Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

(Nothing But) Flowers: 12 pop-culture paeans to suburban living

Illustration for article titled (Nothing But) Flowers: 12 pop-culture paeans to suburban living

1. Leave It To Beaver (1957-1963)
Big-city opportunities (and threats) and small-town warmth both get a lot of attention in films and on TV, but what about the suburbs? Filmmakers from Douglas Sirk to David Lynch to Tim Burton have made a point of revealing the tragic or eerie underbelly of seemingly bland, friendly communities, and parodying the suburbs as a plastic paradise or using them for tonal contrast in horror stories has become common. But occasionally, a show or film or song will admit that the suburbs are just nice places to live and raise kids. During a time when Americans were moving to the suburbs in droves, the sitcom Leave It To Beaver was practically an advertisement for suburban living, depicting the ’burbs as a kid-friendly utopia where Ward and June Cleaver could let their boys Wallace and Theodore (a.k.a. “The Beaver”) roam freely and have their own complicated adventures. Ward and June checked in periodically, serving as adjudicators, counselors, and (at last resort) rescuers, but for the most part, Wally and the Beav dealt with crises related to school, friends, and part-time jobs all on their own, in a sunny, idyllic community that they could navigate easily on foot or a bicycle.

2. The Brady Bunch (1969-1974)
By the time Leave It To Beaver went off the air in 1963, the suburbs had become as much a part of the television landscape as cities or rural small towns. In 1969, The Brady Bunch debuted, and over the next five years, it changed the way the suburbs looked on TV, embracing the changes in fashion, if not in the culture at large. The Bradys’ house looked funky and modern, and their kids—three boys and three girls—were wrapped in corduroy, shaggy hair, and shirts with wide collars. But even though this was a blended family in a rock ’n’ roll era, The Brady Bunch still promoted traditional values and ignored drug culture and the sexual revolution, showing that there were no scary social problems that couldn’t be safely escaped by transporting your horde to a neighborhood with Astroturf lawns.

3. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Even early in Steven Spielberg’s career, when he was either ambivalent or openly hostile to the notion of happy nuclear families, he still made their natural habitat look like a haven. Raised in an upper-middle-class family in a progression of communities frequently ranked on “best places to live” lists, Spielberg grew up accustomed to the finer side of subdivisions and tract housing, and when he set stories there, he emphasized their coziness. E.T. is about an unhappy middle child of divorced parents, yet Elliott seems so secure in his well-appointed, toy-filled home, in a neighborhood cast in cool blues and warm oranges. When Elliot helps his alien friend escape from the mean G-men, their race through the backyards and back-lots of their subdivision suggested that the suburbs could have a unique character, too. Even if the houses all look the same, the kids who live there know how to find the cracks.

4. John Hughes’ films circa 1984-1991
John Hughes’ career took a severe turn in the early 1990s, and before his death, he was something of a cautionary tale for Hollywood types. But before that, he spent almost a decade as a writer and director who captured the mindset of an entire generation; he not only crafted a handful of films that, for better or worse, etched themselves in the minds of teens growing up in the ’80s, but also became the undisputed chronicler of the suburban lifestyle. Hughes himself was born and raised in the tony Grosse Point suburb of Detroit, and as a teenager, he lived in Northbrook, Illinois, an enclave of Chicago’s well-to-do. This was the city that became “Shermer,” the fictional location of six of his movies. It wasn’t just that his main characters tended to be from well-off families who lived in high-priced, sprawling suburban homes, or that he took an obvious joy in depicting the leafy, ranging streets of Chicago’s northern suburbs, or that his teens had his own quirky taste in new-wave pop; it was that when he strayed from his suburban comfort zone, he often got it all wrong. The Chicago of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is straight out of the kinds of tourist guides found in suburban chain bookstores, entirely free of grit and urban flavor. His working-class urban figures are often menacing, vaguely ethnic villains—witness the parking attendants in Bueller or Molly Ringwald’s sister’s cretinous Italian fiancée in Sixteen Candles. The ludicrous Judd Nelson from The Breakfast Club is what passes for a criminal in his movies, and Pretty In Pink, where Hughes at least tries to deal with class issues, notoriously gets them wrong. Like Woody Allen, Hughes crafted a world in which he and his characters were comfortable, but it didn’t extend very far beyond the reach of the Yellow Line train.


5. Talking Heads, “(Nothing But) Flowers” (1988)
Granted, almost nothing David Byrne sings in a Talking Heads song can be taken strictly at face value, but he sounds fairly sincere in the Naked track “(Nothing But) Flowers,” which imagines a world where environmentalists have won and industrialism has given way to a verdant paradise. The protagonist of the song is fairly pissed about this state of affairs, pining for the days of Dairy Queens and 7-Elevens. “This was a Pizza Hut, now it’s all covered with daisies,” he gripes, latter adding, “Don’t leave me stranded here, I can’t get used to this lifestyle.” The song is a comment on rampant consumerism, but it can also be read as an insider’s perspective on why the suburban culture of microwaves and fast food are preferable to boring old nature.

6. The Wonder Years (1988-1993)
Before the Internet age, there was something uniquely terrifying about being tied to television in a time of national tragedy. It was difficult to know what was happening on the other side of the country; viewers were at the whim of reporters and of-the-minute updates. Too little information is almost worse than no information at all. The suburbs are the most removed from the national pulse, so everyone there is in the same boat. The Wonder Years celebrates this small-town unity: The events of the Vietnam War rage in the background, and lifelong friendships are forged over the shared experience. In the pilot, Winnie learns her brother was killed in the war, and Kevin befriends her when she needs a friend most. These small moments are accented by their stark contrast to the rest of the world—where else but the suburbs would Wayne have a reputation as a bully beyond his family? These are the things lasting memories are made of, the seemingly trivial details that become so beautiful and important when an entire town—by circumstance or otherwise—experiences them together.

