TV Geography: Decoding The Meaning of a Show’s Setting

by | November 27, 2010 at 10:54 AM | Special Features, TV News

The Cast of CBS's The Defenders, which is set in Las Vegas (CBS)

The Cast of CBS's The Defenders, which is set in Las Vegas (CBS)

The setting of a television show can be vitally important to its tone, becoming a character in its own right, or it can be so irrelevant to the premise that viewers are not quite sure where it takes place.  So what does a show’s setting say about its content?  Why are so many shows set in New York and Los Angeles, while so few are in Chicago or the South?  Our semi-exhaustive study seeks to decode the hidden meanings behind show settings.

New York City: Land of Unmarried Crime Victims

America’s largest city is home to a disproportionately large amount of television shows.  In part this is because there are plentiful production facilities, making it an easy place to film.  In part it is because of the city’s symbolism.  It is known as a center of wealth and power, a city with what people still imagine is a high crime rate, and a place where young adults flock to pursue their dreams.  This is reflected in the television shows that are set there: police procedurals and shows about single people looking for love.

From the ‘Law & Order‘ franchise to ‘CSI:New York‘ to ‘Castle‘, New York City is the go-to setting for shows where the dead body is found in the teaser and the killer is arrested at the end of the episode.  It’s one of the few cities in America with more pedestrians than cars, making it plausible that characters from vastly different walks of life will interact with each other on the streets.  Though the city is far safer than it used to be, people still think of it as crime ridden.  New York just seems like a place where lots of weird things happen.

The 8 million residents of New York, according to television, are incapable of getting married.  Manhattan has been, since the era of ‘Seinfeld‘, where television singles move to mingle.  The gang from ‘How I Met Your Mother‘ has been searching for love for years. ‘30 Rock’s‘ Liz Lemon has never had a relationship last longer than a handful of episodes.  The rich and beautiful young adults of ‘Gossip Girl‘ have an equally rocky relationship track record.  The quirky hipsters of ‘Bored to Death‘  are not interested in lifetime commitment.  If you are writing a show about the single life, it is almost a requirement that it is set in The Big Apple.

Los Angeles: The Improbable Family Values City

When people outside of Los Angeles think of the city, they think of Hollywood and glamour.  Loa Angeles is home to a couple of series that go behind the scenes in the entertainment industry, most notably ‘Entourage‘ as well as the glossy teen soap opera ‘90210.’  But, oddly, the land of beaches and palm trees seems to inspire television writers to concoct series about families.  The families may be a little sleazy (‘Two and a Half Men‘), fail to adhere to the traditional nuclear structure (‘Modern Family‘) or revel in their own dysfunction (‘Brothers & Sisters‘), but they are families nonetheless.  Sure, there are a few procedurals (‘Southland‘, ‘Law & Order: Los Angeles‘) and a medical show (‘Private Practice‘), but L.A. is the city of family values.  The most obvious explanation for this counter-intuitive trend is that family series tend to be somewhat autobiographical.  Television writers live in Los Angeles. By the time they have become successful enough to get their own show on the air, they usually have families. The few shows set in other California cities: ‘Parenthood‘, ‘No Ordinary Family‘ and ‘$#*! My Dad Says‘ are also family focused.  The hit single people in L.A. comedy, ‘Big Bang Theory‘ fits in with the narcissism theory.  The characters are geeks whose brilliance makes it difficult for them to relate to women.  That’s definitely how men who write sitcoms see themselves.

Chicago: Corrupt and Chubby

Chicago is the third largest city in the United States, but it is rarely seen on television.  Shows set shows in the middle of the country tend to focus on small towns rather than sophisticated urban environments.  The city’s history of corrupt politics serves as a backdrop for the legal drama ‘The Good Wife.’  Corruption is also going to be a big part of the upcoming police drama ‘The Chicago Code.’   Chicago’s reputation for great food may have inspired ‘Mike & Molly‘ creator Chuck Lorre to set the romantic comedy about two overweight people there.

