“The setting itself is a character”: 17 fictional TV towns with personality
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1. Springfield, The Simpsons
The most memorable television settings, be they a police precinct, a hospital, the neighborhood bar, or the house down the block, all feel like real places, with architecture, geography, and inhabitants that could be legitimately ported to the real world. It’s an altogether different challenge to spread that feeling across the expanses of an entire town or city, and the best, most richly realized TV municipalities typically do so by letting the citizens inform the location—and vice versa. The prototypical “television town as supporting character” is The Simpsons’ suburban idyll of Springfield, a picturesque Anytown, USA with a population that never met a problem it couldn’t solve by banding together into an angry mob. Twenty-three seasons (with a 24th on the way) have shaped the boundaries and appearance of Springfield, but the town is still best defined by the characters who call it home: A well-meaning, colorful populace nonetheless susceptible to the song-and-dance routines of every smiling shyster with a monorail.
2. Dillon, Friday Night Lights
In the West Texas town of Dillon, football is king, a state championship is the Holy Grail, and the high-schoolers who secure that object of desire are consecrated heroes. Come fall, that singular devotion dictates the town’s entire calendar: The rest of the week is merely a preamble to Friday night, when businesses close, roads clear, homes empty, and life comes to a standstill in order for the citizens of Dillon to cheer on their beloved Panthers (and in later seasons, their crosstown rivals the East Dillon Lions). For a Dillon transplant like Tami Taylor, that fanaticism can be unsettling, and Friday Night Lights never shies away from showing its darker side: Crime reports are altered to shield star Panthers, and the reopening of East Dillon High School leads to some shady dealings to ensure a strong Panthers lineup stays intact. The series prefers to show how teams like the Panthers and Lions can act like glue for a community, however, best exemplified by this bit of first-season praise for Coach Eric Taylor, after he leads the Panthers to the ultimate victory: “He took a team that was battered, and a town that was ailing, and he did more than put a Band-Aid on things.” The team is mentioned first, but there’s no doubt that the win means more to the people of Dillon.
3. Mayberry, The Andy Griffith Show
It’s a testament to how fully realized Mayberry was that it’s hard to imagine the town as being anywhere but North Carolina, even though The Andy Griffith Show was shot in California. Though Griffith didn’t create the show, the writers and producers would pick the North Carolinian’s brain about life in Southern small towns, so while most of the episodes took place on only a handful of sets, the way the characters would talk about Mayberry life helped flesh out the location. Mayberry had its share of eccentrics—whooping mountain men and babbling barbers and the like—but it was also a place where farmers would come to shop and traveling businessmen would pass through on their way to the city, and where the church, the diner, the drugstore, and the gas station shaped the course of the day. Following Griffith’s death, there’s been debate about what it means when people say they wish we they could go “back to Mayberry,” and whether that yearning is somehow reactionary. But really, the appeal of Mayberry is its sense of community, and the idea that everybody has a place to go and be, even if they’re in no hurry to get there.
4. Hooterville, Green Acres/Petticoat Junction
Though never specifically situated in any state or region, Hooterville represented “farm country” on TV for the better part of the ’60s, on the cornpone sitcom Petticoat Junction and its surreal spin-off Green Acres. Hooterville is an ever-shifting cartoon landscape of barns, general stores, railroad depots, and dusty hotels. It’s a place where a traveling peddler has exactly what the neighbors need (though at a steep price), and a place where the local bureaucrats draft rules that make sense on paper but in reality turn an already strange place into a freak show. Petticoat Junction was the show for people who enjoyed spending time with quirky folks in the country; Green Acres was more for those who occasionally find themselves passing through a hick burg and searching for someone to acknowledge that something’s not right. Both featured the same phony-looking sets and backdrops, but just a slight twist in tone could turn the bucolic Kafkaesque.
5. Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks
With residents like The Log Lady, Sheriff Harry S. Truman, and the late Laura Palmer, the general population of Twin Peaks, Washington was a memorably eccentric bunch; but the importance of the town itself is established in the opening credits of Twin Peaks’ pilot, which features shots of the small logging community scored by Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting theme song, “Falling.” Local haunts like the Double R Diner, the Packard Saw Mill, and the Great Northern Hotel ultimately proved as crucial to the effectiveness of Twin Peaks as any character. Alas, any chance of the world at large using Twin Peaks as its point of reference to the state of Washington was drowned in a sea of flannel and grunge within two years of the series’ première, but with tours of the set locations still happening more than 20 years later, the personality of Twin Peaks certainly made an impact.
6. Eerie, Eerie, Indiana
Though it only lasted 19 episodes in its initial run on NBC, the horror-comedy series Eerie, Indiana spawned a short-lived spin-off in Fox’s Saturday morning lineup and a series of young-adult paperbacks. Credit the weird pull of Eerie itself, a heartland small town that looks like it was transported whole from a ’60s sitcom, only with monsters, cultists, aliens, and mad scientists behind every door. The premise of the show has new Eerie resident Marshall Teller trying to convince his skeptical parents that they’d moved to The Twilight Zone, as he and his best friend Simon solve the town’s many mysteries. Eerie, Indiana appealed to kids everywhere who felt like the “normal” streets and houses of their neighborhoods were hiding terrible secrets. The town itself seemed to be whispering truths that only the young could hear.
7. Wellsville, The Adventures Of Pete And Pete
In line with the goal of co-creators Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi to restore a sense of mystery to childhood, The Adventures Of Pete And Pete takes place in a riddle, wrapped in an enigma, and sealed within a Blue Tornado Bar wrapper. Eternally autumnal and frequently dreamlike, Wellsville is a surrealist’s vision of suburbia, peopled by psychotic bus drivers, personal superheroes, and school faculty seemingly drafted from the producers’ record and home-video collections. The anonymity of its neighborhoods and vinyl-sided houses presents a paradox: a sterile environment that would promote adolescent inventiveness, were the kids of Wellsville not constantly bombarded by fantastical entities like life-altering bowling balls and magical frozen beverages named after Biblical figures. The mythos of Wellsville runs deep, perfectly encapsulating the great unknown that exists beyond the edges of the front lawn.
8. Pawnee, Parks And Recreation
The home of Leslie Knope, Ron Swanson, and television’s other favorite civil servants can be characterized by any of its past town slogans—including “The Akron of Southwest Indiana,” “The Factory Fire Capital of America,” and “Welcome German Soldiers”—or claims to fame like being the fourth-fattest city in the United States. But slogans and statistics obscure reality like so many cumbersome prospective Leslie Knope newspaper headlines: The citizens of Pawnee are the most skittish body politic on television this side of Springfield. Ossified by unhealthy doses of Sweetums brand high-fructose corn syrup, the average Pawneean exhibits a resistance to change; but like that syrup, there is a sweetness within, demonstrated by an unyielding love for miniature horse Li’l Sebastian or the positive electoral response to Leslie’s fourth-season run for city council. And it’s not like they don’t embrace change every few decades: That aforementioned World War II-era slogan has a pair of companions in “Welcome Vietnamese Soldiers” and “Welcome Taliban Soldiers.”
9. Fairview, Desperate Housewives
A garden spot in the fictional “Eagle State,” Fairview has the amenities of a big city—vices included—and the charm of a small town, with funky little restaurants and businesses for the ladies of Desperate Housewives to kill time in between their illicit sexual affairs and shadowy murder plots. But most of the action in Fairview (and on the show) centers on Wisteria Lane, a seemingly quiet cul-de-sac flanked by impeccably maintained lawns and Colonial-style homes. In the real world, Desperate Housewives was filmed on the Universal Studios lot in what’s long been known as “Colonial Street,” the home to productions as varied as Leave It To Beaver, The Munsters, Best Little Whorehouse In Texas, and Murder, She Wrote. Throughout Desperate Housewives’ eight seasons, creator Marc Cherry exploited Wisteria Lane’s backlot quality, recognizing it as the kind of space where sex, murder, and family values could co-exist. And he accomplished the almost impossible task of making Wisteria Lane so real that fans could map it in their minds, citing the history of each house and the residents that came and went.
