June 18, 2015 7:05 AM EDT

The Yellow King is gone. Matthew McConaughey and his Nietzschean monologues are gone. The Louisiana backwoods setting is gone, as is director Cary Fukunaga, who wove a haunting nightmarescape out of the bayou steam. What’s left, in True Detective Season 2 (premieres June 21 on HBO), is creator-writer Nic Pizzolatto telling another hard-boiled–now twice-boiled–story of hard men, broken men and angry women (well, one woman, anyway).

The new season deposits us in tiny Vinci, Calif., less a town than a scam, a haven for sweatshop owners and a gold mine for corrupt city officials. Its symbol is Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), a whiskey-brined cop whose mustache droops like a flag of surrender. His decline started years ago when his wife was raped; his thirst for vengeance ended his marriage (he’s fighting for custody of a son who may not be his biological child) and put him in hock to mobbed-up businessman Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn). When a bureaucrat working to grease a high-speed-rail contract for Frank is found grotesquely murdered, Ray’s bosses and his patron want him to handle the case–though not necessarily to solve it.

But competing jurisdictions saddle Ray with unwanted partners: Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), a scrupulous sheriff’s detective with anger issues from her hippie childhood, and Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), a highway motorcycle cop with anger issues from a stint as a mercenary in Iraq. She’s anguished, he’s anguished–there’s so much showy pain here that Pizzolatto seems to be re-creating Darkness at Noon, the grim-cable-drama parody from The Good Wife.

The first True Detective had flaws–thinly drawn rural and female supporting characters–but its verbal confidence and visual audacity made it feel unmissable. Season 2 (HBO screened three episodes for critics) loses the novelty and highlights the weaknesses. A crew of new directors create a more intimate but more TV-conventional look, as Pizzolatto leads his cops past a parade of vacant sex workers, greasy pimps and blowsy dames. The original’s road-trip bull sessions and cat-and-mouse interrogations are replaced with clipped, portentous lines that play like poster copy: “I welcome judgment.” “Never do anything out of hunger.” “Everybody gets touched.”

The season’s lengthy casting search does pay off, partly. Farrell–functionally the show’s lead even if it’s presented as an ensemble–lets slip the hint of a better man under his sheath of bitterness and hair grease. McAdams is intense in a role defined mainly by being “angry at the entire world, and men in particular,” as her guru father (David Morse) tells her. Vaughn, though, can’t sell his semi-made man, coming off peevish instead of raging. As for Kitsch, he does his best in a role that, early on, largely asks him to seethe while carrying an unturn-offable lady magnet in his pants.

This could have been better, and might be yet. There’s Chinatown potential in the premise of turning California infrastructure into gold, if the series can transmute its leaden angst. The most symbolic signature visual of the season is its aerial establishing shots of freeways, with their vast curlicued interchanges. For Season 1’s Rust Cohle, time was a flat circle. Season 2 looks more like a tangle, going nowhere interesting.

–JAMES PONIEWOZIK

This appears in the June 29, 2015 issue of TIME.

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