TV's small towns: Not wholesome but weird

Posted: May 20, 2001

It used to be that small towns on TV were bastions of normality, from white-bread, suburban Mayfield on Leave It to Beaver to gritty, working-class Lanford on Roseanne. The Springfield of the 1950s family comedy Father Knows Best was so straight-arrow, Dad often wore a tie to wash the car.

No more.

Imagine the Beav hanging out with the potty-mouthed kids in bucolic, alien-invaded South Park. Or Roseanne's husband, Dan, bowling with the oddball inhabitants of Ed's wacky Stuckeyville. There's a nuclear power plant in the Springfield of The Simpsons, and a father, Homer, who rarely knows best.

Small towns on television have mutated into a curious set of Quirkyburgs and Bizarrovilles. We've seen the mayor who carried her gay brother's child in Rome, Wis. (Picket Fences); the aged astronaut Chamber of Commerce president of Cicely, Alaska (Northern Exposure); and the dancing dwarf of that twisted town in Washington state called Twin Peaks.

Once, the big, bad city was the repository of the strange and oddball, while small towns were safe havens where weird things didn't occur. What happened?

"I think, perhaps, it's another manifestation of the rootlessness of American society," said Thomas Hibbs, the Boston College philosophy professor who wrote Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture From "The Exorcist" to "Seinfeld."

"People may ask you the question, 'Where are you from?' and it almost doesn't matter what you answer," Hibbs said. "Whatever you answer may not exactly be right. Is it where you grew up? Where you went to college? Where you live now? Where you want to live? And even if you name a place, what does it say about you anymore? Hollywood may just be ahead of the curve in this regard."

One of this season's new off-center towns is Stars Hollow, Conn., home of Gilmore Girls on the WB. The central characters, single 32-year-old mom Lorelei Gilmore (Lauren Graham) and her 16-year-old daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel), are normal enough, but surrounding them are funky folks such as the plus-sized dance instructor Miss Patty, the French concierge who hates people, the cat-loving slacker who lives with her much taller husband in a house where the doorways are built seemingly for midgets, and the Korean antiques dealer who has sold a desk while her daughter was trying to use it to do homework.

Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino didn't grow up, or ever live, in any place remotely like Stars Hollow.

"I come from Van Nuys" - the quintessential faceless San Fernando Valley suburb - she said in a recent interview. "It is very brown with no sense of community. We believed if the neighbors were out there watering the lawn, you didn't say anything, just got in the car and silently drove away."

But when she was thinking up her show, she smooshed together two sets of realities, urban and rural.

Sherman-Palladino named her production company Dorothy Parker Drank Here because she adores one of the most urbane writers of the 20th century, Dorothy Parker, known for her sophisticated wit. ("Brevity is the soul of lingerie" is one of her famous epigrams.) If it hadn't been for a road trip, she might have set her series about mother-daughter friendship in New York.

She and her husband, she said, stopped in the Mayflower Inn in Washington, Conn., and were "overwhelmed with the town. For a kid from California, I'm all of a sudden in a town with pumpkin patches, with someone so polite they went behind the counter of the diner to get me coffee when the waitress wasn't there.

"They had a new push button to cross the street at a light and it had an instruction sign on it. It was an opus, 'If the sign starts to change, don't go back across . . .' and so forth. I had such fun with that little moment."

But about that Korean antiques dealer and the house with the miniature doorways and. . . .

"Well, if you sit . . . 20 hours a day in a trailer writing, you had better like your characters, too," Sherman-Palladino said, defending the residents she invented to populate Stars Hollow.

NBC's entry in the quirky-small-town derby this season was Ed. The title character, played by Tom Cavanagh, fired from his Manhattan law firm, returns to his apartment to find his wife in bed with the postman. So Ed returns to his roots and ends up buying the bowling alley in Stuckeyville, in an unnamed state that resembles Ohio but isn't actually anywhere in particular, according to Ed's creators, Rob Burnett and Jon Beckerman. Ed sets up his law practice in the Stuckey Bowl while he pursues the girl of his high school dreams.

Stuckeyville is filled with offbeat folks, from the black minister who can't fill a church to the pair of grandfatherly widowers who become friends after their wives die and unexpectedly fall in love with each other, to the assortment of galoofs and eccentrics who hang out or work at the bowling alley.

"I think we saw the show as a story about coming home. And while I'm sure people grow up in big cities, coming home usually means a small town," said Beckerman, who, it should be noted, grew up in Pittsburgh. Burnett was raised in North Caldwell, N.J., the same town that spawned David Chase, creator of The Sopranos.

Ed, like Gilmore Girls, was originally supposed to be set in New York. But the small-town thing took hold, Burnett said, and Stuckeyville was born.

"We just wanted to invent a self-contained place and populate it with all different types of people," said Burnett. "Towns like this are what people know. This made perfect sense."

It's true that the quintessential small TV town, Mayberry on The Andy Griffith Show, had an assortment of offbeat folks. But they were odd in a gentle, homespun sort of way.

None was as out-of-context as, say, the spontaneously combusting mayor in Picket Fences, or Northern Exposure's Maggie, the glamorous air-taxi pilot who kept shrines on her mantel to each of the five boyfriends she'd lost to freak accidents.

"While Don Knotts [who played Griffith's Mayberry sidekick, Barney Fife] was a little goofier than an average deputy sheriff, you could pretty much believe him in the context of a sitcom," said Harold Schiffman, professor of socio-linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania.

When a character in a show with a small-town setting doesn't fit the context - when he or she is too fashion forward or has a career better suited to Madison Avenue than Main Street - writers have a way of fixing it. As Schiffman has observed, they make a person fit in by slowing down his or her speech patterns.

"If your character has a Southern accent, maybe he is a bit slower or behind the times, but he seems genuine," said Schiffman. He noted that, on Northern Exposure, Southern accents made the retired adventurer and bar owner played by John Cullum and the former astronaut played by Barry Corbin seem more "real" in small-town Alaska.

In Ed, Cavanagh barely modifies his native Canadian accent, and the woman he pursues, Carol Vessey, is played by soft-accented Maryland native Julie Bowen.

Likewise, a Midwestern accent can make characters "seem authentic in their strangeness," said Schiffman, citing as examples storyteller Garrison Keillor and the people in the movie Fargo.

"It's a particularly 19th-century romantic notion, I think, that country people are funny, but authentic," Shiffman said, "and city folks are artificial."

In the quirky towns of TV land, where everyone seems to know everyone else, folks are often hip and well-read, but caring and genuine too. In Stars Hollow and Stuckeyville, as in Rome and Cicely, differences are not just tolerated but embraced. Could television be presenting us an idealized version of America?

Hibbs, the philosophy professor, doesn't think so.

"My cynical view is that it is Hollywood's scorn for small-town America," Hibbs said. "The towns just wouldn't be good enough if they didn't populate them with these strange folks."

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