Nic Pizzolatto, creator, writer and executive producer of the HBO series True Detective, told Vanity Fair that, “at its simplest level, everything I’ve ever written about… is about love.” In season two of True Detective, love, in its many twisted forms, is definitely a major player. But there is another potent star receiving a decent share of the spotlight: alcohol, and the real booze brands in the show.
This season of True Detective is a tale of damaged characters, a collection of bruised souls doing what they can to weather the knocks, heartbreak and brutal experiences life has dealt them. The lead characters share a certain steely survivalist trait, along with a powerful tendency to self-medicate using alcohol. Alcohol is a crutch they lean on, increasing their intake with the frequency or severity of the blows they endure. It numbs them, helps them forget or detach, and transports them to other temporary realities that disappear from memory in the morning.
But, in the show, alcohol is also tied up with love. When love increases, the alcohol wanes. As character Ray Velcoro (played by Colin Farrell) focuses on winning custody of his young son, he slows down on the drink. He then drinks in a frenzy when his hope of winning that custody (and love) seems lost. When Frank and Jordan Semyon (Vince Vaughn and Kelly Reilly, respectively) rekindle their bond after fighting, the couple decides to sip tea instead of the Johnnie Walker that Frank favors at the height of his anger and stress.
As Sheriff Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) becomes more alienated from her family, lovers and friends, her drinking increases and brings the shakes with it. When Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) learns the happy news of his girlfriend’s pregnancy, they drink coffee together. When he deals with the stress of having lost the money he had to support her, he slips a hefty dose of vodka into his iced tea before joining her at the dinner table. And when Ray opts for forgiveness over shooting Frank, they also share coffee across a table, a contrast to the usual whisky they share across the table at The Black Rose, their preferred dive bar. These drinking issues are called out in dialogue too: the sharpness of mind that comes with non-drinking is noted and commended; the increases or excesses in drinking and the associated pitfalls are acknowledged and lamented in conversation as well.
In addition, the presence of alcohol is reinforced visually. Bottles of Johnnie Walker whisky, Modelo and Miller High Life beer, and Jose Cuervo tequila are prominently and frequently displayed and consumed, while Tecate and the promise of “Cocktails” are brought to our attention via signage at The Black Rose, an oft-visited haunt for a number of the characters. This bar is a den of hopelessness, with its signs lit up in neon, a false promise of something glamorous and attractive, where the reality is a blinding headache, scrambled recollections of shameful acts, and the hard reality of deep-seated pain that refuses to ever fully go away. In True Detective, alcohol is undeniably associated with a lack of control, despair and demise.
Which begs the question, why do these alcohol brands want to be featured so prominently in this environment and with these associations? While HBO doesn’t pay for product placement as it must remain ad-free as a premium TV channel, it no doubt alerts the brands to their pending cameos in their series and seeks real-world brands that exemplify each character, as it has done over the years with The Sopranos, Sex and the City and its other original programming.
Admittedly, watching an episode of True Detective and the dark events that come with it could be enough to drive anyone to drink. And, much like a Coke product placement can make you feel like chugging a cola, the sheer frequency of alcohol consumption in this show—the first season made a recurring character of Lone Star beer—does make you feel like maybe you should be sipping a whisky or a beer too, even if the characters’ lives are unraveling more with every drink they take.
Is the cool factor of the True Detective brand, coupled with the ubiquitous imbibing of alcohol throughout the show, enough to create increased consumer desire and sales for the alcohol brands? Whatever the numbers say, the frequency and prominence of the alcohol placement and branding is too great to be any kind of mistake. Interestingly, many of the major distributers are represented, including Diageo, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Heineken and Jose Cuervo.
If the reports (and promo videos) about Pizzolatto’s writing are to be believed, then in fact, character may be the true driver behind the saturation of alcohol in every episode, in true hardboiled detective fiction fashion. Noted for putting the needs and back-stories of his characters above all else, if his characters need alcohol then alcohol they will get.
For their sakes, we can only hope that as their stories progress this season, their alcohol consumption diminishes as the love in their lives grows. Good luck getting a happy ending. But, nevertheless, cheers to that.
Claire Falloon is a lover—not a fighter—and a branding professional in New York