HBO's 'True Detective,' 'Ballers,' and 'The Brink' take over Sunday night

true-detective-season-2-rachel-mcadams
Rachel McAdams stars as detective Ani Bezzerides in the second season of HBO's "True Detective."

HBO continues its ownership of Sunday nights. Game of Thrones has wrapped up a particularly gruesome fifth season, and Veep and Silicon Valley similarly said their goodbyes for the year. So HBO is introducing three shows to Sunday audiences.

These shows - True Detective (9 p.m.), Ballers (10 p.m.) and The Brink (10:30 p.m.) - are not all that dissimilar from their Sunday time-slot predecessors. As was the case last week, these shows include an epic drama and two comedies - a political satire and one that looks at the daily grind of a much-publicized world.

True Detective

The most anticipated of the three by far, True Detective resets itself from the first season, beginning with a whole new story that has nothing to do with yellow royalty and that veers nowhere near the supernatural. The new season - starring Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, and Taylor Kitsch as a trio of scarred cops - still feels larger than the typical procedural. But there was something magical about the writer Nic Pizzolatto's first iteration that the second season cannot come close to matching.

This time around, the victim is a city manager who was tortured before he was dumped along a Pacific highway. His death brings together McAdams' state detective, Ani Bezzerides; Kitsch's highway patrolman and vet, Paul Woodrugh; and Farrell's corrupt cop, Ray Velcoro, to solve his murder. The bureaucrat's death also involves Vince Vaughn's Frank Semyon, an erstwhile gangster trying to go legit with a land deal in which our victim was a major player.

It's not just that a possibly Satanic cult leading to a vast conspiracy of pedophilia and other nefarious goings-on - as was the case in the first season - is more interesting than a land deal gone bad. (Although it is.) It's that the second season of True Detective feels ordinary while the first felt extraordinary.

At its best, Season One was an epic battle between light and dark, a triumph of cinematic direction in a medium where the director is not king, and an examination of the relationship between two very different men, all cloaked in a seemingly supernatural haze. The temporal shifts alone made it something to see. Coupled with Cary Fukunaga's excellent direction (remember that drool-worthy six-minute single-take tracking shot as Matthew McConaughey made his way through the drug den massacre?), it was like nothing else on TV.

At its worst, it was both pretentious, with McConaughey spouting mostly meaningless philosophical babble, and inherently sexist. But at least it felt epic and unlike any other procedural.

The second season's central mystery is enough to keep you watching, but you can say the same thing about Law & Order. The ordinariness is a quality that weighs heavily on True Detective because its cop-show genre is all over TV.

Take the storytelling: The time shifts that characterized the first season allowed us to experience in real time why McConaughey and Woody Harrelson were the screwed-up people they came to be. But with McAdams, Farrell, and Kitsch, we are simply told. Even the philosophical babble is gone from Pizzolatto's writing, and I'm surprised to say I miss it. A little.

Fukunaga has taken leave of True Detective, replaced by Justin Lin, who reinvigorated the Fast and Furious franchise. But while his aerial shots of Los Angeles give the city a living feel, his work is not nearly as striking as Fukunaga's.

The performances by the four leads are strong, even if it is odd to see Vaughn, who has mostly fallen back on comedy since the early aughts, go heavy.

It's impossible to judge the second season of True Detective on its own, even though it is a whole new cast with a whole new story. That's the benefit and drawback of an anthology series: Each year you get to, or have to, rip it up and start over again.

Ballers

The most interesting show of the night is the one that looks like Entourage with athletes. That's how Ballers has been characterized, especially with its pedigree: It was created by Stephen Levinson, an Entourage executive producer.

The comparisons are apt: Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson (a college footballer before he became a pro wrestler) plays Spence Strasmore, a Miami Dolphin-turned-financial planner who still ostensibly lives the good life post-ball (although there's quite a lot of smoke and mirrors involved), surrounded by his buddies at different places in their lives and careers. There's hotheaded star Ricky Jerret (John David Washington, son of Denzel and a former college football player himself), aimless retiree Charles (CSI: Miami's Omar Benson Miller), and new hotness Vernon (Donovan Carter, another college football vet), whose own entourage is not giving him the best financial advice.

As with Entourage, a better show would be more nuanced about the downsides of the lives of athletes no longer active (head injuries, for example, are touched on so briefly you may not even notice), and would go for real-life grit rather than glamorous glow. Ballers is at its best when it hits on how hard it is to be an athlete when the crowds go away. At one point, Spence tells Jerret what it will be like when he's no longer of use - there's no ticker-tape parade, and no one cares.

Like Entourage, it boasts an affable cast. Johnson is the real draw, able to flex dramatic muscles he's not often given the opportunity to use.

The Brink

The title of The Brink is the perfect descriptor for the political satire that takes over Veep's slot in HBO's lineup. Every single character in every single scenario is on the verge of complete and utter ruin. The title could also be used to describe The Brink's quality: It's on the edge of being good, but never quite gets there.

A sprawling ensemble cast - including Tim Robbins as U.S. secretary of state, Jack Black as a State Department screwup, and Orange is the New Black's Pablo Schreiber as a fighter pilot who sells prescription pills to make ends meet, among many, many others - are all involved in their own ways with a Pakistani coup that ousts the U.S.-backed leader in favor of one who believes the United States is trying to feminize Pakistani boys through radio waves.

It has its moments of comedy that land, but the entire show, which is going for a Dr. Strangelove vibe, feels off. As political satire, it lacks the bite needed to really work, especially when Veep just ended another stellar run doing just that.


TELEVISION

True Detective

Second season premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday on HBO.

Ballers

Debuts at 10 p.m.

Sunday on HBO.

The Brink

Debuts art 10:30 p.m. Sunday on HBO.


meichel@phillynews.com

215-854-5909

@mollyeichel