There are many ways to describe what’s wrong with the second season of HBO’s True Detective, but after five episodes (out of eight), the simplest way to put it is this: the show forgot to be a movie. Instead, it’s now just a TV series. Big mistake! In the renaissance era of television, it’s now trendy to say that TV is superior to film, but the irony of that statement is that it’s based on a standard of quality derived almost entirely from the cinema. The shows that look and feel like movies, that have the daring and ambition and visual complexity – and the darkness – we associate with great films, don’t come along all that often. But when they do – The Sopranos, Mad Men, The Wire, Breaking Bad, and only a few others – you always feel the small screen channeling is the big screen.
Season one of True Detective was one of the rare series to earn a place in this pantheon. Its relatively concise running time – just eight episodes – gave it a sustained, addictive excitement, and it’s hard to overstate just how much the entire world seemed to be buzzing about Matthew McConaughey’s brilliant, neurotically talkative performance as the damaged, dead-beat detective Rust Cohle. Many believed it was his work on True Detective that propelled McConaughey toward his Oscar win for Dallas Buyers Club. His acting on the series had a pitch-black ferocity that made you feel like you were sinking deeper and deeper into an existential void, right along with him.
In its second season, however, True Detective has squandered the lesson of McConaughey’s great performance: that if you present your characters without an emotional safety net, and establish that anything can happen, the audience will gladly fall right with them into the abyss. For a while, there were rumours that Tom Cruise would be featured in season two, and that might have been an inspired move for both the actor and the series. Instead, the producers hired a cast of talented second-tier names who feel like they could be the stars of True Detective’s ninth season. Sure, it’s fascinating to see Vince Vaughn ditch his reflexive jokiness to play a heavy. His moody, clenched performance as Frank Semyon, an LA gangster who’s had his fortune stolen and is trying to claw his way back to power, is probably the most urgent thing in the series. But Colin Farrell? He’s a skilled actor, but an overly placid one: he’s never more detached than when he’s trying to smoulder.
Murky and mystifying
Each of the three police investigators at the heart of this season is supposed to be a deeply flawed and tormented figure, yet the actors all possess the easygoing likability that TV compulsively favours. Rachel McAdams plays the embattled Ani Bezzerides as a woman who’s all gumption and drive; for all of her daddy issues and irresponsible workplace liaisons, she’s hardly a trainwreck – more like a cheerleader for empowerment. The brooding and violent detective Ray Velcoro is supposed to be a man whose combustible nature has lost him everything, but instead Farrell imbues him with a melancholy that makes him come off like a puppy who has just been kicked. As for Taylor Kitsch, he’s like a soap opera version of 1950s James Dean sensitivity as the sexually repressed former black-ops soldier Paul Woodrugh. It has never been entirely clear why these three ended up working together on a homicide case in the first place or convincing that they would. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to imagine them as a cop-show team on prime-time US network TV: perhaps Cagney, Mopy and Down-Low.
Then again, as Hollywood proved in the ‘40s and ‘50s, it doesn’t take great actors to make a great film noir; the art is mostly in the ingenuity of pulpy mysteries that keep us hanging on every twist. And ingenuity is just what the current season of True Detective lacks. Instead, it’s an LA noir with oodles of obscure plot complications that tend to go nowhere. The show has more aerial shots of LA’s twisted-ribbon highways than you can count, yet beneath the flashy visual flourishes it keeps recycling and juggling old tropes. The series’ creator and writer, Nic Pizzolatto, knows how to create dialogue full of below-the-belt blows, but it mostly feels like you’re watching a random selection of scenes from his DVD collection; the show is a pastiche in search of a vision. Vaughn’s Frank is embroiled in a failed plot to purchase property surrounding a proposed high-speed rail system – a land-grab that fuses criminal activity and government corruption in a way that’s meant to evoke the water scandals of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. The key setting is a rancid industrial corner of southern California called Vinci, but forget it, Jake – Vinci isn’t Chinatown. The scheme here isn’t gripping, because it doesn’t suggest the rotting of the system from within. It’s just an arid business deal with fake backers.
In search of a point
The plot spins around the gruesome murder of a corrupt official who was holding Frank’s $5m investment (which has now been stolen). The trail leads to that soggy old cliché, a ‘heart of darkness’: brothels with creepy animal masks, wealthy sex-trade customers who are systematically blackmailed. Maybe the remaining three episodes will push this somewhere new and interesting, but so far there’s an overly familiar, tediously shocking quality to these kinky developments. We’ve seen them before, in thrillers from 8mm to Eyes Wide Shut to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. As for Lera Lynn, who plays the solo saloon singer who strums her gloomy ballads each time Frank and Ray huddle for a backroom meeting, she’s the purest kitsch, and not just because she seems to be playing every last set on the bar’s weekly schedule. The spotlight that shines on her as she drones her songs is pure David Lynch – and really, is there anything more mannered than slavishly imitating a filmmaker as original as Lynch? Does Pizzolatto think we haven’t seen Blue Velvet or Mulholland Drive?
The grisly homicides in the first season of True Detective had a familiar quality too – very Thomas Harris – and the mystery didn’t completely add up. The series presented cult murders committed by a secret society of Southern Gothic elites, then linked those crimes to a backwoods serial killer living like a hillbilly Norman Bates. How did these disparate crimes fit together? Not too believably. Yet if the revelations were less than convincing, True Detective still conjured an unfolding bloom of evil, and the bravura acting of McConaughey and Woody Harrelson tapped into the desperation of masculinity in our time: the feeling that their appetites could not be contained by domestic life.
Pizzolatto often comes off like an apologist for male rage, but that’s what gives his dialogue its sting. Yet in season two, with Ani the crusader to balance things out, the series feels both more sexually correct and more scattershot. At a certain point, you may find yourself asking: what do these characters’ problems really have to do with each other? Pizzolatto still has to connect a lot of dots, and the prospect is starting to sound arduous. A sinister web is one thing; the new True Detective feels more like an explanatory diagram of corruption. There are many unanswered questions, but there’s little in the way of true mystery, because the characters, despite all that twisty highway imagery, aren’t trapped in a labyrinth. They're trapped in a story that feels like a road full of danger – but turns out to be just an endless series of detours.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.