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.
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.
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.
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.
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.