Texas: Shows Nobody Wants To Watch

Friday Night Lights‘, ‘Lone Star‘, ‘Chase,‘ ‘My Generation‘, and ‘The Good Guys‘  have three things in common.  All are critically acclaimed.  All are set in Texas.  All have been epic bombs.  There is no clear explanation for television viewers’  rejection of all things Texas.  It’s one of the biggest and most beautiful states in the union.  It should be the perfect place to set a TV show.  Texas has the cowboy mystique, major cities, quirky small towns, and the border it shares with Mexico should generate tons of stories for police procedurals.  The numerous television failures make the state seem cursed. Networks are currently developing several Texas-set pilots for next season, including a remake of ‘Dallas.’  They might be wise to consider changing the settings of the potential new series.

Middle America: The Tragically Unhip

Conservative groups like to complain that television is written by coastal elitists who have contempt for “real America.”  The few shows that are set in the rust belt and Midwest seem to prove their point.  On television, middle America is a stand-in for mediocrity and broken dreams.  It is the opposite of cool.   ‘Glee‘ portrays Lima, Ohio as a cultural backwater where teens are bullied simply for having an interest in the arts.  ‘The Middle,‘ set in Indiana, is about a family that is average in every way.  Detroit-set ‘Hung‘ is an ode to failure, the story of a divorced man whose life peaked in high school.    The other show set in Detroit, ‘Detroit 1-8-7‘, portrays the city as decaying and crime-ridden.  The only show that manages to make the center of the country look cool is the comic book inspired ‘Smallville,’ and its locale has moved from the titular small town Kansas to bustling Metropolis, a city which was allegedly originally inspired by Toronto.

The South: Sports, Vampires and Strange Crimes

Like the Midwest, the South is underrepresented on television.  Atlanta is one of the fastest growing cities in America, but on television it’s only the setting for a ‘Real Housewives‘ series.   Southern set shows fit into three subgenres: vampires, sports and quirky crime procedurals.  ‘Vampire Diaries‘ is set in the fictional Mystic Falls, Virginia, while ‘True Blood‘ takes place in Bon Temps, Louisiana.  How did the South replace Eastern Europe as the preferred television home of the undead?  (The ‘Vampire Diaries’ books took place in New England.)  It might go back to Anne Rice, whose ‘Interview With The Vampire’ books made great use of her native New Orleans.

The preference for setting sports themed shows in the South is equally mysterious.  Sports are popular throughout the nation.   Yet numerous scripted television shows centered around sports tend to take place there. ‘One Tree Hill‘ began as the story of a North Carolina high school basketball team, and still features a character who is in the NBA.   ‘Eastbound & Down‘ also ostensibly revolves around sports in North Carolina. ‘Hellcats‘ chronicles big-time college cheerleading in Memphis. Depending on how one defines the South, ‘Friday Night Lights’ also fits the bill.

Southern is also a signifier for quirky.  ‘Memphis Beat‘, ‘The Glades‘ and ‘Justified‘ are all about unusual crimefighters solving weird crimes.   Miami, the least traditionally southern of southern cities, is home to the more conventional crime shows ‘Burn Notice‘ and ‘CSI:Miami,‘ although David Caruso’s Sunglasses of Justice are their own cheesy brand of quirk.

The Pacific Northwest: Let’s Talk About Our Feelings. And Keep Talking.

The crunchy, hippie, grey Pacific Northwest does not get a lot of TV love.  Seattle is the setting for ‘Grey’s Anatomy,‘ featuring the most touchy feely, relationship obsessed doctors on television.  The only other television characters who enjoy talking so much about their emotions are the dysfunctional Portlanders of ‘Life Unexpected.’   On TV, if you are fond of lengthy monologues about how you have love someone but cannot be with them, or how your lousy parents screwed you up, head north.   Don’t forget to bring your umbrella.

Las Vegas: Surprisingly Routine Procedurals

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.  It’s an advertising catchphrase worthy of Don Draper.  There are millions of scandalous stories to tell about Sin City.  Yet since the casino-set ‘Las Vegas‘ finished its run, the only shows that take place there are the routine procedurals ‘CSI‘ and ‘The Defenders.’  CSI has used its location to come up with some unusual crime scenarios involving tourists, conventions and gambling.  ‘The Defenders’ trades on the city’s reputation for sleaze by focusing lawyers who are willing to chase ambulance.  Still, Vegas deserves some television shows that are as flashy and trashy as it is.

What do you think about this analysis? Do you agree? Do you disagree? Are there any shows we missed? For some more fun, check out this map of “The United States of Television.”