10. Stars Hollow, Gilmore Girls
The homebase for the beloved dramedy Gilmore Girls also has a long Hollywood history: Warner Bros. Studio’s “Midwest Street” served as River City, Iowa in the big-screen adaptation of The Music Man, and for seven seasons in the ’70s, it was annexed by Hazzard County, Georgia. By way of further geographic trickery, the two Lorelai Gilmores turned Midwest Street into a Connecticut retreat with a little help from their friends, a rich backstory (during the Revolutionary War, 12 militiamen protected the town from British soldiers who never showed), and creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s inspiring trip to The Nutmeg State. Lost amid a world of pumpkin patches and bustling diners, Sherman-Palladino sought to bring this seemingly out-of-time setting to The WB, building a universe where everyone in town turns out for the annual dance marathon and the diner owner and grocer air their many grievances with each other at well-attended town meetings. There’s a sense that the eccentrics are drawn to Stars Hollow, not that Stars Hollow draws the eccentricity out of someone: Witness the string of kooks (and indie-rock luminaries like Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, and Yo La Tengo) drawn to the hamlet when the position of town troubadour is vacated. Midwest Street can be any place in the United States, and Sherman-Palladino can rework that intoxicating small-town vibe on Bunheads, but it takes a population that tolerates the mere notion of a town troubadour to make it Stars Hollow.
11. Sunnydale, Buffy The Vampire Slayer
When Joss Whedon’s TV series Buffy The Vampire Slayer launched, the main characters were all still in high school and didn’t get out of town much, so the week-to-week battles with vampires, demons, and other threats demanded a supernaturally charged, target-rich environment. Whedon’s story style mandated that the protagonists should be isolated, dealing with all these threats with little help from adult agencies like police or the government. And the series’ sense of humor suggested that all this potential heaviness should be balanced with a dose of levity. The result of these narrative demands was Sunnydale, California, an incongruously upbeat community built over a hellmouth, a demonic portal that periodically spawns or attracts evil forces. The particulars of Sunnydale heavily affected the tone of the show: It’s a place where people die horrifically all the time, but none of the weird murders ever make the news, or linger in witnesses’ memories. It’s a place where murderous monsters and hordes of hapless, cheerful victims eternally exist side by side, with those victims focused on petty day-to-day concerns like making the eponymous heroine attend classes, pass tests, and pay rent while still perpetually trying to keep more than 30,000 people safe from the impending armageddon of the week. In other words, it’s Hell with a chipper California outlook and a “Have a nice day!” attitude that does as much to shape Buffy as the rat-a-tat dialogue and nonstop surprise reveals.
12. Mystic Falls, The Vampire Diaries
Like Sunnydale, The Vampire Diaries’ Mystic Falls is defined by its supernatural association—specifically its status as the site where vampires were created over a millennium ago, and continue to congregate, along with werewolves and witches, to this day. But the town wouldn’t become Mystic Falls until its founding in the mid-19th century, an event that defines the town as much as its tendency to attract well-muscled, oft-shirtless supernatural beings. The Founding Families responsible for the town’s establishment kicked off a generation-spanning dynasty that is outwardly concerned with protecting the town’s heritage through seemingly weekly municipal events—Founder’s Party, Founder’s Day, the Miss Mystic Falls Pageant, and so on—but is actually a secret organization dedicated to protecting Mystic Falls from the vampires who can’t seem to resist settling there. This generation-spanning divide is the source of most of The Vampire Diaries’ conflict, especially when the line between the two factions gets blurred, as it frequently does. (Almost every major supernatural character on the show is either from or associated with a Founding Family.) With just about every character, conflict, and plot machination somehow tied to the town and its history, Mystic Falls is the beating heart—or vampire venom—that powers The Vampire Diaries.
