3 and a Half Years Later, True Detective Is Back. Why Did It Take So Long?

Mahershala Ali stars in True Detective season three. Photo: Warrick Page/Courtesy of HBO

Time may be a flat circle, but for True Detective, the last seven years have often played out like a roller-coaster ride through the pop-culture Zeitgeist. Nic Pizzolatto’s crime drama was first born way back in early 2012, when HBO gave it a straight-to-series order amid intense interest from other networks. Its arrival five years ago this month was a Major TV Event, welcomed with enthusiastic reviews, strong ratings, and 12 Emmy nominations. HBO wasted little time getting to work on a follow-up, prompting feverish speculation around its casting (and giving birth to the #TrueDetectiveSeason2 meme in the process). But when the second installment of the anthology arrived the next year, critics were far less kind (Vulture wondered whether the show had jumped into the hate-watch category) and the buzz turned sharply negative. At the 2015 Emmys, host Andy Samberg captured the show’s fall from grace in one brutal joke: “We also said goodbye to True Detective — even though it’s still on the air.” Emmy voters also pretty much ignored season two, while industry insiders speculated whether the show would come back — and if viewers would still care.

A full three and half years after its June 2015 season-two premiere, True Detective finally returns to HBO this Sunday. It resurfaces in a dramatically changed (and crowded) TV ecosystem, one it helped reshape by making it safe for big-name feature-film stars to topline limited series. But in addition to the whodunnit it will unspool for viewers over the next seven weeks, there’s another mystery: What took so long to revive True Detective — and why was HBO willing to move forward after such an extended absence?

Casey Bloys, the president of HBO Entertainment, is, of course, aware of all the chatter surrounding True Detective season three. He’s been answering questions about the series since he took over as head of drama for the network in January 2016 (and became its top programmer a few months later). First came more than a year’s worth of inquiries about whether or not Pizzolatto even wanted to write another season (or if said season would happen at all). When word leaked in March 2017 that the writer had penned some scripts, there were reports that Deadwood creator David Milch was coming on board as a collaborator (he ultimately worked on just one episode). When the series finally did start production in early 2018, a mini-drama about a change in directors sprung up.

Bloys says some of the external narrative around True Detective is simply wrong, particularly reports of trouble once filming began. “There is just more noise around this show than a lot of [other shows],” he says. Still, the exec concedes its return was hardly a given: “[It] was no sure thing that we were going to do a third season.”

That lack of certainty had nothing to do with HBO’s interest in keeping True Detective alive. While season two was critically panned, it was still a hit with audiences. Including viewing on nonlinear platforms, 10.9 million people watched the follow-up season, a decline of just 8 percent from the 11.9 million who caught the first installment. “There’s a lot of interest around this title for our subscribers,” Bloys says. But he adds that he and Pizzolatto were “both on the same page” about not wanting to commit to anything prematurely. “We had a conversation with Nic, which was, let’s take our time and get this right,” Bloys recalls. “Let’s get a pass that we’re really excited about. And let’s not rush to do it, just to do it. I don’t think Nic had any interest in doing that, nor did we.”

A key reason all parties involved may have opted for a go-slow approach is the sense that season two was rushed into production prematurely. Bloys declined to comment on decisions made before he took the reins, but his predecessor as HBO Entertainment president, Michael Lombardo, has all but admitted to pressuring Pizzolatto to come up with a sequel too quickly. “The first season of True Detective was something that Nic Pizzolatto had been thinking about, gestating, for a long period of time,” Lombardo told KPCC’s The Frame in 2016. “We had a huge success … [and] I became too much of a network executive at that point [by saying], ‘Gee, I’d love to repeat that next year.’ Well, you know what? I set him up to deliver, in a very short time frame, something that became very challenging to deliver … When we tell somebody to hit an air date as opposed to allowing the writing to find its own natural resting place, we’ve failed.”

Pizzolatto was not available to comment for this story, but he recently told Entertainment Weekly he needed to put some distance between himself and True Detective before he could go back to the police-show beat. “There was just a lot of stuff going on with me, health-wise and personally, during and after season two. I had sort of put True Detective on a shelf,” he said. “I was working on something else for HBO during most of 2016.” This account tracks with what Bloys told reporters that year, when he hinted it was possible Pizzolatto would cede writing of the show’s scripts to someone else in favor of a supervisory role. But by early 2017, the scribe landed on a story idea and began hammering out what would become the first episodes of the new season. Not long after, Pizzolatto was sharing scripts with HBO. “That got us very excited,” Bloys says. The exec is a bit blurry on the exact timetable, but he says putting eyes on those early drafts made moving forward on a third True Detective “a very easy decision. It was all on the page.”

While Bloys was happy with what he’d seen, he says Pizzolatto still “wanted to take the time and make sure he was feeling good about where everything was going” with the script. But by summer 2017, he and the network felt comfortable enough to begin searching for a cast. One of the first people approached was Mahershala Ali, who had just won the Oscar for his work in Moonlight and was suddenly on the radar of every casting director in Hollywood.

Pizzolatto had envisioned the show’s lead detective (Wayne Hays) as a white man, while partner Roland West would be African-American. The network even talked to a few white actors for the Wayne role (though Bloys declined to say which ones). “Mahershala read the scripts, thought they were great and came in to meet with Nic,” Bloys says. But instead of Roland, “He said, ‘I want to play Wayne,’” Bloys recalls. “I think Nic initially was like, ‘I don’t know if I can write that.’ I’m paraphrasing here, but Mahershala basically said, ‘Well, you already did. You’ve written a show about a man looking back on his life, dealing with dementia, taking an account of what a toll this case takes on his life. That’s not race dependent.’” Pizzolatto was convinced. He went back into his script and tweaked the character of Wayne “to account for the reality of a black detective in the South in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” Bloys explains. By June of 2017, Ali was in formal discussions to come on board as the lead. And by the end of August, with Jeremy Saulnier on board to direct a few episodes, True Detective season three was officially a go. (Stephen Dorff would eventually sign up for the Roland West role initially eyed for Ali, while Carmen Ejogo joined in another leading part.)

