The lineup of shows that launches Sunday, June 21, on HBO is the most disappointing full lineup the network has ever assembled. It banks heavily on star power, but its three shows mostly fail to tell coherent stories. There are good reasons to watch all of them, but there are also good reasons to skip them.
And that's too bad. This is a trio led, after all, by the second season of the 2014 television sensation True Detective, now with extra Colin Farrell. Brand new series Ballers boasts Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in his first full-time TV outing since he was a regular over on the WWE. And The Brink, also brand new, has Tim Robbins and Jack Black starring in a would-be Dr. Strangelove act of geopolitical satire.
For any one of these shows to fall flat is a disappointment. For all three of them to fall flat, however, makes it feel like HBO has just written off this summer altogether, particularly after its spring lineup (Game of Thrones into Silicon Valley into Veep) felt so interesting and vital. And since the network is still America's greatest purveyor of quality television, it's even more disappointing to contemplate.
Where did things go wrong? Let's start with the big one.
True Detective season two reveals a show in crisis
The season one finale of True Detective — which closed a sprawling, conspiracy-laden case with a fairly basic "catch the bad guy" chase scene — proved to be an "emperor has no clothes" moment for a lot of people. A series that had been hypnotic and frustrating and gorgeous in equal measure seemed to drop much of what had made it so evocative in neatly wrapping up as many plot lines as possible. (A few months later, its accidental TV cousin Fargo did exactly the same thing.)
But the first season of True Detective had always been deeply inconsistent. It wasn't without pleasures — indeed, its central stretch of episodes were among the best television of 2014 — but mesmerizing directing from Cary Joji Fukunaga and deeply affecting acting from Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson more than compensated for some occasionally messy, overly expository writing.
The beauty of True Detective's anthology format, which involves telling a new story with new actors and a new setting every season, is that a disappointing ending to one season can give way to a new setup with far more promise in the next. But the inherent weakness of such a model is that it requires everybody who's involved to be at the top of their games all the time. And since each season welcomes a new team of people, there isn't much time for the kind of gelling among cast and crew that happens gradually over the course of a more traditional TV series' first few seasons.
True Detective's second season shifts the action from Louisiana to California, where the city manager of a tiny town that's mostly established as a criminal and corporate haven is found murdered — after a lot of prologue — in horrific fashion. Several people, all with different agendas, collide as the ensuing investigation begins, and they slowly find themselves being drawn deeper and deeper into a sprawling and perhaps too-intricate web of conspiracy. Along the way, they'll undoubtedly consider just how hard it is to be a brooding tough guy in today's cultural climate.
All of this is a long preamble to saying that McConaughey, Harrelson, and (most devastatingly) Fukunaga are absent from of True Detective season two; Nic Pizzolatto, the aforementioned occasionally messy and overly expository writer, is the only guy left. And he has unfortunately and perhaps pathologically leaned into some of his greatest weaknesses while eschewing some of season one's greatest strengths.
On the one hand, this is admirable. The promise of True Detective is that it has the option to transform itself into something wildly different with each new season, and Pizzolatto wants to make sure that as little carries over as possible. On the other hand, so much of what made season one so intriguing was linked to the way it played with narrative, the way it created a story that hinted at the supernatural without ever confirming its existence, and the way it focused tightly on the travails of a relationship between its two leading men.
Season two — at least in its first three episodes, which is all HBO sent to critics for review — is just a cop drama. It's an okay cop drama, to be sure, but it's definitely a cop drama you have seen many, many times before. The characters hunt down clues. They interrogate witnesses. They muse about the darkness in the world. They pursue suspects on foot. And they spend lots and lots of time staring into the abyss and hoping it doesn't stare back at them.
Thankfully, True Detective season two isn't totally without merit
Once the season gets through its first episode and a half (which amount to an incredibly clumsy 90 minutes of television), it settles into a bit of a groove that does take some chances here and there. There's a batty dream sequence that's particularly brilliant, and the foot chase that closes out episode three will remind viewers how good the show can be at constructing relatively low-stakes action sequences and executing them with panache.
But the second 90 minutes aren't enough to make up for the first 90, which frequently suggest that Pizzolatto is giving in to all of his own worst impulses. The season opens with a pair of scenes that outline how the main character, Ray (Farrell), might not be the father of his son because his wife was raped, a tragic occurrence that sent Ray on a spiral. The experience eventually cost him his marriage and might now cost him his son, too. A singer-songwriter conveys the gravity of the situation, gloomily intoning, "This is my least favorite life." And then criminal boss Frank (Vince Vaughn) delivers a lengthy, godawful monologue about his childhood after staring at a water stain.
