How Much Does an Accurate Location Matter When Watching TV?

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.





'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.


Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.


3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".


'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.


Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.


Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.


Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.


A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.