Southern comedian Jeff Foxworthy has been given a couple of sitcoms. Most of you know Foxworthy as the guy with the “You might be a redneck if…” jokes, but that’s only part of his routine and he’s a gifted comedian for people that consider people telling jokes that don’t revolve around curse words and sex “comedians”. A good portion of his jokes involve being from the south. So when they gave him a sitcom, they decided to place it in Indiana.

They didn’t want it to be too southern, you see. Jeff Foxworthy’s runaway population notwithstanding, the rest of the country couldn’t relate.

Do you reckon when they get a proposal about a handful of single people living in New York City, they say to themselves, “Can’t we put this show in Indianapolis? I’m not sure the rest of the country is could relate to a show about a bunch of people living in a New York City apartment, dealing with wacky roommates, extremely stereotypically Jewish parents, insults directed towards New Jersey, and jokes about the subway.”

I did a quick tally of television shows currently on the air. Shows that either aired this past week or that I otherwise watch. There were 34 in all. Of those 34, 25 take place on the east coast (excluding Miami), the west coast, or Chicago. Twenty-one of those shows take place in (or have their primary reference point as) New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, or DC. The locations of the shows that do not take place in one of those locations are: South Park (CO), Smallville (KS), Phoenix (AZ), Las Vegas (NV), Scranton (PA), Camden County (??), or Springfield (??). More than half of those places don’t exist.

There are some legitimate reasons as to why this would be the case.

For instance, if a show is filmed in Los Angeles it might as well take place there, right? Well, yes and no. There are certainly some cases where everything is obviously filmed in LA and it would be awkward to place it elsewhere. When they do place it elsewhere, it’s kind of awkward. Peter mentioned that Mayberry, ostensibly in North Carolina, looks very California-ish. Though they never placed Malcolm in the Middle, the landmarks strongly suggest California probably because it was filmed there. Camden County of My Name Is Earl would obviously be in the south or maybe midwest, but it’s awfully desert-y.

But there are limits to this explanation. For one thing, there’s no rule stating that these shows must be filmed in California. In fact, when FX first signed on for The Shield, a very LA program, they recommended that it be filmed in Vancouver or San Diego. Filming in California may be easiest, but it’s also very expensive. Having a show take place in Alabama or Texas but filmed in Louisiana (or Alabama or Texas, for that matter) would likely save them a ton of money. But there’s not much point in any network setting up shop in Louisiana because (with one exception) they don’t really want their shows to take place there.

A better explanation is that writers write what they know and they gravitate towards New York City or Los Angeles. The same sort of reason that there are a lot of songs about being a singer on the road and a lot of main characters have creative class careers. This is more of a sticking point. But you only need one or two natives of Tampa to write a show that takes place there. A lot of people in showbusiness in California are from someplace else. That’s one reason why the characters on these shows are often from someplace else (in How I Met Your Mother, you have characters from Ohio, Minnesota, and Canada)

Another lame explanation is that the cities are central to the shows. Like The Shield, which would have a hard time taking place elsewhere. The problem here is that a lot of shows don’t have much of any attachment to their city and in fact are out of place. Did San Fransisco figure even remotely in to Full House? Greg’s parents in Greg and Dharma are probably the only two Republicans living in the city of San Fransisco. And of course a large number of these shows live in apartments and houses that they could only afford in Birmingham and definitely could not afford where they live.

One of the more mixed explanations is the notion of targeted demographics. The notion that the young demographic is more valuable than older viewers. To be honest, I think that this is something that marketing departments convince themselves of more than anything. A justification for their own preferences. People that go into entertainment and marketing want more than anything to be hip and with it and I think are more interested than that than they are in selling their product. Even when there is no advertising, such as movies, studios released one anti-war flop after another and continue to have a bias towards Rated-R movies over Rated-G movies even though the latter typically do a lot better in theaters and have more ancillary sales such as toys and cheap straight-to-video follow-ups. I’m actually wondering if the credit card crunch might encourage advertisers to target consumers that actually have money over those whose credit cards are now being cut up.

