True Detective 2 preview: “LA is golden and sour – like one of the whiskies downed like apple juice”

New cast, new storyline, new director – even a new city. But Ben Dowell finds the first episode just as compelling as the acclaimed drama moves to Los Angeles

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True Detective series one was brilliant.

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A dark and troubled voyage through the seamy underbelly of Louisiana. Its two heroes – Matthew McConaughey’s nihilistic detective Rust Cohle and Woody Harrelson’s libidinous and more easy going Marty – emerged triumphant from the mess, solving the crime and (literally) looking at the stars from Rust’s wheelchair.

After all we went through, we needed that moment. Rust’s exclamation that “the light’s winning” in the night sky was a fabulous way to end: a note of hope after a series about a child sex and murder gang operated with impunity by corrupt and powerful psychopaths.

And now we are back, looking forward to being put through it all again.

Not with McConaughey and Harrelson, but Taylor Kitsch, Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams and Colin Farrell in a tangled yarn called, cheerily, The Western Book of the Dead.

And the good news is it looks like it could be just as brilliant as series two. Plot-wise, it’s very complicated and there isn’t the deep breath unpleasantness that opened series one. But there is the same stifling sense of despair and wickedness that saturated the first series – and made it so compelling.

So instead of a young woman ritually sacrificed in the Louisiana countryside, our first meeting is with Farrell’s “compromised” cop Ray Velcoro, an alcoholic with a son he hardly sees and a mean moustache to die for.

He clearly flirts with the wrong side of the law, taking backhanders and even shunting a wedge of dollar bills in the direction of his lawyer because he wants more access to his son. His lawyer tells him that isn’t how things are done on her side of the legal fence.

He reminded me a little of Harvey Keitel’s titular cop in Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant. There is a moment when Velcoro absolutely loses it after discovering his son’s trainers have been stolen and threatens a young boy with words you may find hard to forget (and definitely shouldn’t use in church).

And then there’s McAdams’ Ani Bezzerides, a stressed-out sheriff’s detective who early on finds her sister in a raid on a suspected brothel. Only it’s not a brothel. Her sister is just shooting some porn.

The sisters’ hippy-dippy dad leads a cult-y commune of some sort and seems utterly self-absorbed. Rather than worry about his wayward daughter, he preaches about personal freedom, telling Bezzerides: “Your entire personality is an extended criticism of my values.” Yeah, way to parent Mr Egotist.

And what of Taylor Kitsch’s highway patrol officer Paul Woodrugh (below)? He’s a troubled, moody-looking so-and-so who we first see having sex with his beautiful young girlfriend. Where there’s pleasure, there’s also pain, though: he’s unable to sleep and has to take Viagra to perform.

Judging by episode one, a key plot strand revolves around a kidnapping and corruption involving Vince Vaughn’s Frank Semyon, a formerly dodgy businessman trying to go straight but whose business associate has gone missing. Episode two, incidentally, is called Night Finds You so the dark moodiness will no doubt continue.

Overall, it looks like series two will examine what happens when all three cops become involved in a murder discovered at the end.

It looks stunning. You can almost feel and smell the grime in an LA that we rarely see on TV – golden and sour, like one of the many whiskies that Velcoro downs without a squint. (Spirits are drunk like apple juice, here, Mad Men-style).

The atmosphere is achingly tense, the plot is no doubt a tangled web of awfulness, and we can but hope for the redemption we got last time. I for one will be strapped in for the ride.

True Detective season 2 starts on Sky Atlantic on Monday June 22nd

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