Last year, “True Detective” premiered on HBO and became an instant phenomenon. Viewers followed detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey, “Interstellar”) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson, “The Hunger Games”) into the backwaters of Louisiana and a dark world of crime the occult and torment unfolded over eight episodes. The announcement of the show’s continuation as an anthology series with a new cast and location brought simultaneous excitement and speculation.

“True Detective”

B-
Season 2 Premiere
HBO
Sundays at 9 p.m.


Following up such a highly regarded first season is not an enviable task for creator and sole writer, Nic Pizzolatto (“The Killing”). While crafting the series as an anthology allows the show an opportunity to book big-name talent and start fresh each season, there’s the burden of what came before. Because it falls under the name “True Detective,” Season Two needs to fulfill an obfuscated obligation to live up to what was established in the show’s inaugural season while carving out its own identity as a separate entry in the anthology.

While Season One tackled and subverted several of the tropes that make up the buddy cop genre, Season Two approaches the classic film noir narrative. Trading the bayous of Louisiana for the more traditional noir setting of Southern California brings forth multiple tales of corruption, depression and the morally gray that are bound to collide.

All these plotlines are established in the first episode, “The Western Book of the Dead,” but unfortunately the story is spread so thin between the main characters that there is a lack of nuance that prevents anyone from standing out beyond the broadest characterization.

There’s Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell, “In Bruges”), a crooked detective in the pocket of criminal Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn, “The Internship”). Ray initially stands out the most from this season’s characters. The man possesses no control in his life, forced to work for Frank while struggling to expand his custody for a son, Chad (Trevor Larcom, “Fresh Off the Boat”), who might not even be his. The only consolation Ray gets is in the bottle or by violently lashing out at those around him. However, Ray is driven so quickly to the extreme, tracking down one of Chad’s bullies and beating up the boy’s father in front of him, it comes to question whether this character has any chance of being humanly sympathetic.

In contrast, Frank appears to be heading down the right path, finding a way to go through some rail project involving federal money that isn’t explained very well. The project is “A chance for the grandkids to be part of the old California families, where they don’t even know where the money comes from,” Semyon claims. Everything is in place, until Semyon’s partner in the venture goes missing. Vaughn is the biggest risk for this season, a traditionally comic actor taking on a much darker role compared to his usual fare. But so far the character hasn’t provided enough for Vaughn to show whether he was the right choice for the job.

The cycle of misery extends to all the other characters in “True Detective.” Detective Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams, “Sherlock Holmes”) deals with unresolved issues between her and her cultish father (David Morse, “The Hurt Locker”), who may be connected to the disappearance of a young woman. McAdams gives a solid, stone cold demeanor to her character but hopefully she is more than just, as her father puts it, “An extended criticism of my values,” a character who purely relies on another to define her. Meanwhile, Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch, “Friday Night Lights”), a highway patrolman on leave, is struggling to adjust to civilian life after serving as a mercenary in Iraq.

All these characters sound familiar — archetypes already established in some form of film, television or literature. Their success will come from how “True Detective” utilizes and twists what has come to be expected of these types of people, but right now they remain stuck in their preordained box.

“True Detective” does a lot to lay the groundwork for its ambitious redirection, but by doing so much, it feels like very little is being done. So when the three main law enforcement characters finally meet at the end of the episode only a few steps are taken in moving the story forward. Hopefully, “True Detective” can soon make strides instead of trudging through a tale of woe.

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