But this thinking is part of the problem, too. Why are there so many shows that depend on the New York City lifestyle being made? Or that depend on Los Angeles? Every city has a story to tell. The Wire eloquently told a story in Baltimore that couldn’t take place in New York City or Los Angeles. There are a lot of cities out there that could have interesting stories to tell but never have those stories told. A show about Atlanta and the conflicts between its southern heritage and the desire to become a World Class City apart from its roots. Right now it seems the only way to get any of the networks to notice is a city-destroying hurricane.

But, they might ask, why would people outside Atlanta care about the tensions there? If the story isn’t well told, of course, nobody would. But the same questions are not asked about yet another LAPD or NYPD TV show. Or another hospital show that takes place in Chicago.

As a brief aside, Chicago is the exception to the coastal rule. Whether this is because Chicago is an honorary coastal city or because Chicago is what New Yorkers and Los Angelinos consider “middle America” I do not know, but Chicago has always been reasonably well-represented. Minnesota and Ohio are also represented somewhat… but only as places that characters arrived to NYC or LA from.

None of this is a new development. Shows have always skewed towards the coasts. There have always been exceptions, usually for some express reason. Dallas took place in Dallas for somewhat obvious reasons. Drew Carey’s Ohio roots made Cleveland a good fit. Of course, a lot of the shows that take place outside these areas do so in order to poke fun, condescend, or otherwise say “These people are weird.” Camden County is very anti-LA and while its portrayal is loving, it’s loving in the same way that parents love their mentally handicapped kid. There is a difference I can’t quite articulate between this and “Isn’t-NYC-rude” and “Isn’t-LA-vane” jokes in their respective cities.

Part of me looks at this and says “Well, then, it’s a good thing that we’re ignored. Any portrayal they throw our way would likely not be very flattering.”

This all came to mind because I’ve been watching old episodes of one of the few shows that actually does take place outside the coastal boundaries. It takes place in Colosse, actually. Very little effort appears to have been made to make it authentically Colossians. They have the parents driving in for a couple days from somewhere that you would never drive in from for a couple of days and a school district situation that differs from Colosse’s and Delosa’s structure, but oh well. A lot of it is typical for its genre and/or the regurgitation of stereotypes, but none of that matters to me. When they mention Colosse or Southern Tech University it does give me mildly more appreciation for what is objectively an unremarkable program.

I recognize that nobody outside Colosse can appreciate that except to the extent that their own hometown is showcased in a program. But I feel a kinship with any show that takes place in a big city that isn’t one of the big three or on the coast. A city where people are born or end up rather than make any sort of journey to. I always liked that Drew Carey’s show took place in Cleveland because as I watched I recognized it far more than those shows that take place in cities where lifestyles like mine are not affordable to people like me.

If I were in charge of programming for a struggling television network, one of the things I would strongly consider is placing shows in less common places and depicting life there in non-condescending ways. There’s a whole other country out there full of people that go to church, vote Republican and mean it, actually enjoy life in the suburbs, and have no desire to live in New York City or Los Angeles. If this sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve said it before.

It might be a risky experiment, but it’s been tried before. CBS was once known for pandering to rural audiences and people with rural affections (note: today’s would need to be aimed more at the suburban demographics). Despite respectable ratings, the shows were all unceremoniously dumped in 1970 and 1971 because they were hurting CBS’s image. They were attracting the wrong kind of audience.


Category: Theater

About the Author


22 Responses to Stuck in the Middle

  1. Peter says:

    A TV show can be set anywhere, but if it’s produced on an ongoing basis it pretty much has to be filmed in Los Angeles because that’s where the talent is located. Not just the actors, but all the behind-the-scenes technical people. Even Seinfeld, with its incessant New York references, was filmed in Los Angeles. Some shows have moved production to Canada, where it’s somewhat cheaper (due mainly to less-onerous union work rules as opposed to lower wages), but AFAIK that’s still uncommon.

    I agree, though, that setting shows in just a few, mainly coastal, cities is an idea which might stand to be reconsidered.

