True Detective Facebook Cover

Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey star in the first season of True Detective. Source: HBO.

When True Detective returns for its season one finale tonight, I expect on the order of 3 million viewers to tune in. The show is shaping up to be the next Game of Thrones in HBO's lineup.

If I'm right, it would be a nice win for Time Warner (NYSE:TWX). HBO accounted for 16.4% of the company's revenue and 27.1% of operating income in 2013. Adding another large-scale hit should improve those figures as viewers tune in to cable and on-demand programming in increasing numbers.

But is True Detective really on par with Game of Thrones? Not yet, but there are startling similarities when you compare season one data for each program:

Season 1 High
Average Viewers
Rotten Tomatoes

Game of Thrones

3.04 million
(ep. 10, "Fire and Blood")

2.52 million

83% fresh

True Detective

2.64 million
(ep. 6, "Haunted Houses")

2.15 million

88% fresh

Sources: Wikipedia, Rotten Tomatoes.

At its current pace, True Detective seems not only destined to break the 3 million barrier tonight, but to add to its tally in future seasons as Game of Thrones has.

There's just one problem with the comparison, and it's a biggie: True Detective is an anthology. McConaughey's Rustin Cohle won't be back for season two, and there's no reason to expect Harrelson's Martin Hart to be back, either. Instead, writer and showrunner Nic Pizzolatto will dream up an entirely new and twisted detective tale for a new cast.

Warner and HBO are betting that audiences will tune in to season two for more of Pizzolatto's storytelling style. With Game of Thrones, executives (rightly, I think) expect audiences to tune in to learn the fates of Tyrion, Dany, Jon, and all the other lovely and loathsome inhabitants of Westeros.

Therein lies the risk. HBO's prior hits -- and so many other shows like them -- prove that character-driven momentum can carry show a long way. Think of James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano, or Norman Reedus' Daryl Dixon from AMC Networks' The Walking Dead. Hart and Cohle may have us in their grip now, but they'll be gone after tonight's edge-of-the-seat finale. As a fan of Pizzolatto's scripting and a Time Warner investor, I'm hoping True Detective doesn't disappear along with them. 

The final episode of season one of True Detective airs tonight. Sources: HBO, YouTube.

Now it's your turn to weigh in. Have you been following the show? Leave a comment below to let us know what you think about HBO's strategy with True Detective, and whether you would buy, sell, or short Time Warner stock at current prices.

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Tim Beyers is a member of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers stock-picking team and the Motley Fool Supernova Odyssey I mission. He owned shares of Time Warner at the time of publication. Check out Tim's web home and portfolio holdings or connect with him on Google+Tumblr, or Twitter, where he goes by @milehighfool. You can also get his insights delivered directly to your RSS reader.

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