Will True Detective find depth in flat central California?

Susana Ramirez, University of California, Merced

In the first season of the HBO’s hit anthology series True Detective, the Gulf Coast setting was almost a character unto itself.

The locale was woven into the story, which took its characters deep into the Louisiana wetlands while exploring the depths of human depravity. Even the satanic ritualism in the first season had real-life roots in the region’s past.

When the second season premieres later this month, viewers will find themselves transported to California – not in sunny Los Angeles, not in vibrant San Francisco, but in the 400 miles between.

Little is known of the plot; it will star Rachel McAdams, Vince Vaughn and Colin Farrell, who will play a couple of cops and a criminal roving throughout California’s “scorched landscapes.” As creator Nic Pizzolatto explained, it will take place in “the places that don’t get much press and where you wouldn’t normally set a television show.”

What should viewers expect of this “scorched” landscape? What’s the economic engine of the area? And what types of people might the main characters encounter? As someone who studies public health in the region, I can offer some relevant background for fans of the show.

Peeling back the dusty surface

There’s at least one instantly obvious reason that a TV show would think twice about plopping itself down in the Central Valley. Anyone who has driven up and down Interstate 5 or Highway 99 can tell you it is almost incessantly flat, brown and – where water can still be found – occasionally green. To be sure, it can be beautiful, but it can also grow tedious.

Two major highways – I-5 and Highway 99 – connect the population outposts of the Central Valley.
Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Yet while the Central Valley might be bereft of topographic undulations, it contains an astounding depth of humanity.

The region is among the most diverse areas in the country, and over 50% of the people are Mexican-origin Latino. Within that population, there’s considerable diversity: 25% are foreign-born, and many are indigenous Mexicans. The region also includes substantial numbers of Hmong (Southeast Asia), Sikh (India) and Filipino populations, whose colorful and vibrant cultures add richness to the Central Valley’s tapestry.

Some midsized cities – Bakersfield in the south, Fresno in the middle and Modesto up top – dot the landscape. But the area is largely rural and produces nearly two-thirds of the nation’s fruit, nuts and vegetables.

Yet the region’s fertility is also the source of its vulnerability: the agricultural sector, which is low-paying for everyone but the owners, dominates industry. Agricultural workers are among the lowest paid and easiest to exploit, since many have minimal education, literacy and English language ability.

The Appalachia of the West

Outside of agriculture, there are few job opportunities, and Central Valley counties have among the highest levels of unemployment in the country: currently hovering between 10%-13%, these are down from rates over 20% at the peak of the Great Recession. Still, it’s substantially higher than the rest of the state and country. In some Central Valley counties, close to one in three residents lives in poverty – a rate 50% higher than California’s already-high poverty levels.

For this reason, a federal report has dubbed California’s Central Valley the “Appalachia of the West,” a reference to the significant health, economic and occupational disparities felt by its residents.

Immigrant laborers plant crops in the Central Valley.
Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

The lack of well-paying job opportunities for the most vulnerable populations has led to high levels of crime. During the Great Recession, Breaking Bad’s Walter White would have fit right in: meth production was a top illicit industry.

As the housing bubble expanded, optimistic developers started building sparkling, 3,000+-square-foot houses in developments across the valley. When the bubble popped, building stopped, leaving agricultural land razed and zoned for dwellings, but empty save for pipes and wires snaking out of the ground. In the San Joaquin Valley, drug dealers used houses lost to foreclosure as labs to concoct drugs (the area had the highest rates of default as home values plunged over 50%).

Evidence of the bubble’s burst is only now starting to be erased, as new signs advertising homes for sale slowly go up in these half-built, planned communities.

Stifling smog

Also important to understanding the valley is how the combination of topography and pollution interact to affect daily life.

The region suffers from bad topographical luck: pollution from the Bay Area and Los Angeles drifts in and remains trapped by the surrounding mountains. Combined with the region’s own contributions to pollution from agriculture – not to mention the truck traffic up and down the region’s two main arteries – Central Valley cities rank among the most polluted areas in the country.

Smog from California’s major cities gets trapped in the Central Valley.
dangerismycat/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

The smog visibly masks the great mountain ranges on either side, but it’s also an invisible killer: residents, especially children, suffer from disproportionately high rates of asthma and other chronic respiratory diseases. The agricultural landscape – along with the drought that’s going on its fourth year – means there are even places in this region where clean, safe drinking water isn’t available.

Ultimately, the Central Valley might simply provide the gritty canvas for another Pizzolatto tale of murder and corruption. For thousands of middle-class families, the region is just that — a backdrop for otherwise normal lives, complete with the typical American joys and struggles.

But something clearly drew Pizzolatto to the Central Valley. Its vibrant cultures and genuine hardships provide a palate as diverse as the people who live here, and True Detective has the chance to illustrate this fascinating place for the world.