13. Neptune, Veronica Mars
Produced between the burst of the dot-com bubble and the buildup to the subprime mortgage crisis, Veronica Mars went further toward portraying economic realities in the United States than the average teen-sleuth series. Residing in the gap that grew between the haves and have-nots during that period of time is Neptune, California, an unincorporated slice of the Pacific Coast that’s home to tech tycoons and movie stars, as well as a rowdy biker gang and an organized-crime outfit operating out of the back of an Irish pub. Neptune’s split personality feeds into the majority of the cases brought to the offices of Mars Investigations, and it also accounts for the identity of the series’ lead character: Once a member of the wealthy (and thus popular and powerful) zip-code based “09er” clique, Veronica had already developed personal reasons for aiding Neptune’s disenfranchised before the series began. In some respects, Veronica Mars is a tale of two cities—but not even a revolt could unseat the ruling class. Then again, we never got to see the results of the sheriff’s election that concludes the series’ third season.
14. Cicely, Northern Exposure
Northern Exposure was conceived as a “fish out of water” series, and in its early episodes, Cicely, a small Alaska town in a remote area full of oddball natives and quaint local celebrations, was designed to drive the urban sophisticate at the show’s center up the wall. But as the show matured, it built on the joke that the place seemed to have everything a sane person would love about New York, with all the abrasive stuff filtered out. Most of the main characters seemed to have come from someplace else, dragging their esoteric cultural interests with them. Visitors who’d had their fill of nature could drag themselves over to the Brick and have their choice of scintillating conversational partners to go with their beer and mooseburger, with a soundtrack of hot platters, comparative religion, and quantum physics provided Chris Stevens at nearby KBHR. It had always been thus; the third-season finale revealed that Cicely was founded in 1908 by a free-thinking lesbian couple, Cicely and Roslyn, who transformed it into “the Paris of the North,” and the site of Franz Kafka’s happiest days.
15. South Park, South Park
Nestled in the Rocky Mountains, South Park, Colorado is a small, peaceful community—except for those occasions when various outsiders (extraterrestrial invaders, Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Tom Cruise) temporarily move in to cause trouble. At other times, a natural cataclysm, such as the eruption of a local volcano, has threatened to rain fiery death on the town and all its inhabitants. Despite these not-infrequent apocalyptic occurrences, the townspeople persist in regarding the town as a natural bulwark, a real nice place to raise your kids, safe from the corruptions of city life and the larger world. This is a testament to either their shared optimism and can-do spirit, or the general feeling that, as Nelson Muntz once put it, “Some of us prefer illusion to despair.” Whatever the hazards of living there, it remains a great place to visit, except in the summer, when the snow all melts and there isn’t a thing to do.
16. Bikini Bottom, SpongeBob Squarepants
Bikini Bottom lies at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, beneath Bikini Atoll, site of numerous nuclear-bomb detonation tests in the ’40s and ’50s, which may or may not account for the nautical nonsense of SpongeBob Squarepants. An underwater community with its own police force and navy, Bikini Bottom appears to have either a shifting form of government or a multi-tiered one that allows for a president and a mayor to co-exist with different branches of monarchy. The main road, Conch Street, connects the homes of the town’s model citizens—porous man-child SpongeBob Squarepants, his best friend Patrick Star, and local grump Squidward Tentacles—to SpongeBob and Squid’s workplace, the Krusty Krab restaurant. The principals are representatives of an easily excitable but basically plucky people, who have successfully come back again and again after the total annihilation of their community. Housing varies wildly from elaborate architectural feats to makeshift dwellings made from refuge and large shells. However, all buildings, monuments, and transportation vehicles tend to be aquatic-themed, because Bikini Bottom is under water, and its inhabitants aren’t ironists.
17. Arlen, King Of The Hill
During the course of its 13 seasons, King Of The Hill defined itself as one TV most realistic sitcoms, in spite of being animated. Its setting, the imagined Arlen, Texas, lends the show a good deal of its credibility. In keeping with a community-wide obsession with the Dallas Cowboys, kids in Arlen graduate from Roger Staubach Elementary to Tom Landry Middle School. King Of The Hill co-creator (and Texas native) Mike Judge proved with Office Space that a joke isn’t necessary when saying the words “pizza shooters” or “extreme fajitas” will suffice; similarly, Arlen hotspots like Mega-Lo Mart and Bazooms are funny not because they satirize real-world counterparts (Wal-Mart and Hooters, respectively), but because they gently underline the inherent silliness of such places. Like much on King Of The Hill, Arlen’s more a tender caricature of suburban America than an out-and-out cartoon.