  2. trumwill says:

    I think that there are basically two kinds of programs: Studio Programs and Location Programs. The former are almost entirely shot in a studio with outdoor shots kept to a minimum or filmed indoors. Los Angeles is probably going to make the most sense for filming there since they already have everything in place, but it’s also the more flexible as far as where the story takes place. Seinfeld is “uniquely New York” and yet filmed in LA. Drew Carey and the Colosse series are also presumably filmed there. Those are probably the easiest shows to have take place in Duluth or a Columbus or Columbia somewhere.

    Other shows do a lot of shots out and about town. Cop shows are a good example of this, but so are sitcoms like My Name Is Earl. These are harder to take place outside the LA footprint so it makes sense that these shows would be shot in LA and thus also take place there. It’s also the case that shooting these shows on-location in some places leaves them vulnerable to inconsistent weather that they avoid in LA (Minneapolis, for instance, would be tough). I think some creativity might be in order for these shows, though.

    I am relatively certain, though, that there is enough talent either in or willing to relocate to most major cities to film a show there. That is certainly true of Colosse and even of smaller but artsier places like Santomas. Deseret is the only place I’ve lived that I don’t think could support a television program. The lack of union rules means that you can also be more versatile in the help that you get.

    But I do think that one of the bigger reasons why this isn’t done is because it requires a lot more thought in execution. I don’t think that it would be more expensive. Cheaper, I’d wager, because of the lack of union regs, cheaper talent, and tax incentives. But it’s definitely more complicated. They seem willing to do it when the goal itself is to save money, but not when it comes to representing the knaves in middle America whom I believe they believe to be as enamored with LA and NYC as they are.

  3. Webmaster says:

    There are the token shows that pop up not in the NY area or the other “reliable location” bits, but it’s true they are rare.

    There’s a whole other country out there full of people that go to church, vote Republican and mean it, actually enjoy life in the suburbs, and have no desire to live in New York City or Los Angeles.

    And 90% of Hollyweird absolutely hates these people with a passion bordering on derangement. The idea that people can be socially/morally/economically conservative without being evil spawn-of-satan baby-eaters does not occur to them.

    Look at just about every movie or show in existence (and while I liked it for the most part, even West Wing slipped into this far too often). Look at the movie The Contender. It extends into the comic book industry as well, though there are some sane heads there. Compare DC’s comics (having Batman and Superman off fighting terrorism) to Marvel’s (having Captain America off whining about how bad America is, how much we suck, and then during the Civil War getting ripped into by Sally Floyd, the stand-in for Marvel’s gasbag hack wannabe-writers, about how America “doesn’t care” about the ideals Cap stands for any more, and Cap just sitting and taking it because that’s what the writers wanted the reader to do).

    I mean, seriously now. I saw that page and any love I had for Marvel Comics died that day. There’s a photoshop of what it should have looked like that puts forth an alternative on what the page SHOULD have looked like, and I just about cried the first time I read it.

    What you miss is that TV, much like the newspapers and TV news stations, has become an echo chamber. Honest dissent, and disagreement on opinions? Actual, thoughtful portrayals of the idea that both sides have good points to make? These things are not for them. It’s all Journolist-style, echo chamber garbage and the rules are simple: if you want to get ahead, don’t you dare let slip that you’re not a raving left-winger.

  4. trumwill says:

    Web,

    I’ve been considering a post on the topic, so I won’t get too in-depth with my response to you here.

    Boston Legal slipped into near parody of itself on a few occasions. Particularly the election day episode, wherein they revealed that ever character on the show voted for Obama. Even staunch Republican Denny Crane. We were supposed to be touched, because he put party affiliations aside and “did the right thing.” Regardless of Obama’s merits (and we’re not going to discuss them here), I found the fact that they couldn’t stomach one of their characters (however crazy and nutso) vote the other way to be quite sad.

    On the other hand, they wouldn’t know how to write a good Republican even if they wanted to. So in that sense maybe it’s better when they don’t try because you run into situations where the characters have to backtrack or devolve into buffoonery (or, in the case of Denny Crane, both). I would prefer that more differing views be represented in entertainment, but it honestly doesn’t bother me a great deal most of the time. What does bother me is that it gets in the way of good storytelling. It makes shows that are supposed to be thought-provoking a lot less than they could be. It detracts from the “nuance” that creative-types rightfully take pride in striving for.