It would be a shame if all it showed was flatness.

The trailer for season 2 of True Detective.

The Conversation

Susana Ramirez is Assistant Professor of Public Health Communication at University of California, Merced.

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True Detective, Breaking Bad – the simple truth about complexity

Suzie Gibson and Dean Biron, Griffith University

Nothing is produced in a cultural or social vacuum. All forms of representation intersect and interact with our contemporary world, whether we like it or not. This includes recently acclaimed television programs such as True Detective, Breaking Bad, House of Cards and Game of Thrones.

The fantasy elements of Game of Thrones enhance its images of a brutal world driven by the will to control. This is highly relevant when conflicts in pursuit of power – often underpinned by violence – continue to take place across the globe.

Medieval costuming, settings and magic may seem distant. Yet even Julia Gillard, a fan of the series, linked Game of Thrones to her impending doom as prime minister and the Rudd sword that would eventually slay her.

It is surprising, then, that Jason Jacobs’s recent Conversation article on Game of Thrones claims that social and political context has little if any bearing on its success. Instead, the show is elevated for resisting what he calls the tendency to exhibit “boutique contemporary issues”.

Gender inequality is offered as one example of an issue commonly woven into cultural narratives in a didactic manner. Setting aside his unsettling broad-brush treatment of contemporary feminism it is unfortunate that Jacobs conceives of discrimination as a “boutique” matter.

On the contrary, such collective problems demand critical inspection in cultural settings. Social content is something neither authors nor viewers can avoid. In the words of Duke University academic Fredric Jameson, we are each “condemned to history” in the inherent sociability of our lives.

Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood and Robin Wright as Claire Underwood in House of Cards.
Courtesy of FOXTEL

Jacobs goes on to argue that Game of Thrones is the best form of entertainment chiefly because it avoids complexity. Such complexity – lauded in an earlier Conversation piece by Jason Mittell – is instead seen as largely negative in the programs Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

But complexity is not the same as complication. Narrative power is produced through sophisticated storytelling. This enables many perspectives to emerge and audience pleasure to be heightened. Moreover, without complexity there is no simplicity: each relies on the other for meaning.

In the same way as other aesthetic forms such as literature and painting, a quality television series can ask important ethical questions. This involves making compromising and morally messy decisions, because the world we live in is difficult and complex. Television that responds to the urgent need for self-questioning cannot be so easily written off as convoluted.

The myth of the cultural divide

Well written and produced programs such as House of Cards and The Wire provide levels of meaning accessible to some, though not necessarily to all. That does not mean that they are less worthy. On the contrary, what is revealed is a wide assortment of narratives that respond to a diversity of viewers.

Audiences are not a uniform mass of receivers interpreting televisual texts in the same way. We are a varied lot, an unpredictable array of individual consumers. Appeals to “entertainment” value may seem to renew the division between purportedly complex cultural artifacts of limited audience reach, and the allegedly modest, accessible-to-all variety – the old “high versus popular” debate.

Bryan Cranston as Walter and Aaron Paul as Jesse in Breaking Bad.
Courtesy of FOXTEL.

That argument is long dead. When Man Booker prize winner Eleanor Catton speaks of being influenced by the The Wire and Breaking Bad in writing The Luminaries (2013), this only helps confirm the waning of any boundary between high and low culture. Reception can also change over time, with “difficult” art evolving into popular.

Television, once considered by many as the exclusive location of mostly worthless diversion, is home to much that may be seen as important art. Jacobs reasonably calls for judgements of taste to be a part of the academic’s critical arsenal. Yet his evident distaste for all matters contextual (social and historical) risks reviving a culture war that is a relic of the 20th century.

Further, raising a single television program above “most other contemporary cultural output” takes the process of cultural evaluation to an unhealthy level of precision. The almost infinite vista of cultural forms available to audiences in the 21st century – in television, film, music, literature, and elsewhere – surely demands more cautious language on the part of scholars and critics.

Generic complexity

There is no such thing as generic or aesthetic purity. Breaking Bad’s sharp indictment of US health care does not prevent moments of experimental fantasy. A cinematographic style that might at first appear incongruous can in fact tap into questions fundamental to our existence.

True Detective, arguably the most literary series of all, depicts an astonishingly dark realm of violence and despair. Its film noir elements, including ghostly crime scenes, exposes audiences to nightmarish gothic moments where the divisions between reality and fantasy begin to blur.

Genres are almost always intertwined, which means that all kinds of narratives adopt different styles of storytelling. These can be both escapist but also strangely familiar. What makes these contemporary television programs particularly successful is their ability to skirt the boundaries between simplicity and complexity, fantasy and reality.

See also:
Breathtaking television: why Game of Thrones leaves the rest behind

The Conversation

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