From Dillon to Pawnee to Camden County – four types of small towns on television

There are different types of small towns, both in the world and on television. Just like it’s not accurate for me to compare my very small 1,000 people town to a somewhat bigger, but still small in the grand scheme of things other town, I’ve come up with some different ways television presents small towns.

  1. The tried and true this is a real small town feel / small town as a central character – here I have to place the most accurate representation of a small town ever, Friday Night Lights, first and foremost. I fell in love with Friday Night Lights from the pilot because it really captured everything that is and that represents a small town. You’re going to hear me talk about FNL a LOT, and that’s not a bad thing. If you’re not familiar with it, get thee to Netflix immediately; the entire series is available on instant streaming. But other shows fit this category too – the other one that comes to mind is Northern Exposure. In this category are shows where the small town is just as central a character to the action as the human characters are. A Friday Night Lights not in Dillon? Well, they didn’t dare go there until the series finale and even now that there’s talk of a movie of the TV series based on a movie based on a book, the action is most likely to take place in Dillon again. And Cicely, Alaska? Well it was just as important to the story as DJ Chris and Dr. Joel Fleischman. There’s just no KBHR 570 AM without Cicely. These are the shows that get it right. I’ve gone back and forth whether to put Harlan in Justified in category one or category two, and dare I say Mayberry, North Carolina and The Andy Griffith Show also deserves a spot in this category.
  2. The pretty close to a small town feel / small town as a secondary character – I also call this the “yes I’m set in a small town and yes my town is important but I’m maybe not 100% authentic” feel – sorry, Parks & Recreation, but I’m putting Pawnee here. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Parks & Rec but it’s not because I look at Pawnee and go “yeah, that’s totally what would happen, people quit their jobs and try and build entertainment empires every day”, it’s for its central characters and storylines. But, Pawnee remains an important character all its own, just not as much so as say Dillon or Cicely. In this category are shows where the small town is still a character (versus a backdrop) but more in a supporting role than a co-starring role. Let’s also list Charming, Calif. in Sons of Anarchy and Stuckeyville, Ohio in Ed here too.
  3. The “maybe I’m not really sure where you take place but you’ve built or have a small town-like community” feel / small town as a backdrop and not a character – Greg Garcia has got this one down – I mentioned in my first post that although the viewer is not really sure where Raising Hope takes place, chances are it’s an outlying area of a big city, probably somewhere outside of Los Angeles. But, the characters have built their own small town within the show and it really functions as a backdrop to the action around them. Part of me really wishes that the action in Raising Hope is in Camden County, the setting for another Greg Garcia show My Name is Earl. In this category are shows where the small town remains important, but it functions as a backdrop and not a character. The rural Vermont town housing the Stratford Inn on Newhart is another great example here. I don’t think they ever told us what the town was, but it was an important backdrop nonetheless because it created a sense of community on the show.  I’d also say Roseanne goes here; Langford, Ill. was important, but it wasn’t a central character, it was a place where the Connors lived.
  4. The “yeah I take place in a small town but I could really take place anywhere” feel / small town as an afterthought – I feel this category is especially reserved for soap operas. Genoa City, Wisconsin; Pine Valley and Port Charles, Pennsylvania; Llanview, New York, they all function as places for people to be all sleeping around and up in each other’s business and stuff…oh wait, that’s a lot of peoples’ stereotype of a small town, so maybe it does make sense these shows take place there. I am most familiar with Genoa City, having been a faithful teenage viewer of The Young and the Restless, and as a general rule they did cover off that when something requiring extra services or whatnot needed to be done, they went to Chicago to do it. But Genoa City wasn’t a character, nor was it really even a backdrop, it was just a name of a town that could have been anywhere or featured anything.

What do you think of the four types of small towns presented on television? Are there any that are missing? Any shows/towns in the wrong category? There are further ways to look at each of these categories, but this is meant to be a broad stroke to capture the different types and start the conversation. Now hit me up in the comments and let’s discuss!


About amy@smalltowntelevision

Small town girl living in a big city world, talking about television and other media depictions of small town or blue collar communities (whether they be literal or figurative). Thirtysomething (age, not the show). Likes: accurate portrayals of small town or blue collar life (Friday Night Lights, The Middle, Roseanne, Justified). Kentucky basketball. Game shows. Ice cream. Dislikes: media depictions of hillbilly culture. The word hillbilly. Duke basketball. Squid.

Posted on November 10, 2011, in Comedy, Drama, Soaps and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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