    On the comics front, I think that’s one area where DC is helped immeasurably by having a parent company that has to worry about public opinion and that is obsessed with maintaining the value of their properties. It’s run by businessmen. Marvel is run by creative-types. There’s something to be said for the latter in many respects (and it contributes to why so many people like Marvel better than DC), but what they did to Captain America undercuts that considerably for those that don’t share that worldview and are angry that an icon has been used to make a political point.

  5. Webmaster says:

    Will,

    If they are incapable of writing a good Republican (or even a good conservative, not necessarily the same thing) then I wouldn’t claim they are good writers. The world’s in need of more real writers and less hacks these days.

  6. trumwill says:

    It’s more of a blind-spot than anything. If you don’t have any exposure to a certain type of person, you tend to write them as you observe them. It’s often an incomplete picture. Particularly on the political scene where your primary reference is in battle arena. You are mostly exposed to them in political debates. Often with the loudest and most obnoxious of the opposition.

    What an ambitious writer should do is spend time researching the group that they’re writing about. This applies to adherents of opposing political ideas, but also demographics. If I wanted to write a book about Orthodox Jews, I’d need to go to temple and get to know them. In politics that’s even harder because not only do you have to spend significant amounts of time around people that are wrong, but to be effective you have to be an observer and let them keep spouting their wrong ideas. Because if you start to speak up (before they really know you and respect you), it becomes adversarial and you’re right back where you started.

    It’s much easier for them to just write what they know. And they know that conservatives are wrong.

    I’m fortunate in this regard in that I have been an ardent conservative and staunch liberal at varying points in my life. And a libertarian. So I have a lot of good experiences to draw on. On the other hand, I want a Jack Mormon as a main character in a series of novels I would like to write. Despite the second-hand experiences I do have, that’s going to be much harder work.

  7. Webmaster says:

    Sorry, Will, but that’s not quite right.

    Like the article I posted shows, it’s not simply that they “aren’t exposed” to anyone other than their own echo-chamber, it’s that they work hard maintaining the echo chamber itself. Rabid left-wingers (I can think of no other good description) are in power high enough that they can merely not saying the correct left-wing shibboleths at the correct time can cost someone their job. In that environment, how are these hack writers ever going to get the “exposure” you think they need? The answer is not just that they aren’t, it’s that they actively go out of their way to prevent such exposure. In a field where “research” of a possible subject is supposed to be the norm, that’s more than just a blind spot.

  8. Peter says:

    If I wanted to write a book about Orthodox Jews, I’d need to go to temple and get to know them.

    You wouldn’t see any … only Reform and sometimes Conservative Jews use the word temple, the Orthodox say shul 🙂

  9. Barry says:

    Interesting post, Will, though where in your 34 shows did you place “Lost”? Or were you referring only to shows that are set primarily within the US (continental or otherwise)?

    I think when you set a show in a certain area, unless it’s so generic that it could be set anywhere (i.e. anything from “Family Matters” to “Eight is Enough” to “My Three Sons” to “Hazel” to whatever) the locale in which it’s set almost becomes another character.

    There are several shows where, to me, that was definitely the case – and much more than Dallas was to “Dallas” which really only defined the setting (oil-rich southern/SW’ern metropolis) rather than serving as a reflection of the characters…

    1) Northern Exposure – ?, Alaska
    2) Picket Fences – Rome, Wisconsin
    3) Mad About You, NYPD Blue – Manhatten
    4) Andy Griffith – Mayberry, NC

    And I’m sure there are others. I don’t include classics even like I Love Lucy and All in the Family (both set in NYC but still could’ve been set in any big city, really).

    To a lot of people in the US, New York is a huge unknown, media-defined place. It’s the TV equivalent of Disneyland where magic happens and everything’s interesting and people ride in taxis (!)_from TheBatteryLand to SoHoLand to EmpireStateBuildingLand to UpperEastSideLand to CentralParkLand and all places in-between. I’d say the vast majority of TV viewers in the US have never set foot in any of the boroughs of NYC, so it’s a favorite Fantasy city. It has big buildings! A giant statue in the harbor! Big-time plays! The Today Show! Woody Allen! SNL! It was even (sadly, but) famously attacked!

