Talk about a sophomore slump. While True Detective Season 2 may be getting something of an unfair rap simply for failing to measure up to the instant-classic first season, it's true that the second outing of HBO's anthology crime series has been disappointing in many ways. Season 1, with its perfect storm of gothic melodrama, nihilism, time-jumping narratives, and the McConaissance, has proven itself to be lightning in a bottle, incapable of being captured twice in a row. Season 2, replete as it is with dubious performances, faux-philosophizing, too-tangled plot threads, and a frankly uninteresting murder case, has failed to capture the zeitgeist in the same way. So is there a chance this will be the show's swan song? Will True Detective be canceled after Season 2?
Not so fast, folks. One disappointing season of television does not a cancelation guarantee. While there are cases of shows that hit a sophomore slump and never recovered (Twin Peaks, Revolution), there are just as many that managed to rally and last for at least another couple of seasons. (Heroes, The Killing). There's no reason to believe that HBO would be eager to axe one of their most promising shows in recent memory simply because of a dip in quality that could very well be temporary.
That's the great thing about anthology shows — they get the chance to reinvent themselves every year. That means showrunner Nic Pizzolatto can learn from his mistakes, and craft a third season that avoids all of Season 2's issues while capitalizing on the aspects that made Season 1 so well-received. Freak Show was by far the least acclaimed season of FX's American Horror Story and yet that show is returning for a fifth season this fall with a brand new setting, a brand new theme, and a brand new crop of cast members (alongside many returning ones, as well).
Pessimists may point to Season 2's declining ratings as evidence of the show's inevitable cancelation. And while it's true that the first four episodes all shed viewers, the season is still averaging more viewers than Season 1; yes, even in the absence of mega-stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. Season 2 premiered to 3.17 million viewers — more than any Season 1 episode with the exception of the finale — and so far has an average of 2.72 million viewers per episode, compared to Season 1's 2.33 million. (Of course, these numbers aren't anywhere near the record-breaking 8.11 million that tuned in to the Game Of Thrones Season 5 finale, but that series is the exception on HBO, not the rule.)
So has there been any word from HBO itself on the future of True Detective? Yes and no. While the network hasn't officially renewed the show for a third season yet, there's a very good indication it's going to. In January of last year, after only two episodes of the show's first season had aired, HBO signed a new two-year contract with Pizzolatto. Now, signing a contract and renewing a show are two different things, and contracts aren't always ironclad, to be sure — just ask Patrick Dempsey. But it is a very strong indication that HBO is committed to at least one more year of Detective. With one incredibly strong season and one somewhat disappointing season under Pizzolatto's belt, Season 3 will be the year that proves which one of those was a fluke. Either it will continue the pattern of diminishing returns... or it will return True Detective to its former glory.
Of course, if HBO wants to guarantee the latter, it should do whatever it takes to ensure the return of Season 1 director Cary Fukunaga. Along with Pizzolatto's script, Fukunaga's direction was fully half the reason Season 1 was so compelling — and is something Season 2 has been sadly lacking. Even if the network can't sign him on for all eight episodes again, it should at least hire Fukunaga to direct the premiere or the finale or the always action-packed fourth episode. His participation would go a long way towards restoring the goodwill of fans who have been sorely missing his presence in Season 2.
But even if HBO does renew True Detective for Season 3, we may be saying goodbye to the show sooner than expected. At the Banff World Media Festival last June, a few months after Season 1 had wrapped, Pizzolatto himself but an expiration date on his own show. "The job is exhausting to begin with, but it's doubly exhausting and I'm writing every episode. I can't imagine I would do this more than three years," he told reporters then.
Third time's the charm, right? Let's hope Pizzolatto and Detective manage to go out on a high note next year.
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