Unlike other formats, the sitcom allows us to suspend disbelief because we know this is a set, we know there’s a reason we’ve never actually seen a New York street in Friends, or the fourth wall of an apartment in any show. And we’re okay with that.
According to television, Chicago is having its moment. Of the new shows to come, and those from the past few years, many more than usual have been based in the Windy City: these include Shameless, The Good Wife, The Chicago Code, and the new NBC pilot Playboy.
But not all of these shows, so bold about their sense of place, are made alike. Surprisingly, The Good Wife, which is so particular about its accurate depiction of corrupt Chicago, shoots all its scenes in New York. What was less noticeable in the first season has become an almost flagrant disregard for strong exterior shots, and has made it difficult for someone who has lived a significant portion of their life in both cities to really buy it. In fact, during one episode from this season, “Six Feet Under”, we see two main characters driving around a neighborhood that is so clearly Park Slope I expected to see multiple baby strollers next to multiple coffee shops, all lining the sidewalk. Which begs the question: is accurate location a necessity for a good television show, or merely a perk?
Los Angeles and New York dominate the television scene, and for good reason; it’s logistically and economically more solvent to localize talent. Studios, actors, not to mention tech crews, producers and directors, need to be in the same place to really function, and it’s nice if you have a big group of goldfish all together with which to play and choose from. But how does this alter the quality of a production? Moreover, does it deny other cities (and towns and countries) a potential economic and cultural boost?
The television format that relies the least on location is the sitcom; it allows us to suspend disbelief because we know this is a set, we know there’s a reason we’ve never actually seen a New York street in Friends, or the fourth wall of an apartment in any show. And we’re okay with it; we’re almost happy to allow this lack of reality to go on. But there are some shows that use place so well that it shows us what we’re missing out on. Seinfeld, a New York show if there ever was one, was so rooted in its locale that it didn’t matter that they filmed interiors at sets. You trusted they were all in the greatest city on Earth.
Dramas or “dramedies” benefit the most from location accuracy. The executive producer of Sex and the City,, Michael Patrick King, championed the use of “the city” part of his show so well that “People have said it was the fifth character”, King told The New York Times in 2004. Seasons 4 and 5 developed a particularly proud and almost patriotic tone that was very specific to New York in a post-9/11 world (one episode was even entitled "I Heart New York"). Ultimately, this caused controversy over whether the New York depicted was "real" to everyone who lived there, but you couldn't argue that it wasn't shot there.
Cities like New York get their fair share of attention without television; what’s far more interesting is when shows receive an executive decision to be filmed off the beaten path to improve location accuracy. The CW’s One Tree Hill has been on for eight seasons, all of which have been filmed in Wilmington, North Carolina, which means that the cast and the crew have, for most of the show’s run, lived there. Of course, this isolation has caused a good deal of on-set, off-screen drama, with numerous cast members dating, some even marrying, and let’s not even get started on the crew. Everwood, another CW show which is now off the air, was largely filmed in Utah as a substitute for Colorado. LOST shot for six years in Hawaii, the only way to accurately depict a tropical island set far, far away. In contrast, Off the Map, which looks to be short-lived, has tried to skirt the issue of location by also filming in Hawaii, but claiming (through use of a title card in Episode 1) that these characters are “somewhere in South America.”
The motivating factors behind location choices are largely money and accuracy. But even more important than these two concerns is whether the show heavily relies on exteriors as part of its conceit. Everwood was a show about a big-city doctor who moves his family to a small town with breathtaking landscapes. Without the breathtaking landscapes, one might wonder why they moved at all.
And a lack of accurate exteriors can kill both the fantasy and the reality. On a recent episode of the Showtime’s reboot of the UK show Shameless entitled “It’s Time to Kill the Turtle”, there was footage of what was supposed to be the University of Chicago. Except I don’t know where this was, but it was not the University of Chicago (disclosure: I went there. I know). To choose to feature a prominent school that is known for its striking campus and then not shoot there seems like an unwise and distracting move. The first few episodes of Shameless were full of honest exteriors of Chicago, but the production team only shot there for two weeks, and they’ve slowly weaned out real shots of the city, until this could just be any family in any city. And there have been more grevious errors; in the season finale, a character flies out of O’Hare airport, but the shot of the terminal is of Midway Airport, and there is a sign on the wall that says Midway. That’s just sloppy.
Reality TV is one genre of television that is both very centered in place and very devoid of it. Reality TV is often character driven, like The Real World or Jersey Shore, yet production teams continue to place characters in important cities with big, flamboyant houses. But the houses serve as little more than pretty backdrops to the real drama, despite the fact that every season starts with the cast running through the house, shouting with glee at how “dope” their spot is, or something. Survivor has played up the location aspect in their premise season after season, but it's clear what's really important is who is getting kicked off. Character reigns supreme, and at least they’re honest about using location as spark and not substance.
Ultimately, what we value most about television is the characters; that’s what makes it different from film. We will watch season after season of a character, and at the end of the day, where they are might not matter so much; its who they are and what they do that we’re invested in. But wouldn’t it be nice if we could watch and say, oh, that’s not just another suburb of LA? Production companies might want to take a trick from a show like Party Down. It could have been just another show set in Los Angeles, but it was very much about a certain life in LA: low-budget, struggling actor cater waiters working at some of the saddest parties in LA. They (and we) ended up having a really good time because we all knew exactly where they were.