7. Guadalcanal Diary, “Always Saturday” (1989)
One of the great forgotten bands of the Athens, Georgia alternative scene, Guadalcanal Diary combined the era’s jangling guitars with African-influenced drumming, propulsive bass line, and Murray Attaway’s distinctive voice and compelling lyrics. One of GD’s best songs—and a minor college-radio hit—came from Flip-Flop, the group’s last album; “Always Saturday” was a paean to the unending joys of suburban life, delivered with tongue only very slightly in cheek. Over a gorgeous, simple guitar-rock foundation, Attaway sings of porch swings, lemonade, tennis, and shade in the back yard, all the simple joys of suburban life—only to lament that he’s paralyzed by indecision: “So many choices, it’s not fair,” he pouts, “I hop in the car and I just sit there.” It’s a perfect summer song, lively and sweet with just a hint of irony. From the first verse, where Attaway notes that “to water the lawn is a wondrous thing,” to the last bridge, where he wishes he lived in a shopping mall, it’s arguably the ultimate suburban anthem.

8. The Sandlot (1993)
Mischief is an inevitable part of growing up. The strongest lessons (and hopefully the best stories) come out of mistakes you make on your own, away from your parents. Oh, and you also need a ton of unstructured time. Thanks to the safety and inclusion of the suburbs, the moms in The Sandlot let their children roam free come summer, affording scrappy boys plenty of opportunities to swat baseballs and get their knees dirty. But another key player in The Sandlot is the suburbs’ hand in spinning legends. If you like, you can go for years without seeing other people, and that sort of seclusion, nestled between strings of households all up in each other’s business, makes for a genuine neighborhood tall tale. In the case of The Sandlot, the creepy house at the edge of the field—complete with scary dog—is simply somewhere you just don’t go. That is, until a gaggle of unsupervised boys with lots of unstructured time on their hands finds a reason to. The Sandlot celebrates the mischief kids remember for the rest of their lives, made possible by rebelling against the suburbs’ special brand of ennui.

9. Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)
In the 1997 comedy Grosse Pointe Blank, John Cusack plays a hitman who returns to the idyllic titular city—an affluent Detroit suburb—for his high-school reunion. (And to assassinate somebody.) And though it’s the backdrop for some wicked gunfights, the town itself couldn’t appear more pleasant: Visiting with his old teacher and spending some time on a charming main street actually serves to soothe Cusack’s savage beast, and he’s a changed man by the end of the film. Well, after a big gun fight in a gorgeous suburban mansion. He sees what he’s missed—the quiet life, the girl, etc.—and regrets it.

10. King Of The Hill (1997-2009)
Viewers on both ends of the political spectrum interpreted Mike Judge’s long-running animated series as liberal or conservative, but this was usually just a reflection of their own leanings. More than anything else, King Of The Hill was a love letter to the idyllic lifestyle of suburban living. Barbeques, oversized trucks, finely manicured lawns, and the easy good times of sharing a cold beer with friends outside the house: These were the primary-colored ideals that gave the show its greatest pleasures. Texans had a grand old time picking out the thinly veiled references to the Hills’ home state, and the show wrung plenty of laughs out of their reactions to big cities: Hank viewed places like Houston and Dallas as nightmarish sewers of depravity, while Peggy was transported with joy at the thought of a visit to a metropolis as ordinary as San Antonio. In spite of its occasional forays into absurdity, King Of The Hill beautifully captured the rhythms of suburban life, and made Arlen seem like it wouldn’t be such a bad place to live.

11. The Boondocks (2005-2010)
The hook of Aaron McGruder’s animated series is usually explained as the culture clash between the streetwise Chicago kids of the Freeman family and the whitebread mall culture of the suburbs. But that gets it tonally wrong: when Robert Freeman used his life savings to buy a home in the fictional suburb of Woodcrest, Maryland, he was doing it to get away from the hassles of the big city, and Woodcrest is almost always portrayed as accommodating at worst and downright nice at best. The real hook of the show is that it’s a vicious satire of black culture delivered from the inside; McGruder deliberately chose not to take the easy route by mocking the ’burbs for their unfunky sterility as so many people have done before, but to mock Huey and (especially) Riley’s inability to adjust to the fact that their new surroundings don’t force them to constantly struggle for survival. The idea that the white residents of Woodcrest recoil in terror at their new black neighbors was dropped almost immediately; instead, they’re indulgent of Riley’s gangsta poses and downright welcoming when rapper Thugnificent moves in. The only person who makes race an issue is Uncle Ruckus, a self-hating black character. And Huey’s biggest problem is that he’s accused of being a sellout by his Chicago homies, and doesn’t know how to cope with an environment free of “nigga moments.” Thus the satire works on a deeper level, suggesting that some people feel like outsiders in the suburbs because they’re making themselves that way.

12. Modern Family (2009-present)
The promise of the suburbs includes cliché accoutrements like a white picket fence and 2.5 children. Along with that comes flexibility: Households in the same family, of various sizes and desires, can find affordable housing that fits their needs, while maintaining proximity to one another. The ABC sitcom Modern Family celebrates one such extended family that can remain in each other’s lives because of the suburbs. The Dunphy kids regularly spend the night at their grandpa’s house. Gloria is always available to babysit Lily. Uncle Cameron can reprise Fizbo The Clown at his nephew’s all-family birthday party. Manny, an only child whose mom married into the family, benefits from having other kids his age around to press linen suits with. Each unit in the family has its own set of positives and negatives, protons and neutrons, but as one unit the Dunphy/Pritchett family has forged a strong bond, courtesy of location.