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.
Series 2, once again written by Pizzolatto (who has no truck with the "writers' room" screenwriting-by-committee method employed by almost every other contemporary American drama), dispenses with the entire cast of the first series. It also shucks off its director – for the opening episodes of the new series we're in the hands of Justin “Fast and Furious” Lin – and, perhaps most significantly of all, its setting.
It feels like a breathtakingly reckless, borderline hubristic, gamble on the part of Pizzolatto; not least because while he supplied the words for series one, it was just as often Fukunaga's virtuosic direction that really did the talking. But, judging by this dark, demanding, opening episode – the complicated pleasure of which is only occasionally undercut by heavy-handed exposition, the sound of a juggernaut crunching through the gears as it shifts into motion – he might just pull it off.
The episode began at dawn in Vinci, a smog-choked, freeway-threaded industrial backwater (motto: "Towards tomorrow") within spitting distance of both the ocean and downtown Los Angeles, yet lacking the glitter of either. "Is this the most corrupt district in LA County?" screamed a headline in the local paper. One look at Vinci's mayor – the drunken, moustachioed personification of seediness – seemed to answer that question. If this is where the City of Angels does its dirty laundry, somebody forgot to bring the soap. It is also, as one character puts it, a place "built on a co-dependency of interests", which is to say that if any character remains entirely free of the taint of corruption, we haven't yet made their acquaintance.
Vince Vaughn, the genial grin deployed in a decade's worth of mainstream comedies wiped from his face, played Vinci's disreputable casino owner. The driving force behind plans to build a $68 billion high speed railway through the heart of Vinci, he is the kind of man who stands in the bathroom of his exquisite modernist house practising expressions in the mirror in search of one that suggests even a modicum of decency. All baggy eyes and slumped shoulders, Vaughn brought plenty of bulk to the role but perhaps not yet quite enough weight. I wasn't convinced his hollowness was entirely intended.
By contrast, Colin Farrell, as burnt out, soul sick cop Ray Velcoro, was magnetic, the nearest we got to an analogue for McConaughey's Rustin Cohle. Like Cohle, Velcoro trails trouble (a broken marriage, a son conceived almost exactly nine months after his wife was raped, the murder of the man Velcoro suspected of being the rapist). But where Cohle espoused poetry and philosophy, Velcoro’s default mode is violence. After we had seen him pulp the father of his son's bullying classmate, and pummel an investigative journalist into silence, it was clear he was capable of anything. I couldn't take my eyes off him.
Taylor Kitsch, playing a highway patrolman and ex-serviceman with unexplained scars and bedroom issues, completed the triumvirate of dead-eyed, damaged men. The closest we came to a good guy was a woman: Rachel McAdams's Antigone (Ani for short) Bezzerides. A detective in the sheriff's office, she keeps a blade in her belt and a knife in her sock, drinks, smokes, studies the way of the samurai, has an intimidating sexual appetite and the kind of backstory – mother committed suicide, father a hippy preacher, sister working in porn - that has left her "angry at the entire world, and men in particular". Is she a rebuke to those commentators who criticised the first series for its lack of strong female characters – or a male character in disguise? Either way, McAdams brings a vividness to the role, her character serving as a much needed flash of energy to offset the others' malaise.
If you hadn't yet guessed the presiding influence over all this, Pizzolatto made it clear in a moment where a mysterious figure drove through the Hollywood hills with a giant crow's head mask on the passenger seat and a dead millionaire, relieved of both eyes and genitalia, slumped in the back. Seen through the windscreen, a sign identified the road as Mulholland Drive. David Lynch, this one's for you.
Whether or not this heady concoction appeals to you will largely depend on your willingness to join Pizzolatto’s cast of broken individuals on the road to hell – wherever all this is headed, there'll be no Hollywood ending – and how you feel about sifting key plot-points from the mumblings of whisky-fuelled men in ill-lit bars. Personally, on the basis of this absorbing opener, I'm all in. Against the odds, Pizzolatto has made a triumphant return. Veni, vidi, Vinci.