Many times, when small towns are presented on television, it is with the caveat of the characters that we may live here now, but we either ended up here due to circumstances beyond our control or we’re getting out as soon as something better comes along. Many shows are based around the idea that main characters in small town shows don’t like living in their towns. These characters are either put in the town in a Doc Hollywood sort of way (and why are they always doctors?) or are teenagers who have big dreams that don’t include staying in their one-horse town and working at the local school/tire shop/Alamo Freeze/strip club, or are adults who stayed for one reason or another still harboring the dreams of their teenage years.
Let’s look at some examples:
Doc Hollywood small screen style –
“I will under no condition, NO condition, spend the best years of my life in the worst place on Earth!” – Dr. Joel Fleischman, Northern Exposure
the characters: Dr. Joel Fleischman on Northern Exposure; Dr. Zoe Hart on Hart of Dixie
the story: big city doctor ends up being sent to small town against their will; meets and interacts with colorful local characters; usually ends up with a love interest in the town; against their better judgment falls in love with the town and the town them; eventually gets called away and has to make the tough choice to stay or go
why this works: a set-up like this really allows the town to shine through, because you the viewer are experiencing it at the same time the main character is. Even though the main character may not enjoy everything they are seeing, it is effective world-building that would take longer in a show where the town is already established. And since these shows usually send doctors in as the fish-out-of-water, you get to meet, along with the main character, most of the town folk and their various ailments as well. Nothing says hello like treating a Native American medicine man who’s trying to be seen on the sly.
what’s wrong with this formula: many times when setting up a main character in a situation like this, they are made to be so unlikable at first that it’s hard to turn them around. How much of a dick did Dr. Fleischman act like when he first got to Cicely (see above quote)? Sure, the supporting characters were great, but the lead character needed time to fit in with the world-building that had been so well done. The other problem with this formula is skirting not going too far into stereotypes of either the fish or the water. Northern Exposure hit a fine balance of introducing Dr. Fleischman and his idiosyncrasies, and doing the same with Cicely. On Hart of Dixie, I’ve seen it struggle to do the same, to not go too far down the “oh my gosh this is the South isn’t it all so cute” angle and the “who is this lady from New York City and who does she think she is” angle.
I’m a teenager get me out of here –
the characters: Rachel & Kurt on Glee
the story: teenager growing up in small town can’t wait until they’re an adult and can go out and explore the world all on their old. There is so much to see and do and none of it is in their crappy little town. Oh my gosh, just look at the world, they’re going to conquer it ALL!
why this works: this is a typical teenage reaction no matter where you are living – small town or big city. It is more often seen as a teen in a small town because the teens in the big city already know what else is out there, and they may be more hardened about conquering it. But small town teens carry a lot of enthusiasm with them, and it’s one of the things I’ve enjoyed watching with the Rachel & Kurt New York City dreams on Glee. I have a lot of issues with that show, but I think they are pretty realistic in presenting these two kids who in their own town/school have always been praised, and now they are faced with the reality that they have to work harder and smarter to reach their goals. But that also leads me to what’s wrong with this formula…
what’s wrong with this formula: if the kid leaves, and they’re not getting a spin-off, you’ve just lost a character on your TV show (but if it’s a teenager, maybe that’s not such a bad thing). The biggest issue I have with this formula is that there are entire shows dedicated to what happens when one of these kids gets to the big city, and most of them work well on their own. Exploring what a teenager hopes and dreams is one thing, but you still have to move the story forward, and the only way to see a teenage dream through on a small town show and keep your cast in tact is to have something big, bad and/or horrible happen to them in the big city, and they come running back to the small town. In doing so you’ve destroyed everything your characters have been building toward.
I’m not going anywhere else, so I might as well stay
the characters: Finn on Glee; Tim Riggins and Luke Cafferty on Friday Night Lights
the story: usually these are also teenagers, but can be adults too. Nevertheless, they once had dreams, great dreams, but circumstances got in their way. They don’t necessarily hate their small town, but they thought about getting out, maybe just for a little while before coming back to town to settle down and start a family.
why this works: because it is real…these teenagers may not have had quite the zeal of the “I’m a teenager get me out of here” kids, but they were able to see past the town lines and out into something different. They were also able to see, either through experience or circumstance, that things aren’t that bad inside their town either. When Friday Night Lights ended with Tim Riggins finally building on his land, we weren’t sad for Tim, but rather celebrated his growth and accomplishments and what staying in Dillon meant for him, and for Dillon. On the flip side, with both the Finn storyline on Glee and Luke Cafferty’s on FNL, their circumstances were more tragic. It appears that Finn is not good enough for a college football scholarship, and Luke was beset by injury and recruiters going after his best friend instead of him. While the Finn storyline has not fully played out, for Luke he made the best decision for himself and the family he hopes to build with Becky.
what’s wrong with this formula: honestly, not much. I’d say this is one of the most real situations to be faced in the real world, and if it can be well done on television it’s giving a voice to anyone who has experienced it. I’d say for a small town show the only slippery slope this can get into is antagonism toward the town, but that is almost necessary to add layers to the town characters.
Hey I like it here, why would I leave?
the characters: Becky Sproles on Friday Night Lights; Maggie O’Connell on Northern Exposure
the story: these are usually the general townspeople, but can occasionally be other characters who we come to know and love and who love their town. They’re happy there and they don’t plan on leaving (maybe they did at one point but not anymore).
why this works: I use the character of Becky Sproles as an example here to show how a teenager can be beautifully written and acted and not fall into one of the other categories. Becky didn’t have big city dreams, but that didn’t mean she had no dreams, or that she had no depth as a character. Becky is a character who should not have felt at home in Dillon; she had more unconventional living arrangements than anyone else on the show, but within them she created a community that was about more than what to do after Dillon, it was about how to take your dreams and build them in Dillon. Same thing with Maggie on Northern Exposure, certain circumstances brought her to Cicely and once she was there she wasn’t leaving. Again, this character did not lack depth, but was able to balance out Dr. Fleischman who wanted to get away as quickly as possible.
what’s wrong with this formula: there could be a tendency to write caricatures instead of characters here, but often that is not the case. Much like the previous category, these characters can be a strong presence on a television show and one that balance out other characters.
What do you think of small town shows and how they portray the idea of staying or leaving? Full confession, when I was a teenager I was a classic “I’m a teenager, get me out of here” and probably would have been just as annoying as Rachel and Kurt, but hey, at least I wasn’t on television!