The second season of HBO's True Detective debuted on Sunday night. The show is set in Vinci, a small, corrupt town on the fringes of downtown Los Angeles, which is quite obviously based on the city of Vernon.
The season appears to be mining Vernon's colorful, century-long history of corruption in much the way that Chinatown mined the story of the L.A. Aqueduct. Neither one should be taken as a faithful historical account, but the parallels are obvious enough.
How obvious? Well, about 10 minutes into the first episode, there's a shot of a water tower that gives the whole thing away. This is Vernon's most recognizable landmark — a big, ugly, tan bulb planted alongside the L.A. River. The only difference is that in the show, the words have been changed from “City of Vernon” to “City of Vinci.”
From there, it's easy to spot a number of other Vernon landmarks. The show establishes its gritty, industrial milieu with shots of a power plant, which happens to be the Vernon Light and Power facility. One of the main characters is Vinci Det. Ray Velcoro (played by Colin Farrell), who lives in a small house in the shadow of Vinci City Hall. That house is on Furlong Place in Vernon. The city owns it and all the other ones on that street, and it is indeed adjacent to Vernon City Hall.
Beyond that, the basic set-up of the two cities is pretty much the same. For more than a century, Vernon has been known as an “exclusively industrial” city, with rendering plants, cold-storage facilities, a slaughterhouse, and many other manufacturing and distribution businesses. About 50,000 people work there, but only 114 people live there.
In Vinci, the numbers are slightly different — 70,000 workers, 95 residents — but the idea is the same. There's a lot of money sloshing around, and not enough of an electorate to keep an eye on things. In Vernon, this resulted in a lot nepotism and inflated salaries and pensions. In Vinci, it leads to murder.
The first episode turns on the death of the Vinci city manager, which a trio of hard-bitten detectives come together to investigate. There's a loose parallel here with Eric Fresch, who was Vernon's city administrator and later worked as a consultant to Vernon Light and Power, the city-owned utility, making more than $1 million a year. He was forced to resign in 2012, and was found dead a month later at a Bay Area state park. While there was initial speculation he may have committed suicide, the death was eventually ruled an accident.
Fred MacFarlane, Vernon's spokesman, says the HBO production spent a couple of weeks shooting at locations in Vernon last year. The City Council doesn't mind the attention, he says, because they're big supporters of keeping entertainment jobs in the L.A. area.
MacFarlane doesn't think the show will hurt Vernon's image much, because so few people know anything about the city in the first place. He did, however, hasten to note that the show is fictional. “Even if it were fact-based, the cable TV show would be a depiction of a Vernon that no longer exists,” he said.
Indeed, since Assembly Speaker John Perez nearly shut Vernon down in 2011, the city has undertaken sweeping reforms. Among other things, it capped council salaries, instituted term limits, and set aside millions of dollars for a “good neighbor” program to fund community projects in surrounding cities. The city has also brought in a developer to build a new 45-unit low-income housing complex, which will soon double the city's population.
Still, it's fun seeing all the parallels to real life. In the third episode, the detectives drop in on Vinci's mayor — at his mansion in Bel Air. “The mayor of Vinci lives in Bel Air?” one of them asks. Indeed, Vernon Mayor Leonis Malburg, who served on the council for 53 years, lived in a 7,000 square foot mansion in Hancock Park.
Vinci has so many similarities to Vernon that the differences become annoying. For instance, there are many moody shots of the Judge Harry Pregerson Interchange — where the 105 freeway meets the 110 — which is more than eight miles away from Vernon. The show often cuts to aerial views of Tesoro oil refinery, which is almost 20 miles away in Carson.
As one of the characters says in the second episode, “What is this fucking place?”