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Jeff Simon: The much-awaited return of HBO’s ‘True Detective’

The murder victim in Sunday evening’s opening episode of HBO’s returning “True Detective” is revealed halfway in to be the city manager of Vinci, Calif.

He was tortured to death. His eyes were burned out by acid and his private parts were shot off by a blast from a 12-gauge shotgun. We see brief anatomic close-ups of the residue of both assaults before the episode is over.

The city of Vinci is fictional. It’s a good thing. According to the second season of one of the most acclaimed programs on premium cable, Vinci has the worst industrial pollution in the state. If you insist on numbers proving that, try annual emissions of 27 million pounds of toxic waste.

We will, for the next eight weeks, see the search for that city manager’s killer and, along with it, the answer to the state’s toxic corruption, just as we did somewhat differently when the first season of “True Detective” showed us some of the oozier aristocratic specimens in the state of Louisiana.

Let me hasten to state the obvious about the episode marking “True Detective’s” hugely awaited return to HBO: It is disappointing. Don’t be put off, though. I’ve seen the first three episodes and there is immense promise for the whole thing, not least because in episode two you will remember almost fully how very good an actor Colin Farrell is. If you fondly remember the shock and awe of encountering such an amazing TV show the first time around, be amply aware that Sunday’s hour is ragged. It was tough to pull together four separate plot threads to be followed with something resembling a smooth connection among them all.

You will not see an acting duo as emotionally arresting as the original’s Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson; nor will you encounter writing as eerily haunting and eloquent as Nik Pizzolatto’s writing for McConaughey playing Louisiana State cop “Rust” Cohle the first time around. It’s of little consequence. If “True Detective” is no longer brilliant and with little precedent, it’s now very good and its only major precedent is itself.

That’s because, Pizzolatto is still going to be the writer of every episode and he and HBO figured out how to continually make a TV series that gives first-rate Hollywood actors far-greater opportunities than they usually get.

It’s very simple, really: HBO is not entirely lying in its promotional hyperbole of “It’s not television, it’s HBO.” “True Detective” is NOT television i.e. it’s not a series which, no matter what the narrative logic might require, must continue going in a straight narrative line if it’s popular enough to ring the right metric bells.

In all popular TV, the show must continue to go on, no matter how more sensible it might have been if the original story had climaxed and been placed in a pine box, shoveled tenderly with dirt and buried with honor in the hallowed ground of TV history. Pizzolatto learned the folly of continuing when he was briefly on the writing staff of “The Killing,” a superb, haunting TV show that proved popular enough to necessitate an appalling second season.

There will be no second seasons on “True Detective.” Whole new stories will be told with whole new casts, directed by new directors. That seems to be the game plan and it’s brilliant; that’s why “True Detective” is NOT, strictly speaking, television but something different and a great deal better.

What our gruesome corpse requires, we discover, is a California state police task force jam-packed with the Damned in the Law Enforcement Hell of California. Farrell plays Ray Velcoro, a violent, booze and drug-soaked cop who’s spiritually in debt to the mobster who revealed to him the name of the man who raped his wife. That mobster is Frank Semyon, played by Vince Vaughn, who requires, from time to time, some little and not-so-little favors from the despairing and corrupt cop in his debt.

Taylor Kitsch plays Paul Woodrough, another member of the team of state cops on the case. All he really wants is to get it over with and go back to being a motorcycle cop. Unfortunately, he turned into tabloid news headlines in that job when a Lindsay Lohan-type miscreant claimed he quashed a traffic citation for her after taking it out in trade. The investigative task force is being run by Rachel McAdams, as Ani Bezzerides, a tough, hard-as-nails woman whose sister is in the Internet porn business and whose father is a religious cult leader who tells her “I am not comfortable imposing my will on anyone and I haven’t been since 1978.” What happened in 1978 is that the cult leader’s wife (and the sisters’ mother) walked into the river and never walked out.

His daughter Ani has learned on the job that “the fundamental difference between the sexes is that one of us can kill the other with bare hands.” That doesn’t stop her from telling offending thugs “You talk to me like that again, you’re gonna need a baggie to take your teeth home.”

In any ordinary moral calculus on conventional “television,” Ray, as his girlfriend notes, is “a bad man” and Ani is deeply troubled virtue incarnate.

We’re not on ordinary television here. But rather inside a community of the corrupt and the damned working out life the best they can.

Pizzolatto says he originally wanted to write this as a novel but realized – brilliantly – that it would work better as a detailed and novelesque TV miniseries.

Ray may be almost as morally compromised and as psychologically screwed up as a cop can be but he’s a gifted and dogged investigator at heart. Ani has little, if any, freelance forgiveness floating around in her soul but she knows a good cop when she sees one – and the human fallibility that might make one turn bad.

Just so that Pizzolatto lets critics know how steeped in film noir his fantasy is, Ani’s last name – prononced Bezz-AIR-id-EES – is the same last name of the writer of one of the great film noirs of the 1950s, Robert Aldrich’s brilliant and hallucinogenic Mickey Spillane adaptation “Kiss Me Deadly” which was written by A.I. (“Buzz”) Bezzerides, one of the co-creators of TV’s series “The Big Valley” on more conventional ground.

It isn’t only Farrell who gets to redeem years of fourth-rate movie work in this HBO miniseries; it’s Vaughn, who long ago cornered the market in loudmouth comic jackasses and has been trying to prove he’s an actual actor ever since. (Taking the Tony Perkins role in the disastrous Gus Van Sant shot-by-shot remake of “Psycho” was not the way to do it.) Vaughn has made some films no one should have in his filmography. He needed to play the high-class thug and bad guy in a miniseries as promising as the new season of “True Detective.”

No lie here: It’s a rough ride getting from episode one to episodes two and three in the new “True Detective.” The way I look at it, it’s worth every jostle.