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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!

Getting Started – Small Town Love

I grew up in a small town. That’s probably obvious from the title and focus of the blog, but I wanted to outright state it as I have a very real and personal connection to how small towns are portrayed in the media. I live outside of Los Angeles now, but my roots are and always will be in my still-no-stoplight hometown.

Growing up in Kentucky, we were a mixture of Midwest and Southern values & cultures, and this has also shaped how I see these portrayals on television and in other media. I hate the word “hillbilly” and I usually cringe at the way people south of the Mason/Dixon line are portrayed on television. There are a lot of examples of this being done wrong, and some great examples of it done right. Let’s have a conversation here about each of them.

I’m a voracious consumer of television and other media, and I read many television blogs which are extremely well done and which I will not try to replicate here. When I first started thinking of this blog, I wanted to call it Blue Collar TV to focus more on the portrayal of blue collar workers & working families, which I don’t often see done on other television blogs. But then I found out that Blue Collar TV is the name of a Jeff Foxworthy television show. Since I see him as one of the reasons for the poor representation of blue collar, Southern, and small town life on television, I went in a different direction. I considered focusing on economic realities presented in television, but very few shows present a true economic reality and the ones that do usually fall into the small town / blue collar / working family categories as well. A snide hello to you, larger-than-life apartments, unrealistic disposable income, and Brooklyn backyards with horses (I’m looking at you on this one, 2 Broke Girls). And a shout-out Roseanne season 1, episode 2 for the great bill-swapping technique more relevant today than maybe even when it was written. There will be posts about this topic, but I broadened the focus of the blog.

For the purposes of the blog, I’ve had to expand my definition of a small town to include what I would have felt were “big” cities growing up, but it’s all a matter of perspective. My town was a small farming community of 1,000 people in Kentucky. To childhood me, Pawnee, Ind. would have been a “big” city. I see now that clearly it is not. But a small town can also be a close-knit community in a big city. Take Raising Hope – we don’t actually know where it takes place, but my guess is one of the valley communities surrounding Los Angeles. But the show has a small town feel, and explores working families, so we’ll talk about it here.

So here’s what this blog is…

A conversation about television shows with a focus on small town life, working families or blue collar workers, and/or close-knit communities that function as a small town. I mentioned the South earlier; sometimes these shows will take place in the South, sometimes they won’t. I brought it up because it’s where my perspective comes from, but there are plenty of small towns elsewhere.

Discussions on what is done right and what is done wrong in television’s portrayal of these topics.

Discussions on small town portrayals in past and present shows and what we should be looking for in future shows.

What this blog is not…

An episode-by-episode recap of shows – there are plenty of sites that get this right, and you’ll find a few of them in the links here. Not to say that an episodic review will never occur, but it won’t be the norm.

What shows will be discussed?

There are small towns or small town-like communities depicted in television comedies, dramas, animated shows, movies, reality shows, soap operas, and the news/newsmagazines. I want to talk about the ones that do it well (Friday Night Lights being number one), the ones that come close but aren’t quite there yet, and phenomenon related to small town depictions on the small screen (for example, why a small town contestant is more likely to win American Idol than a big city one).

Here’s some of the shows I’m interested in starting out with. Please comment and let me know your thoughts, or what you’d like to see added. Just a note, the blog is starting out with one writer, so the shows I’m listing are ones I’ve watched and are familiar with the characters and landscape (thus, no Gilmore Girls…yet). But I hope to be adding guest writers or even a permanent co-writer in the near future, so if your favorite small town show is not listed right now, it doesn’t mean it will be ignored.

Comedy: The Middle, Raising Hope, Parks & Recreation, Roseanne, Grace Under Fire, My Name is Earl, Northern Exposure, Ed, Newhart

Drama: Justified, Sons of Anarchy, Friday Night Lights, Picket Fences

Okay, that’s enough to get us started. Please comment and let me know your thoughts, and if you like what you’ve read spread the word about the blog. I have lots of ideas and lots of excitement about getting this going and I want to hear from you. Are you from a small town too? Do you prefer small town or big city television (or do you even care)? What do you think about small town depictions on television? What stereotypes do you see that show runners and writers need to let go? What things are they missing and what are they getting right? Let’s talk in the comments section!