In college, my friends and I used to kill time during the oppressively cold Maine winters by playing a little game we invented: The CSI: Miami Drinking Game. Now, the exact rules escape me—this was a decade ago, and there were so many—but I recall a few of them. You had to drink every time there was a scenic overhead shot of Miami (if you could name the song playing during the sequence, everyone else had to drink); every time one of the characters’ lascivious pasts was brought up; every time a character talked to a corpse; every time there was a forensic science montage set to blasting music; every time David Caruso took his sunglasses off or put them on; and every time Caruso delivered a sick, overdramatic burn.
Because the show adhered to a strict, hilariously repetitive formula, you’d end up finishing a 12-pack of Keystone Light apiece by the end of an episode.
I mention this because one could easily envision a similar drinking game being played to the second season of HBO’s True Detective, which in many respects follows the TV police procedural manual to a T. Drink every time you see an overhead shot of highways or factories; every time moody music kicks in; every time a character refers to his/her troubled past; every time the camera creeps in on someone’s face for a suffocating close-up; every time Farrell’s and Vaughn’s characters get lost in each other’s eyes, etc.
That’s not to say True Detective’s second season is bad—it’s not. It’s just a decidedly more formulaic show than the first go-around, and its lyrical McConaughey-delivered monologues have been lost in layer upon layer of shady bureaucracy.
The second episode of Nic Pizzolatto’s potboiler, “Night Finds You,” opens with a lengthy monologue by Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn), while lying in bed with his wife. Here, Vaughn does his best impression of himself-doing-Anthony-Perkins-doing-Norman-Bates in that regrettable Psycho remake, all static eyes and chilly whispers. He’s plagued by memories of his old man in Chicago who used to lock him in the basement when he’d go out on a bender.
One time when Semyon was 6, his father left him in there for several days after he got arrested. And things got dark. “By the second morning, I was out of food. The third day, the lightbulb burned out. Pitch black in there. That’s when the rats started comin’ out. I dozed off, and I felt the thing nibbling my finger. I woke up, it was chewing my finger. I grabbed it in the dark with my hands and started smashing it. And I…I just kept smashing it ’til there was nothing but goo in my hands,” recalls Semyon.
By this point, the camera is so tight on Vaughn you can see every one of his pores. “Ever since I wonder, ‘What if he never comes home?’ What if I’m still in that basement, in the dark? What if I’d died there?”
Vaughn is pretty miscast on this show as an imposing, desperate crime boss haunted by his past. He’s a live-wire actor and has always found himself a bit hamstrung when he’s slowed down.
Our three titular detectives—Antigone Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), and Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch)—have converged at the body of missing City Manager Ben Casper, who’s not only had his eyes burned out with hydrochloric acid but also his dick blown off by a shotgun (the aftermath of which we see, in close-up). We learn that all three cops will be on the case, as the body was found in Ventura County, and the attorney general has announced a state investigation into corruption in Vinci with ties to Casper (with Woodrugh acting as an agent for the attorney general). Like the real-life Zodiac Killer case before it, the mysterious death of Casper may run into lots of precinct-to-precinct miscommunication and red tape.
“Casper’s death is a window into everything,” says a DA.
And there’s a lot of corruption going on in Vinci. Its (overacting) mayor receives weekly kickbacks from Semyon and has tasked Velcoro with looking into any findings linking Casper to citywide corruption, and Casper has apparently cut a $900 million tax break deal for the city of Vinci. Also, Vinci has spent decades pushing out residents in favor of manufacturing, runs on a sweatshop economy of out-of-town laborers, and is the worst air polluter in the state, annually processing 27 million pounds of toxic waste. There’s even something shady going on with a movie production shooting in Vinci, and Semyon is owed $5 million from Casper in a land deal gone awry that’s tied to the $68 billion California Central Rail Corridor high-speed rail project. He’s broke and now needs to scramble together $7 million to buy back into the deal with Casper’s firm, Catalyst Group. Casper is also tied to a strange therapy/cosmetic surgery facility run by a Botox enthusiast/probable pornographer/therapist (Rick Springfield!) who says he knows Bezzerrides's father and that Casper loved hookers.
Yes, there are way too many threads in play here for an eight-episode season—and these are only the half of it.
We learn that the tortured Woodrugh is, most likely, a closeted gay man who has an odd relationship with his handsy trailer-trash mother. We’ve already seen him pop Viagra to have sex with his girlfriend, and in this episode, we see him relay the following anecdote to a fellow cop: “Oh, and this one fag, at the bank? Tried hittin’ on me. Almost clocked the guy.” Woodrugh’s macho-defensiveness aside, after breaking up with his girlfriend with the double entendre “I’m just going down South a while,” the cop heads to his bachelor pad in a predominantly gay neighborhood of downtown L.A., where he’s pictured looking out from his balcony. His eyes lock on a young gay hustler exiting a Porsche and standing on the corner. He sips beer and stares at his prey intensely.Bezzerides, who’s in charge of the Casper murder case, has been tasked both with looking into the murder and digging up dirt on Velcoro, whom the AG suspects is corrupt. We learn that Bezzerides grew up in a cult with four siblings—two are in jail and two committed suicide. She also likes to spend her evenings cozied up in a bathrobe in bed sipping Scotch and watching hardcore bondage porn—a fetish that was alluded to in the premiere when her boyfriend freaked out over, it seems, a BDSM-related bedroom request.
The film’s best sequence harks back to Season 1—a car conversation between Velcoro and a vape-puffing Bezzerides. He asks her why she’s obsessed with knives, and she tells him.“Could you do this job if everyone you encounter could physically overpower you?” she asks. “I mean, forget police work. No man could walk around like that without going nuts. I’d still wear ’em if I wasn’t on the job. Fundamental difference between the sexes is that one of them can kill the other with their bare hands. Man of any size lays hands on me, he’s going to bleed out in under a minute.”
Bezzerides is, of course, the biggest swingin’ dick on this show, and its most compelling—and uncompromised—character. She even sees through Velcoro’s bullshit, asking him whether he’s corrupt.
Which brings us to Velcoro, whose life is in shambles. He’s got Bezzerides and Woodrugh investigating him, is about to lose custody of his kid over that whole brass knuckles incident, and is still in Semyon’s pocket for giving him the ID of the man who raped his wife (Velcoro later killed the rapist and disposed of the body). Semyon proves to be a better detective than the trio, acquiring the address of Casper’s Hollywood sex pad from a prostitute via his pimp-acquaintance and forking it over to Velcoro.Velcoro checks it out and it looks like Linda Fiorentino’s F-pad in Jade, replete with animal carcasses lining the walls, a sex swing, and a secret room used to videotape and audio-record all of Casper’s dirty dealings. We then see the Cadillac that transported Casper’s body parked outside, and a man with a stuffed bird mask—the same one seen in the car—sneaks in and shoots Velcoro twice with a shotgun at point-blank range.
It’s a fun cliffhanger, to be sure, though anyone who’s seen so much as the trailer to True Detective Season 2 knows the mustachioed fella has plenty of scenes that have yet to hit the air, and this ain’t Game of Thrones.