    I think that’s why a lot of shows that could be set in any city are set there, because there’s always the opportunity for the characters to, say, visit the American Museum of Natural History (made famous in “Night in the Museum”), where a bunch of characters in Atlanta visiting the Fernbank wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.

    That said, a series set in Atlanta like you describe would be terribly interesting. But that may be since I live so close by…

  10. trumwill says:

    Web,

    Last I checked, every person discussed in that article has work. I’m not saying that it’s good for your career to have unpopular (in Hollywood) ideas, but any culture in which 90% of the people within it agree on something will leave the other 10% speaking quietly in their disagreement. This is all somewhat beside the point, though.

    Writers with a blind-spot towards conservatives are not bad writers. In fact, they can be incredible writers. Having a room full of people that share the same vision can even make a piece of work better. It depends entirely on the project at hand.

    A product geared towards a liberal audience needs liberal writers. Unfortunately, it seems like studios and networks spend a lot of time writing the shows that they would like to see. That, more than anything, is the problem. Whether it’s shows about center around the Big Apple or shows where their political views are eloquently expressed, that’s the ball they have their eye on. What sounds good and entertaining and interesting to them.

    And that’s great when you want to see the same sort of stuff that they want to make. And frequently I do. The problem is that it’s not a very balanced diet. It gets tiresome, leaves a lot of great stories untold, and alienates audiences with different sensibilities.

  11. Webmaster says:

    I just get very, very tired of shows where the “moral of the story” is always “and this is why if you hold opinion X you are a big stinky mean poopie-head PBBBBBTTT!”.

    To some extent, this extends to House, a show I (otherwise) very much enjoy. Once they got through the season of expanding the cast, they had a very popular character (Dr. Remy Hadley, aka “13”) on their hands. At some point, they decided to make her bisexual. For about two episodes the point was “House is a big meanie and he’s making fun of her choice of sexual orientation therefore you are a big meanie if you think she made a bad choice.” For the next few episodes after that it was “don’t you feel sad for her she’s having such a hard time in her life and she almost found a lesbian partner then it blew up in her face.” The past few, they’ve been basically rush-rushing through the motions of hooking her up with co-worker Foreman, and (more to the point) recycling all the 3rd-season jokes about two coworkers who sleep together.

    Hadley is an interesting character on her own. She mirrors House in a lot of ways, most noticeably the fact that she has a debilitating illness that is directly related to her personal drive. However, I get a very big “gothbipagan” vibe about the moves they’ve made regarding her sexuality. The “revelation” and front-and-center exploitation of her sexual choices hasn’t made her any more interesting, and it’s been done in a way that is at once (a)incredibly preachy and (B) incredibly voyeuristic. In other words, it detracts from the show on both counts.

  12. a_c says:

    You are probably write that the creator’s biases are far more important in this regard than the appetites of the public. However, Barry has a point that the inherent glamor of NYC (partly sustained by this incessant exposure) is a major draw for viewers, an immediate reward for viewing that does not rely on getting deep into the created world of the series. Plus, being knowledgeable about New York et al., even mediated through television, is more of a status boost than knowing about Atlanta.

  13. trumwill says:

    Web,

    There are a handful of shows that seem to gratuitously throw in some politics with the implicit sense that of course their audience agrees with them because their audience has taste and all people with taste agree with them. Other times they set up scenarios specifically laid out to affirm their positions (the obviously innocent man on death row, for instance, as a bludgeon against the death penalty). I think that’s when it annoys me the most (even in cases like the death penalty, where I agree with what they’re ultimately getting at). Second are shows that bill themselves as thought-provoking but leave out entire avenues of thought or otherwise reduce them to parody.

    I think in long-running shows it’s easy for the writers to start getting lazy. Or new writers to take over that imitated their favorite, most-preachy moments from the previous staff. It’s noteworthy to me that the preachy tones of a lot of my favorite shows (particularly The Practice) got worse towards the end.

