Gloomy, metaphysical and with a winningly dour soundtrack, at first pass True Detective season two could be perceived as nothing more than an artful re-tuning of the show's acclaimed opening series. Even the title credits are a variation on last year's, with a procession of lost souls scowling and sighing against a swirling backdrop of ominous architecture (on True Detective the buildings are scary too).
But the second run of episodes, which debuts on Sky Atlantic tonight, differs in profound ways also. Bickering cops Rust Cohle and Marty Hart have exited stage right, supplanted by the glowering quartet of Colin Farrell, Vince Vaughn, Taylor Kitsch and Rachel McAdams, True Detective's first female POV protagonist.
Plus, there's a new setting – the fictional Los Angeles suburb of Vinci replacing the Southern Gothic swamplandia of S1 – and a new storyline. The supernatural King in Yellow has been sent packing back to Lost Carcosa and is superseded by a shadowy conspiracy revolving around high speed trains, sexual depravity and shoe-based bullying. That's a lot to take in – and we haven't even touched on Colin Farrell's ass-kicking moustache (it deserves its own Emmy nomination). To help you negotiate this grim new world here, then, are seven take-aways from the opening dispatch.
1: Colin Farrell Owns True Detective.
Farrell's movie star chops have never been more obvious than on the small screen. As a cynical, boozed-up cop, he is absolutely compelling. Even more impressive is how he owns a role that is essentially a grab-bag of noir archetypes – the morally bankrupt detective lost in booze and regret, stewing over a car crash personal life. You've seen the same shtick literally a hundred times already. Incredibly, Farrell breathes life into a dusty stereotype.
2: Vince Vaughn Is A Revelation…But Not In An Obvious Way.
You expected Vaughn to follow the example of Matthew McConaughey's Rust Cohle with an overcooked turn verging on camp. Actually, the rom com king is devastatingly understated as an ambitious criminal trying to go respectable (but not able to entirely kick his old ways). Hollywood actors slumming it on television tend to show-boat. Here, Vaughn plays it lean and mean. Ninety per cent of his performance is him grimacing from beneath hooded eyes.
3: California Looks Terrifying.
The first two episodes are directed by Furious 7's Justin Lin and he gives it the full JG Ballard, presenting Southern California's labyrinth of freeways as a crime against god and nature. On and on the tarmac stretches in endless overhead panning shots, looping into forever like a horrible abstraction. Sensible junction interchanges have never felt so chilling.
4: It Isn't Supernatural…Exactly.
True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto has been explicit that season one's supernatural undertones have been expunged. We'll have to take him at his word, although the sex dungeon Farrell's character investigates halfway through feels plenty horror-movie. In fact, it exactly mirrors a scene in gore laureate Clive Barker's new novel The Scarlet Gospels. So, even if genre is at arm's length this year, an otherworldly sensibility nonetheless infuses every frame. Carcosa endures.
5: There's This Weird Subplot about Infertility.
We learn early on that Farrell's character and his wife had been 'trying' in vain for a baby when she was possibly/probably impregnated by a rapist (the Terrible Event that changed the course of his life). Later, Vaughn's protagonist off-handedly mentions he and his wife are about to undergo IVF. In a universe of bottomless moral decay, family planning headaches are not what you expected.
6: The naked lady count is much reduced.
True Detective season one was criticised for its gratuitous deluge of naked ladies. Granted we're only one episode in but thus far season two appears to have altered tack – to date, the only bared behind on screen belongs to Taylor Kitsch's mopey highway patrolman. On the other hand, the show continues to demonstrate an endless fascination with sex workers – a short-hand, one presumes, for the seediness and decrepitude Pizzolatto sees everywhere in life.
7: The Music Is…Amazing.
T Bone Burnett's brooding score went a considerable way towards conjuring the air of sepia decay that characterized TD season one. This time he updates Los Angeles' noir undertones, via Leonard Cohen and an astonishing version of the Gatlin Brothers' All the Gold In California by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, playing over the closing credits. You can almost feel the rancid head, smell the simmering highway asphalt as the tune grinds and wails.
True Detective Season Two debuts on Sky Atlantic 9pm tonight.
True Detective is back – but back where? The enthralling first series of this HBO drama, written by Nic Pizzolatto, directed by Cary Fukunaga and starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as a deliciously mismatched pair of cops, slouched across the badlands of Louisiana like something escaped from a swamp. Its potent, pungent story of myth and murder unspooled against a backdrop of gnarled mangroves, rotting clapboard churches and sweaty flophouses. And, at least until a misfiring finale, it did almost everything right, earning a devoted audience, rave reviews and a clutch of awards.