Screen Test

TV Review: Vince Vaughn doesn't have Matthew McConaughey's charisma in True Detective

Vince Vaughn in True Detective.
Vince Vaughn in True Detective.PHOTO: HBO ASIA
Jack Black is low-ranking embassy official Alex Talbot and Aasif Mandvi (both right) plays his Pakistani driver Rafiq. In Season 2 of True Detective, Rachel McAdams (top) plays a sheriff estranged from her family, while Taylor Kitsch (above) is an ar
Jack Black is low-ranking embassy official Alex Talbot and Aasif Mandvi (both above) plays his Pakistani driver Rafiq.PHOTOS: HBO ASIA
Jack Black is low-ranking embassy official Alex Talbot and Aasif Mandvi (both right) plays his Pakistani driver Rafiq. In Season 2 of True Detective, Rachel McAdams (top) plays a sheriff estranged from her family, while Taylor Kitsch (above) is an ar
In Season 2 of True Detective, Rachel McAdams (above) plays a sheriff estranged from her family, while Taylor Kitsch is an army veteran with intimacy issues.PHOTOS: HBO ASIA
Jack Black is low-ranking embassy official Alex Talbot and Aasif Mandvi (both right) plays his Pakistani driver Rafiq. In Season 2 of True Detective, Rachel McAdams (top) plays a sheriff estranged from her family, while Taylor Kitsch (above) is an ar
In Season 2 of True Detective, Rachel McAdams plays a sheriff estranged from her family, while Taylor Kitsch (above) is an army veteran with intimacy issues.PHOTOS: HBO ASIA

The Brink falls short of its aim and the second season of True Detective is a slow burn

Television dramas such as The West Wing, Homeland and House Of Cards would have you believe that international relations are the by-product of precise geopolitical manoeuvring by savvy world leaders, diplomats and security officials.

The Brink- starring Jack Black, Tim Robbins and Pablo Schreiber - is aiming for the sort of truth which only comedy and satire can offer, even as it offers nail-biting scenarios which typically go for realism and plausibility.

It begins with a geopolitical crisis brewing in Pakistan, where a lunatic general has seized power and threatens to deploy the country's nukes.

As the White House readies a pre-emptive strike against Islamabad, and India and China start amassing troops at the borders, the only thing stopping World War III from breaking out seems to be Secretary of State Walter Larson (Robbins), the sole voice urging a peaceful solution.

The snag: Larson's predilection for booze, drugs and hookers, and the fact that his main ally in Pakistan is Alex Talbot (Black), a low-ranking embassy official who used to help him procure escorts.

  • THE BRINK

    HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601)
    Monday, 10.30am; same-day encore at 10.30pm
    3/5 stars

  • TRUE DETECTIVE SEASON 2

    HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601)
    Monday, 9am; same-day encore at 9pm
    3/5 stars

    Both shows are also available on HBO On Demand (StarHub TV Channel 602)

Further complicating matters is pill-popping fighter pilot Zeke Tilson (Schreiber), who makes things worse by accidentally shooting down an Indian drone after recreationally dosing himself and his co-pilot with a sedative.

Creators Roberto and Kim Benabib were inspired by Stanley Kubrick's iconic Dr Strangelove, which exposed the absurdities of geopolitics and nuclear deterrence.

That alone is good news for anyone who feels there is not enough television that goes for the jugular in skewering politics, rather than glamorising or glorifying the imagined behind-the-scene machinations as many shows do.

In the first five episodes, there are glimmers of the satirically sublime: the evangelical Christian United States ambassador offers to pray with his Pakistani driver Rafiq, but is unwilling to let him recite his own Muslim prayer; Zeke deals prescription drugs to keep his overworked crewmates awake on the job, and because he is paid peanuts to fly a US$65-million plane; and Rafiq's wealthy and educated family is disdainful of Alex's ignorance and cultural cluelessness.

Rafiq is a nice antidote to the one-dimensional depiction of non-American characters in many political dramas, where foreigners are usually one-note cliches or nameless and voiceless.

Still, too many jokes go for the obvious and the base.

For every dig at US foreign policy and tactics such as waterboarding, there are a half dozen gags about bodily secretions and sexual proclivities.

And we get it: the men and women who are supposed to be in charge and keeping the world safe are flawed.

However, after a while, you cannot help but wish the writers would aim higher and cut deeper.

Most viewers will be drawn to the second season of True Detective for one of two reasons: the sterling reputation of the critically acclaimed first season starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, and the A-list movie names which continue to populate the credits.

However, the series is an anthology, so other than having the same writer-creator - literature professor-turned-novelist Nic Pizzolatto - Season 2 is, by definition, a different animal, with a new storyline, cast and directors.

This time around, Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams and Taylor Kitsch are three police officers forced to work together when a government official from a small California town is found dead by the side of the road, his eyes burned out by acid.

The fourth "detective" trying to solve this murder is an ex-gangster played by Vince Vaughn, who had given the dead man a large chunk of his money to secure a piece of land for him - all in the hope of cashing in on an upcoming billion-dollar rail project.

As with the first season, True Detective is more focused on the investigators than the crime.

And once again, they all have inner demons: Farrell's Detective Ray Velcoro is a drunk with a failed marriage and a son he cannot connect with; McAdams' Antigone "Annie" Bezzarides is an uptight sheriff estranged from her hippie-guru dad and Internet porn star sister; Kitsch's highway cop Paul Woodrugh is an army veteran with intimacy issues; and Vaughn's Frank Semyon, a gangster trying to go legit, is haunted by the paranoia that the comfortable life he has built is crumbling around him.

Season 1 won near-universal acclaim with its compelling tale of a 17-year hunt for a Louisiana serial killer and its effect on the lives of the two detectives involved.

However, the chemistry of McConaughey and Harrelson - along with the artful and slick direction, cinematography and editing, which elevated what might otherwise have been a paint-by- the-numbers whodunit - was always going to be a hard act to follow.

It does not help that the narrative moves at a snail's pace in the first episode, slowed by its desire to set out its somewhat portentous overarching themes: fraught parent-child bonds, corruption as a flaw of capitalism, and industrial and personal decay.

Things speed up fractionally in Episode 2, which ends with a proper cliffhanger, but the wild shifts in pace and tone - including random rants against e-cigarettes and other peeves which you sense are the writer's own - feel haphazard.

What seems more deliberate are the dark and brooding undercurrents that True Detective fans have come to expect. That the show got away with the nihilistic philosophical ruminations of McConaughey's character in Season 1 was due in no small part to the actor's sheer screen presence.

Vaughn does not have half his charisma, however, and Semyon's wordy meditations on his ambition and paranoia do not work nearly as well.

The accusation of pseudo-intellectualism levelled at the first season by detractors of the show may find more traction here as a result.

By the end of the third episode to be shown next week, the characters and their relationships are fleshed out a bit more and the pace picks up a little because of developments in the murder case. Frankly, it is still hard to tell whether the show is worth investing in.

However, as Season 1 was a slow burn too, that is probably the single best reason to continue betting on this show.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 01, 2015, with the headline 'Political satire misses the mark'. Print Edition | Subscribe