While things were sailing along relatively quickly at this point, the new season still had some hiccups — the stuff Bloys insists was simply “noise.” Those early trade reports about Milch possibly being a collaborator ended up being overblown, the exec says. “David came and wrote an episode and [was then] off dealing with the Deadwood movie,” Bloys says. (Pizzolatto last month told reporters Milch worked on True Detective as a form of repayment for Pizzolatto doing some uncredited work on the Deadwood movie script.) And while Saulnier did step away as director earlier than initially planned — he directed the first two episodes instead of the scheduled three — Bloys argues such mid-production tweaks are “pretty typical on a lot of shows …This stuff happens. [Pizzolatto] and Jeremy both decided mutually, ‘Let’s move on.’”

Now that True Detective season three is finally a reality, the big question is whether or not audiences will still care about a show whose last episode aired in August 2015, and whose first season was put into development when Barack Obama was in his first term as president. Worst, rather than exiting 41 months ago to critical praise and thirsty pleas for another round (see Big Little Lies or even HBO’s more recent The Night Of), True Detective left in a cloud of pop-culture disappointment. Is Bloys concerned audiences will greet the show’s return with a shrug?

“If you’re asking me if I worry, I worry about every single thing,” he laughs. But because True Detective is an anthology with a self-contained story line and completely new characters each installment, the exec isn’t concerned that the long gap in and of itself represents a hurdle for getting audiences reinvested in the franchise. “It’s a limited series, so it’s new characters, new situations, new locations,” Bloys says. “As long as it’s compelling and interesting, you can restart them.”

Plus, in the Peak TV era, extended breaks — even for shows with continuing story lines — are becoming far more common. Netflix’s Stranger Things will have gone nearly two years without a new episode when it returns this summer, as will HBO’s own Veep. And while he wouldn’t cite specifics, Bloys says he’s seen internal data suggesting audiences are still invested in True Detective, which he places on the “list of iconic HBO shows … There’s a lot of interest around this title for our subscribers, and there’s a lot of awareness in the marketplace for it,” he says, adding that “having someone like Mahershala involved” only helps raise the show’s profile. Indeed, early reviews of season three have singled out Ali’s performance for praise.

Of course, given how much the TV landscape has changed since True Detective last aired an original episode, it might be difficult for the series to duplicate its past Nielsen success. It’s now common for shows on both broadcast and cable to lose 10 or even 20 percent between seasons, even if they’re deemed hits. HBO’s Westworld fell around 16 percent between its freshman and sophomore outings, despite plenty of good buzz and a much shorter hiatus between seasons. And while streamers such as Amazon and Netflix don’t release viewing data, industry insiders frequently speculate those platforms have also been puzzled by data showing declining interest in shows as they move into their second and third seasons. If history is any guide, it’s quite possible the next-day linear ratings for True Detective’s third season launch will show the least-watched premiere for the show, and possibly even its lowest-rated episode. Bloys, however, makes it clear he’s not interested in playing the ratings prognostication game. “You know this old chestnut: It’s not just about ratings for us,” he says. “We sell subscriptions. [True Detective] needs to be a show that our subscribers, or some portion of our subscriber base, is very excited about. I think that it will do that.”

All of this may sound like spin or expectations-lowering, but the fact is, season three of True Detective isn’t a particularly high-stakes bet for HBO in general or Bloys specifically. While it’s not a cheap show to produce — very few of the dramas the network produces itself are — there’s no evidence it carries an unusually large price tag, certainly not for a network used to paying $10 million-plus per episode for series such as Westworld and Game of Thrones. Given the strong ratings for season two, it would have been surprising if HBO hadn’t at least tried to give Pizzolatto another at-bat and chance at creative redemption. If the new season of True Detective is deemed a success, Bloys — who had nothing to do with the first two installments — can take credit for helping restore luster to the show, while bolstering the network’s reputation as a nurturing home for talent. (This is no small point at a time when Netflix, despite throwing tens of millions of dollars at showrunners, is also increasingly giving up on projects after just one or two seasons, even if they’ve won a prestigious Peabody Award.) And if it flops spectacularly? HBO can look forward to a new cycle of  Big Little Lies later this year, plus a new season of 2018 buzz blockbuster Succession, and the certain-to-be-massive ratings for the final episodes of Game of Thrones.

The other obvious question surrounding True Detective right now is whether HBO will keep the franchise alive beyond season three. Bloy says he’s heard Pizzolatto has “got some ideas” for another season, and indeed, the writer told EW this week he does have a story in mind. For now, though, the exec remains “open” but very much noncommittal to a season four. “The mistake you can make is deciding beforehand that you’re going to do something,” he says. “Nic has to be excited about an idea [and] we have to be excited about the idea. I don’t want to be in a position where we are green-lighting things just to fill time.” Bloys says it’s possible Pizzolatto will want to work on other ideas as part of his overall deal with HBO, which runs through 2019, before returning to True Detective. But “there is nothing set in stone,” he says. “You just put out things that you believe in and take it from there.”

True Detective Is Back. Why Did It Take So Long?