    Your description of House sounds like lazy writing altogether. Hope they’ve kept the medical plots good, at least.

  14. trumwill says:

    Barry,

    What your saying are great reasons to have a show take place in New York City. They’re not, on the other hand, great reasons to have half of all shows take place there.

    Your list is good and there are others that I could add to it. I want to see more of that.

  15. trumwill says:

    AC,

    Eh. I’m still skeptical that NYC is that big of a draw. Or at the least it (along with LA) is over-exposed. I think in both cases there’s an assumption that people everywhere are fascinated by and look up to them. But there’s no backing that assertion up, I guess.

  16. Barry says:

    I would be willing to bet if you took a poll of American TV viewers, and asked them: “Which American city would you rather watch a television series be set?” And the answers were, a) New York City, b) Los Angeles, c) Chicago, d) Atlanta, e) New Orleans, f) Dallas, g) Seattle, h) Other, then NYC would win by a wide margin – even over hometown choices of (h). Simply because, thanks in part to the mass exposure already on TV, that it’s so big that there are always iconic areas left to explore, that it’s so diverse and every ethnic/cultural group known to man lives there and it’s usually on the top 5 list of places people around the country eventually want to visit.

    I’ve been to NYC twice, and never been to Chicago or LA so YMMV but I’ve never seen the draw of either of those other two cities.

  17. Abel says:

    Keep in mind that every scene in LOST is shot in Hawaii. (Somehow this show failed to make your list! 🙁 ). If you look at the special features on the Season 4 DVD, they have a 15 minute show on how they transform Hawaii into Iraq, Berlin, London, etc. Great stuff.

    I think you hit on the two big reasons for this. 1)Writers tend to write about places they know. Since a lot of writers live in NYC, LA, etc. shows tend to be set there. 2) Those cities are considered “hip” so you place them there so they have a supposed “cool” factor that setting the same show in, say, Houston wouldn’t have.

    Frankly I’m tired of NYC cop shows. I think that’s part of the reason I found CSI so refreshing when it first came out because it was taking place in Vegas and had nothing to do with gambling. I’d love to see one set in Kansas City or even a smaller town. I think you could get some storylines that you couldn’t find elsewhere.

  18. trumwill says:

    “Which American city would you rather watch a television series be set?”

    I would expect that most people would say their hometown. There’s a natural excitement about seeing your hometown on television. Even when the portrayal isn’t flattering. Look at Baltimore’s embrace of The Wire, whose portrayal of the city was really quite damning.

    That being said, in a void, I might even answer NYC over the others. The real question isn’t where you would prefer to see a sitcom take place. It’s “Would you rather see a third concurrent sitcom taking place in New York City or a sitcom in a less-frequently used location?”

  19. trumwill says:

    LOST wasn’t on the list because it did not take place in the US, for the most part. If it had been included, it would have been under the header of “Los Angeles” because that’s where most of the American scenes take place.

  20. ? says:

    One of the more mixed explanations is the notion of targeted demographics. The notion that the young demographic is more valuable than older viewers.

    I think the key here is susceptibility to advertising: the marginal return to ads targeting young people is higher because they are more likely to purchase a product in response to it. I can’t speak for the young anymore, but as an old married guy, the only product in the last ten years that I bought because of the marketing was Axe body spray (and that’s the last time I’ll believe a TV commercial . . .) Otherwise, I’m more likely to buy stuff because of favorable product reviews, demonstrated utility, long-term standards of style instead of short-term fashions, etc. This probably has something to do with the changing nature of the status markers.

  21. trumwill says:

    I think that you’re right that older audiences are less suggestible, Phi, but I think it’s offset at least somewhat by the fact that older demographics have access to more money to spend and make financial decisions of greater consequence.

  22. ? says:

    True, but what do we buy? Houses, which aren’t advertised on television. Cars, which are, but we’re more likely to pick them based on their Consumer Guide rankings. Such brand consciousness as we have is already set.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

If you are interested in subscribing to new post notifications,
please enter your email address on this page.