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!
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
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!