Can you smell the psychosphere? The first season of True Detective smashed through viewers' consciousnesses, scoring one of HBO’s biggest hits, infecting pop culture with a host of bonkers quotes, and launching what is now a tripartite anthology of detective mysteries. First, it was Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) tromping through Louisiana, then it was a trio of cops (Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, and Taylor Kitsch) navigating a crooked California. Now, in True Detective season 3, it’s Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali looking for missing girls in 1980s Arkansas.
Series creator Nic Pizzolatto merged hard-boiled noir and religious myth into a swirl of infectious stories. The vibe and look of the series' first season was crafted by director Cary Joji Fukunaga (and marked by a jaw-dropping extended tracking shot that was unusual for TV), while the second season was touched by incredible talents like Justin Lin and Game of Thrones alum Jeremy Podeswa. The series returns for a third psyche-testing tale on Sunday, January 13, with an episode directed by Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room).
Here are 10 facts about the Emmy Award-winning show about bad people keeping the other bad people at bay.
1. The first season was probably inspired by a real-life cult case.
During the series' first season, Nic Pizzolatto told fans who were trying to piece things together to do an internet search for “Satanism,” “preschool,” and “Louisiana.” The results? The story of the Hosanna Church child abuse scandal. In Ponchatoula, Louisiana, a group connected with the church used its facilities for a series of crimes against children and animals, with its leader and former pastor Louis David Lamonica claiming in his confession that the rituals were in service of Satanic worship. In season one, Rust and Marty investigate a ritualistic murder that has connections to a church and the local government.
2. Matthew McConaughey was supposed to play Marty.
The show’s creators originally wanted Matthew McConaughey for the role of the personable, traditional detective Marty Hart because of his Lincoln Lawyer prowess, but McConaughey was fascinated by Rust and angled for that part instead. Fortunately, he suggested to producers that his friend Woody Harrelson play Marty instead.
3. Beyoncé danced at Carcosa.
The unforgettable location of the show’s season one climax looked like something out of Serial Killer Lair Quarterly, but it was a run-down 19th century fort. New Orleans's pie-shaped Fort Macomb was abandoned by the United States Army after an 1867 barracks fire and left to rot since. While you can’t visit it for yourself, you can wallow in its uneasy majesty in both True Detective and in Beyoncé’s “Lemonade.” It was one of several Louisiana locations the artist used for the blockbuster music video.
4. HBO's programming president took the blame for the second season not being up to snuff.
Fans weren’t as enamored with the second season of True Detective, which featured a messy (yet more straightforward) tale of corruption, mob influence, and infrastructure policy. In a rare move, HBO’s longtime programming president Michael Lombardo said it was his fault—specifically for rushing Pizzolatto to repeat the success of season one in an unrealistic time frame. “When we tell somebody to hit an air date as opposed to allowing the writing to find its own natural resting place, when it’s ready, when it’s baked—we’ve failed,” he said. In 2016, after 33 years with the network, Lombardo departed HBO.
5. The theme song in season 2 changed every week without people noticing.
TV theme songs are fairly standard, including the first season of True Detective (The Handsome Family’s super creepy “Far From Any Road”). Occasionally show’s (like The Leftovers) will toy with having a new song every week, but what T. Bone Burnett pulled off for the second season of True Detective was almost certainly unique. He used different portions of the same song—Leonard Cohen’s “Nevermind”—to intro the show in narratively meaningful ways. The changes were subtle, showcasing different lyrics from the droning tune each episode.
6. Rachel McAdams threw up after filming a shoot-out.
Rachel McAdams’s character, Ani Bezzerides, was weighed down by gambling debts, a knife collection, and regret. The investigation takes her deep into dark personal memories she thought she’d left buried. When they shot a lengthy shoot-out sequence, McAdams had to run 200 yards while reloading her weapon in an intensely violent scene. When it was over, she threw up, but she didn't blame the power of the sequence. “It was probably my own fault because I’d been drinking an energy drink,” she told The Telegraph. “But it was really fun.”
7. McAdams’s sparring dummy was named Woody.
No relation to her True Detective predecessor, but a nice coincidence. McAdams took notice of her stunt double throwing knives and wanted to learn, so they would go to work on a wooden target shaped like a man. The weapon—more intimate than a gun—colored her character’s fierceness and her overall philosophy.
8. Mcconaughey created a document chronicling the four major eras of Rust cohle.
With the story in season one ping-ponging from the past to the present (and ultimately into the future), McConaughey centered himself through each epoch with notes on what shaped Cohle throughout each major event. There are his undercover narcotics days, his 1995 return to policing, the 2002 ritualistic murder case, and the 2012 “Time is a flat circle” guy swilling beer during a police interview. On that last note, McConaughey told Rolling Stone that Cohle had, “lived longer than he hoped ... He’s a guy who’s resigned to his indentured servitude of being alive.”
9. Nic Pizzolatto didn't know he was writing a third season of True Detective when he began writing the story.
The catalyst for the newest season of True Detective was the writer thinking about dementia and the puzzle of a detective questioning what his life (and life’s work) was about. Mahershala Ali’s character is shown both in his youth during a major case and much later when he’s experiencing the early symptoms of memory loss. Pizzolatto didn’t know until he got deeper into the idea that it would be for the show, thinking it might be a movie instead.
“It felt like an impossible math problem at first," Pizzolatto told Entertainment Weekly. "Once I was 40 pages in and I was starting to see how the puzzle would fit together, I was like, 'Oh, this is a True Detective.'"
10. Mahershala Ali used pictures of his grandfather to land the lead role.
The main detective of the third season, Wayne Hays, was originally meant to be white, but Ali convinced producers to hire him in the role. Obviously, his Oscar win didn't hurt, but the Moonlight star also campaigned for the role by sending pictures of his grandfather—who was a state police officer—to Pizzolatto and arguing that the story would be deepened by the examination of race at the time.
“You’re asking someone questions, and [you’re] the lead detective. If [they’re] white, they might not look at me," Ali explained to Variety of his pitch. "When I ask them a question, they’re addressing [the white detective]. Racism is not experienced as the n-word, all the time. It’s more like, ‘Yo, you wouldn’t even look me in the eye.’ Or I said thank you and he just brushed me off.”
His pitch worked. Producers called Ali a few days later to tell him he’d gotten the gig.