companies he owns.

The women

One of the chief (and valid) criticisms of season one was that its female characters were at best underdeveloped and at worst treated as mere objects. Pizzolatto appears to be addressing that head-on in the form of McAdams' character, a flinty Ventura County detective who packs multiple knives and is eager to prove how tough she is. As Vaughn's wife, Kelly Reilly is also much more of a presence than any woman on the show last year.

True Detective will still probably not be mistaken for a deeply feminist show, but the substantial roles for McAdams and Reilly are a welcome addition.

Season two of True Detective premieres Sunday, June 21, at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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