Last year's True Detective was a chillingly dark and disturbing highlight in what was a pretty fine 12 months for television dramas. Both Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey rightly received best actor Emmy nominations for their portrayals of Louisiana police officers, Marty Hart and Rust Cohle, respectively, on the hunt for a ritualistic serial killer. It was an intense and haunting delve into the human psyche, and proved to be a dazzling display of televisual storytelling - one that would be difficult to better.
We'll see whether the second series of True Detective can do so tomorrow, on HBO, at 9am (repeated at 9pm). The new season lacks Skinny and Woody and the whole big bag of voodoo, but has an equally impressive cast of Hollywood A-listers.
Foremost among them is Colin Farrell ( In Bruges), who plays the hard-drinking and hard-nosed Ray Velcoro, a compromised Californian detective who the Irish actor calls "a bit of a burnout". Velcoro is scarred by some rather dubious choices he's made and we quickly find out that one in particular has him in deep debt to big-time criminal Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn; Wedding Crashers). The occultish murder of Semyon's business partner brings Velcoro and the mobster together with uncompromising sheriff Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams; The Notebook) and highway patrolman Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch; The Normal Heart), as they investigate a web of corruption and betrayal.
As with the first season, this is less about solving the murder and more about what's happening with the characters, as each of them wrestles with their demons.
Neo-noir screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto has again penned all eight episodes, with promises of "cosmic horror" - "Nic explores the darkness in people's souls," explains HBO's president of programming, Michael Lombardo. "It's not as dark [as the last series], but it's not a light ride".
This time around, a revolving cast of directors has taken the big chair, with Taiwanese-born American filmmaker Justin Lin (TV show Community and a few of The Fast and the Furious movies) handling the first two episodes.
Farrell and McAdams are superb but, even though I've been a big fan of big Vince since his Swingers days, his thug-turned-businessman just doesn't strike me as that threatening. Who knows, though, maybe by the series' conclusion, we'll have realised he's not yet showing his true colours.
The pace is slow burning, the narrative taut and the characters unfold over time. I, for one, am not betting against True Detective topping the year end best-of lists once again.
Another star swapping the big screen for small this week is Dwayne Johnson (above), aka The Rock. In Ballers (following True Detective, at 10am, on HBO, repeated at 10pm), his first major prime-time series, Johnson plays Spencer Strasmore, a former athlete-turned-financial adviser. The dramedy explores the extravagant and often ridiculous on- and off-the-field lives of a group of American football players.
As a newbie to financial management, retired "baller" Strasmore is under pressure to "monetise his friendships" as he struggles to dish out life advice to the younger players and prevent them from making the same mistakes he and some of his former teammates made. Big money, bright lights, fast cars and decadent parties: if you're expecting a sports version of Entourage, then you're spot on (it's even created by Stephen Levinson, an executive producer on Entourage).
To its credit, Ballers is well acted (Johnson is highly believable as the charming and affable man mountain), well produced and well written. Unfortunately, though, I have little interest in American football and the glorification of debauchery has been done to death. Sex, drugs, The Rock and a ball: same ol' party, just a different frock.
While The Rock handles himself admirably, another couple of Hollywood big boys don't fare so well on the goggle box this week. Comedian Jack Black and Academy Award winner Tim Robbins star in HBO's new political doomsday comedy, The Brink (directly after Ballers, at 10.30am, repeated at 10.30pm), a quirky 10-episode series about an impending global conflict that was greatly inspired, it seems, by the Stanley Kubrick cold war classic, Dr Strangelove.
Created by Roberto Benabib (Weeds, Ally McBeal) and his brother, Kim, The Brink stars Black as Alex Talbot, a bumbling (to the point of annoying) low-level foreign aide who gets caught up in a crazed leadership coup while stationed in Pakistan, unwittingly setting in motion a global crisis. But the incompetence runs through to the highest levels, as ace fighter pilots mistakenly shoot down the wrong targets while high on morphine and Secretary of State Walter Larson (Robbins) spends more time chasing skirt and nursing hangovers than a high school grad on spring break. As events threaten to spiral out of control, the inept American officials blunder on, digging themselves into an increasingly deep hole of stupidity.
The farce derives from the idea that all leaders and decision makers are selfish fools. This may be true, but it's a cliched premise (you half expect to be introduced to a Kim Jong-un caricature at some point).
The Brink rattles along at a frenetic pace, with a large ensemble cast and plenty of interweaving story arcs, but, despite the odd acerbic line, the wishfully provocative satire loses its edge in slapstick and bodily functions. As the philandering Larson, Robbins has the most to work with, but Black seems to have phoned in the same wide-eyed exasperation for every scene.
Unfortunately for a show that laughs at the self-inflicted poop its protagonists get themselves into, neither of its main stars come up smelling of roses. Then again, perhaps I should learn to stop worrying and love this bomb, to borrow from Dr Strangelove's full title.