Looking back on True Detective season one, it's clear now the main appeal of the show was not so much the plot (which got ridiculous towards the end) or the direction (as amazing as that was) but watching Woody Harrelson and – in particular – Matthew McConaughey do their thing.
Both performances were mesmerising, and threw down the gauntlet for established A-listers to prove their true acting chops 'James Gandolfini-style' by tackling a quality TV show. Suddenly, a HBO series felt like the new 'doing some Shakespeare on Broadway'.
Which is why so much of the speculation about season 2 – which began last night – centred around its all-new cast rather than its all-new story. Could Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Taylor Kitsch and – perhaps most surprisingly – Vince Vaughn pick up where the pair left off, and maybe enjoy a McConaissance of their own?
It's too soon to say, of course. But here's our take on True Detective 2's main players after a highly entertaining – if shaky in parts – opening episode.
Colin Farrell – Ray Velcoro
What did we learn about Farrell's detective Ray Velcoro in episode one? Well, like McConaughey Rust Cohle, Velcoro is a heavy drinker and a man with more demons than a copy of Paradise Lost (then again, in this show, who hasn't?).
Unlike either detective in the first season, however, Velcoro is corrupt, and very much in the pocket of career criminal Frank Semyon (Vaughn) who, in a flashback scene, is shown helping a uniformed, pre-moustache Ray avenge his (now ex) wife after she was raped.
As for Farrell, he is well suited to doing both the tortured and the drunk (and the tortured drunk) thing and is on fairly safe ground here as Velcoro. It is only his relationship with his son, over whom Velcoro is trying to get custody, that doesn't quite ring true (at least not yet). The scene when Velcoro viciously beat the father of one of the boy's bullies seemed an over the top way to demonstrate Velcoro's other main characteristic: his temper. Could a man that wreckless really get away with what he's doing for so long?
Vince Vaughn – Frank Semyon
The most ambiguous and – perhaps surprisingly, given he is the show's main crook – sympathetic character in the opening episode is Frank Semyon, a career crook with an as-yet-unconfirmed background trying to go straight by reinventing himself as a respectable businessman, via the construction of a multli-billion high-speed railroad through Vinci, the fictional Californian city where the show is set.
Semyon is an intriguing prospect. Will he turn out to be a doomed, Stringer Bell-type Icarus, overreaching from his sordid beginnings and out of his depth in the world of white collar crime? Or is he too smart for that, as his manipulation of Velcoro suggests?
Vince Vaughn acting straight sometimes feels like Vince Vaughn straining not to be Vince Vaughn, if that makes sense: you can almost see him struggling to keep the mirthful self-regard that characterises his comic turns in check. That said, he played the flashback scene where he gave Velcoro the name of his wife's attacker perfectly: it was hard to gauge how much was simple self-interest and how much he really cared. A latter scene, as the two shared a drink, suggested a mixture of both.
Rachel McAdams – Ani Bezzerides
The first time we met Ani Bezzerides she is emerging from a bedroom in her underwear with a stuttering, embarrassed lover in her wake. Evidently she has just suggested they try something in the bedroom that he found a little overwhelming, though we don't learn exactly what.
Sex is the central issue again in her next big scene, when Bezzerides busts what she thinks is a brothel only to uncover a seemingly legit webcam sex business staffed by – wait for it – her own sister. Later, her investigation takes her to visit her father, a hippy preacher at a commune. Both family interactions end in a slanging match that accuse Bezzerides as being the uptight one in this family of free spirits, though the father in particular seems like a man not to trust.
McAdams is great as the sour, tough (though possibly brittle) Bezzerides, a woman driven by what seems like a very complex set of largely negative emotions. So far she is less of a cliché than Farrell's Bad Lieutenant and ten times more interesting. How the show handles their relationship (in the final scene they are thrust together over the same case) will be central to how well the show works overall.
Taylor Kitsch – Paul Woodrugh
The least developed but arguably most memorable of the main characters to emerge in episode one is Kitsch's ex-serviceman, current highway patrol cop Paul Woodrugh, who we learn has been put on gardening leave over accusations he accepted sexual bribes on the job.
Whether he did or not is left ambiguous, though the man certainly has some issues with sex. We see him making excuses to pop a Viagra in the toilet before he can go to bed with his girlfriend, and running away from the pillow talk afterwards (Damaged Men 101: they have problems with intimacy) to drive his motorcycle death-wish fast down the motorway with no lights on. Then are also literal scars to match the obvious mental ones all over his body, from a time 'before' his army career.
Kitsch plays Woodrugh well enough – though with a shade too much Robert Patrick in Terminator 2 for my liking – but as he may well have True Detective 2's silliest character on his hands here, we don't hold out much hope for a career-changing turn.
Overall, True Detective 2's cast seem to be doing a good enough job of selling some occasionally laughable dialogue – "Never do anything out of hunger. Not even eating" / "I used to wanna be an astronaut. But astronauts don't even go to the moon anymore" – and characters that stray worryingly close to crime show clichés. Rachel McAdams is the stand out performer so far: let's just hope the script gives her more than just her sexuality and Daddy issues to work with.