True Detective has always wholeheartedly subscribed to the notion that life is a box of shit-covered chocolates and you're pretty sure what you're going to get. (Hint: it's covered in shit.) But Pizzolatto has generally excelled at embellishing that idea with philosophical discussions and the occasional mordant laugh line. The problem is that his new season two cast too often swallows those lines. Farrell in particular delivers the line, "I support feminism. Mostly by having body issues," as if he were very seriously taking a "How feminist are you?" quiz on BuzzFeed, when it's clearly meant to be a humorous release valve.
Pizzolatto also struggles to offset the loss of Fukunaga, who turned season one into a ghost story where the ghost had been conjured up by society's worst, most deeply buried impulses. The first two episodes of season two are helmed by Fast & Furious director Justin Lin, who imagines Southern California as an endless spiderweb of freeways that cut people off from one another, but he lacks Fukunaga's artsy pizzazz, instead settling for mostly functional TV direction like you might see on any other cop show.
If there's a reason to tune in, it comes in the form of Rachel McAdams as the unfortunately named Antigone "Ani" Bezzerides. At times, Ani feels like a collection of random character traits Pizzolatto threw together in hopes of creating a female character who's stronger than any of season one's, but in McAdams's hands, she slowly becomes the closest thing season two has to a soul.
People keep telling Ani what she is — for instance, she's angry at the world, but mostly at men — as if they're throwing her prompts at an improv comedy show. And McAdams just keeps incorporating them into her vision of the character, because the first rule of improv is to never say no. Ani should be a complete and utter mess of a character, but out of everyone in season two's sprawling cast, she comes the closest to achieving the kind of alchemy between actor and writer that Pizzolatto and McConaughey attained in season one.
There's still a chance that Pizzolatto turns season two into something intriguing. The Southern California landscape isn't as mysterious as the Louisiana bayou, but he's skewed away from spooky supernatural qualities and toward the hushed neo-noir of films like Collateral or even Chinatown, and that could pay off down the road. There's at least one iconic villain haunting the show's edges, and the actors grow more comfortable with every episode.
But the greatest struggle both seasons of True Detective share is that they clearly believe they're doing something far more original and weighty than they actually are. True Detective, at its best and worst, is a gorgeous but hollow plunge into the depths of man's brutality against man, with particular emphasis on the "man" in that phrase.
There's nothing wrong with examining the idea of masculinity, but True Detective too regularly acts as if it's the first TV show to ever stop and consider such a thought. Or, put another way, True Detective's second season might eventually escape the shadow of its first, but it can never entirely escape the fact that it's still True Detective.
Ballers wastes Dwayne Johnson
It makes sense that HBO would want to put Ballers on the air. Set in the world of professional football, the show is the closest thing the network has had to another Entourage in quite some time, even if Johnson, as lead character Spencer Strasmore, spends a surprisingly large amount of his screen time trying to talk people out of partying, because they shouldn't waste their money. Johnson, who is effortlessly charismatic, deserves better.
A former football player himself, Spencer is keenly aware of the financial and physical hardships that await NFL players once they retire, and he increasingly tries to help those who have exited the league, as well as those who continue to play football. Rob Corddry joins him as the head of a financial advisory company that actively courts Spencer as an employee, and there are some fun actors on the show's sidelines, like Omar Benson Miller as another former football player who's trying to figure out what his next act looks like.
Ballers isn't bad, per se, but it doesn't really try for anything, either. I've watched four episodes, and the most I can say is that it didn't really get me too worked up in one way or another. To be sure, "inoffensively pleasant" is probably the right tone for a comedy aimed at men that airs after the far more intense True Detective, and it's nice to see a show like this populated almost entirely with people of color (though, like True Detective, it doesn't have much room for women in its conception of the universe).
But at the same time, there's very little of anything here. It rolls off your back.
But with The Brink, HBO has saved the worst for last
The Brink wants so badly to be Dr. Strangelove that I almost want to pat it on the head and thank it for trying. It really thinks that what the world needs right now is hard-hitting satire about its various geopolitical conflicts, and that's very likely the case. The show — which focuses on a series of misunderstandings that bring the world to the brink (get it?) of nuclear war — ropes in so many potential doomsday scenarios that it can feel like a season of 24 written by the folks behind Veep.
Would that it were as good as either of those shows! Despite an all-star cast — featuring, in addition to Robbins and Black, John Larroquette, Carla Gugino, and Aasif Mandvi — The Brink's level of satire never really goes beyond "the most obvious jokes you can think of about every possible group of people on the planet," and its political messages essentially boil down to the idea that the end of humanity wouldn't be that cool.
There are funny moments scattered throughout, but by and large, The Brink aims to filter the satire of Strangelove through the tone of Family Guy, where there's no joke so obvious that it can't be made even more obvious. It's a show that considers itself quite daring for even existing, and as with the shows that lead into it, that proves a recipe for disaster.