If they set a TV series in Minnesota, will it play in Peoria?

by Neal Justin

Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

26 April 2010


MINNEAPOLIS — Mary Richards convinced a generation of young female viewers that they could make it after all. Unfortunately, she couldn’t convince TV executives to make a serious commitment to Minnesota. “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” is one of just a half-dozen network series to be set in the state — and its Midwest neighbors haven’t fared much better. For every “Roseanne,” set in a bluer-than-blue-collar town in Illinois, there are a hundred shows that seem to believe the world revolves around Los Angeles coffee shops or New York City courtrooms.

“From my personal experience, networks have always steered projects towards one of those two cities, because executives wanted to be perceived as hip rock stars,” said Minneapolis resident Matt Goldman, who has written for “Seinfeld,” “Ellen” and “The New Adventures of Old Christine.”

But there are signs that the industry is more willing than ever to descend into “flyover land.”

ABC’s “Happy Town,” debuting Wednesday, takes place in a small Minnesota burg facing a serial killer more threatening than subzero temperatures and bloodthirsty mosquitoes. Both NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” and ABC’s “The Middle” are set in small-town Indiana, where the gourmet restaurants boast all-you-can-eat buffets.

“The Big C,” which is on Showtime’s fall slate, stars Oscar nominee Laura Linney as a Twin Cities suburbanite diagnosed with cancer. Shondaland, the production company behind “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice,” is considering a series about Minneapolis police officers, and Lucinda Winter, executive director of the Minnesota Film and TV Board, said two sitcoms — one about a fertility clinic, the other about a popular bar — are being developed with our state as a setting.

As for Goldman, he’s currently pitching a one-hour drama about an indie-rock band based in — you betcha! — Minnesota.

But for a lot of Hollywood writers, the Midwest is about as foreign as Azerbaijan. Steven Levitan, co-creator of ABC’s runaway hit “Modern Family,” said he was tempted to set the sitcom far away from Los Angeles, but ultimately decided to stick with what he knows.

“We were always concerned that if you set your show in L.A., you might alienate part of the country, but we’re living here and the show is really about our lives,” Levitan said. “My attitude is, embrace it.” It also eliminates a potential production nightmare. “If you’ve suddenly got to put Colorado license plates on everything and wipe out palm trees from a shot, it can be a disaster,” he said.

Other producers are more than willing to put up with the hassles, hoping they can reach a wider, more mainstream audience.

Scott Rosenberg and Josh Applebaum, the team behind “Happy Town,” blame the failure of their last series, “Life on Mars,” not on its tricky time-traveling premise, but on the fact that it took place in New York.

“One of the things we were intent on this time around was to set the show where most of the country lives, rather than where we live,” Applebaum said.

Emmy-winner Patricia Heaton, who plays a beleaguered mother on “The Middle,” said the Indiana setting has played a significant role in her sitcom’s success.

“It’s been a while since there’s been a show for the people who are actually watching TV most of the time, which is everybody between New York and L.A.,” said Heaton, who grew up in Ohio. “There’s more of a no-nonsense attitude (in the Midwest). People aren’t as impressed with outward signs of status as they are in those cities. It’s a much more fundamental way of living.”

That element is a big reason advertisers are putting pressure on Hollywood to speak more directly to Middle America.

Tom Weeks of Starcom MediaVest Group, a Chicago-based agency that advises marketers on how to reach consumers, said that shows about power, sex and money don’t mesh with the goals of mainstream advertisers in these tough economic times.

“Brands want to associate themselves with content that won’t be out of tune with what’s going on,” he said. “No one is going to tell anyone what to do, but they’re going to reward those networks who are delivering eyeballs and are also delivering content that’s congruent to their products.”

That’s all good news for those eager to see their back yards get some prime-time exposure, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that any of those production companies will actually film here. In most cases, crews will drop in to shoot establishing shots — think Mary Tyler Moore twirling on Nicollet Mall — and then quickly scoot back to Los Angeles or Canada or wherever else shows can be shot cheaply.

There are exceptions. HBO’s “Treme,” which just got renewed for a second season, is taking full advantage of the fact that it’s shooting entirely in New Orleans. And thanks to New Mexico’s generous financial incentives, Albuquerque has become a booming studio town that’s home to AMC’s “Breaking Bad” and USA’s “In Plain Sight.”

“The Big C” will go off the radar, though — but to Connecticut, where Linney resides, not Minnesota.

Rosenberg said he thought about shooting “Happy Town” in Minnesota, but decided that Toronto was a better home base, particularly when it came to casting secondary parts and filling out film crews.

“No disrespect to Minnesota, but I don’t know what they have there,” said Rosenberg, who spent time in Minnesota when he co-wrote the script for 1996’s “Beautiful Girls,” a Matt Dillon dramedy filmed in the Twin Cities.

Goldman, who would love to shoot a series in his home state, said he’s not sure the talent pool is deep enough to pull it off.

“As good as the actors are in Minneapolis, there’s not that many of them,” he said. “Even in New York, any time you go to a play, everybody in it has been on ‘Law & Order.’”

Still, both the Oscar-nominated film “A Serious Man” and “The Convincer,” the Greg Kinnear movie that shot in Minnesota last month, had no problem filling their call sheets with Twin Cities talent.

Winter believes the Twin Cities has more than enough actors and crew to satisfy a major-league production, thanks to the robust theater community and the abundance of commercial work from such Fortune 500 companies as Target and Best Buy, who employ locals for everything from national commercials to in-store promotions.

Winter also points out that a number of reality-based series, including Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” History Channel’s “Monster Quest,” DIY’s “Bathtastic!” and Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern,” are headquartered in Minnesota. Those shows help keep production staff in town.

But Winter concedes that other obstacles keep scripted TV series from making Minnesota their home base, most notably the lack of a massive soundstage where permanent and temporary sets could be built. Winter estimates the area would need a 20,000-square-foot building, plus nearby production offices and parking. Detroit and Pontiac, Mich., for example, are hoping to cash in by converting defunct casinos and auto plants into movie studios.

Then there are the financial incentives — or lack of them. Minnesota’s “Snowbate,” which offers 15 to 20 percent in reimbursements on production expenses, is not nearly as generous as programs in other states and Canada. Gov. Tim Pawlenty has proposed phasing it out altogether by 2011.

Despite the long odds, Winter believes that if one series takes a chance on Minnesota, more will follow.

“You need someone willing to say, for whatever reason, I want to film in Minnesota,” she said. “They may have to do the first season from a tent, but things will grow from there.”

//Mixed media