When a producer called the city of Vernon, California last year to see about shooting what was only described as “a police drama” (aka, HBO’s True Detective) in the town for a few weeks, city officials jumped at the chance.
The Los Angeles County enclave just south of downtown had become associated with a string of scandals: between 2006 and 2010, L.A. County grand juries handed down three separate corruption indictments, including one for misappropriation of city funds at “ludicrous” volumes. As recently as 2011, the county was threatening the city with full-out disincorporation.
That was likely part of its cinematic appeal.
It’s not clear what city officials were expecting from the show, but the producer said nothing about how the city would be portrayed, or what parts of the plot would unfold there, or even that the name of the city would be changed (or the quality of the script!).
But in an interview with Vanity Fair, show creator Pizzolatto pegged Vernon as the inspiration for a show about urban industrial human depravity.
“[Colin Farrell] is a detective for this city within L.A. County that’s almost entirely industrial,” Pizzolatto said. “He’s indebted to, employed by, and somewhat friends with [mobster Vince Vaughn]. They get drawn together because of various collusions around the murder of this figure, this city manager.”
But that didn’t really matter to the officials, almost none of whom were familiar with True Detective’s first season, or Pizzolatto, according to Fred MacFarlane, a strategic communications consultant hired in 2011 by the city to be its official spokesman.
“We really considered the the focus of this whole effort as keeping film production jobs, to keep filming production shoots in California, and more specifically in southern California, keep it in the L.A. area, and help generate jobs,” he said.
City officials “knew this was going to be good for the local economy,” MacFarlane added.
But here’s the thing: Six episodes into the season, most critics have found the show…less than good for TV.
The New York Times called it “monochromatic,” “self-serious,” and “not enthralling.”
Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield noted that the shows protagonists “lack chemistry.”
And the best TV critic in America, the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, hasn’t even bothered to follow this season.
MacFarlane wouldn’t say it in so many words, but… yeah. This season kinda sucks.
“It moves around, and sometimes the pacing is slow,” he said. “And, sometimes connecting the dots…it’s hard to go from point to point.”
WE KNOW WHAT YOU MEAN, FRED.
MacFarlane admitted that, partially as a result, he has only watched one full episode, the fifth.
Doing so was a struggle, he said.
“I was trying to understand why they are making these characters do this stuff.”
We tried calling around to other Vernon denizens to hear their thoughts. But at a population of 112, the city ranks as the smallest in the entire state, as the city is essentially one large industrial zone. It is also heavily Hispanic.
No one at the Vernon bars or restaurants we spoke to had heard of the show. We asked MacFarlane, then, what the reactions were among others he’d knew for sure had seen it.
“It wasn’t good,” he said. “The person said it was very difficult to stay focused.”
As for W. Michael McCormick, Vernon’s mayor, MacFarlane said he knew he hadn’t seen a single episode. The city is directing all calls to MacFarlane.
MacFarlane went on to acknowledge that whatever economic boost the city had received from the show wasn’t going to last long anyway.
But he refused to say the shoot has been for nought.
“[The city] has garnered some attention it would otherwise not have gotten at this level,” he said. “Vernon now has been exposed as having certain kinds of location possibilities, and it may lead to more, and that’s a good thing.”
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.