I’m driving from Chicago to New Orleans in a few days. I haven’t visited the place as a sentient human before (I went when I was way younger), though it is a place that everyone seems to have visited. I’m not going for any reasons other than experience and friendship, though those two things sound exactly like the stereotypical reasons one visits New Orleans … if one can still visit that particular town in the old stereotypical way (see Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke or the totally engrossing Trouble the Water). To translate, I’m not going there as one goes to Vegas or, um, New Orleans; I’m going there as one goes to Asheville, North Carolina, or, say, the entire state of Maine. I’m going there to see a town.
And I’m not trying to draw grand conclusions about settings on fictional TV shows (or movies) and the actuality of living in a place, but I am excited to see the South through adult eyes and think about all the notions I have of the place from some prior, non-experiential source. William Faulkner notwithstanding, HBO’s True Blood (new season starts June 14, can’t wait!), Gone With the Wind (it’s been on TCM a lot lately), Dallas, and any number of reality shows have all influenced my sense of the South, but I’m ready to observe all the real things and people I can and reshape my ideas. It’s my favorite part of traveling, and it’s super-nerdy. What did I know about this place before, and what do I know now?
I’m not ashamed to be a tourist inspecting the place where onlookers stand for the Today show, Rockefeller Plaza, NYC. I’ve seen that on TV way too many times not to want look at it in real life. I know I’m a girl, but Sex and the City is an excellent visual ode to NYC. And I always loved the true location shots in ER, when Dr. Greene and George Clooney are waiting for an actual EL train. Or Stephen Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (more George Clooney) — if you’ve ever been to Detroit or Miami, that movie does both settings justice. I always loved the MTV Real World renderings of all the cities that show has blighted — Boston, San Francisco, New Orleans. Shoot, I’ve been all around New York state, but I’m desperate to go to the Hamptons to see what it’s like to tool around in the land of Barefoot Contessa and Grey Gardens. (I’ve been to Nantucket, so that probably halfway counts.) When a show — any kind of show — does a place well, I appreciate it and want to experience it.
The most successful artistic rendering of place, counting Steinbeck, Faulkner, Plato, and all the incarnations of Law & Order, is HBO’s The Wire. I’m sure I’m not the first person to annoyingly pontificate about The Wire to you (nor is it the first time I’ve done it in this column, but you should know, everyone who wants you to watch The Wire has an excellent point: it actually is the greatest thing you will ever see). Whenever I try to sell people on it, I try to explain every aspect of it, then I falter and end up with, “It’s just a complete sociological study of the city of Baltimore.” It’s not the hottest tag line for one of the greatest pieces of art ever produced, but it’s true. All the beautiful and ugly aspects of the infrastructure of a smallish-dying-rebuilding-dying-again American city. And if you’ve been to Baltimore (or Detroit or Cincy or Gary), you get how important it is to render these places accurately. The low rises, the docks, Fell’s Point, Camden Yards — Baltimore is the setting and the backdrop, and The Wire contains gorgeous shots of the city (the show actually infused quite a bit of money into the city by shooting on location), but it’s more than that. It’s the kind of show that makes you respect the place.
Conversely, I’m also kind of intrigued by shows that have no accurate visual sense of place whatsoever (especially when I’ve visited the place and know what it’s like). The only way you know the characters are in that place is because they keep saying they are. I’m thinking of every sitcom from the past 20 years: Friends, Seinfeld, The Cosby Show, A Different World, Cheers, Full House — obviously all shot on Los Angeles soundstages with outside establishing shots of New York City or Boston or San Francisco or Scranton, PA. The writing on these shows has to convey a sense of place; the characters must do the heavy lifting (i.e. Uncle Jesse as a struggling San Fran musician). But having seen more sophisticated handlings of place and time, I sort of feel like, really? Really, Denise Huxtable, you’re really going to leave your home in “Brooklyn” to go away to an historically Black college in the “Deep South?” Maybe you’ll see Sam Malone in “Boston” or Stephanie Tanner in “San Francisco.” And it would be totally crazy if you guys ran into the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
Actually, never mind, that sounds like the best episode of any TV show ever.