Does it matter if Roseanne is set in a real place?

After thinking about whether Roseanne is set in Elgin, Illinois and the inconsistencies of the show’s location, I arrived at a broader question: does a fictional television show really need a location? And a second question follows: does it serve the writers or the viewers better to have a clear location?

To answer the first question, I think the answer is no. As noted in the earlier posts, much of the action in television dramas and sitcoms takes place among a limited number of characters in a limited number of locations. In some shows, the characters hardly ever leave their residence or work. In other shows, character are out and about more but they are often in generic locations that may signal something about a particular city – skyscrapers! lots of traffic! – but do not necessarily depend on a particular location. Think Friends: they are clearly in New York City yet the unique daily life of the city rarely is part of the plot (perhaps outside of the ongoing question of how people with those kinds of jobs can afford apartments like that). Could the show easily be set in Seattle or London or Houston without substantially altering the key relationships between characters and the narrative arcs? Many shows just need enough information to slot into a typical narrative that fits a location: the big city story, the suburban life, small town doings, etc.

To the second question, I think both the writers and viewers could be served well with some idea of where the show is taking place even as this geographic identity may mean little for the show. Our everyday lives are highly impacted by the spaces in which we operate, even if critics would argue suburbanization has rendered all the American suburbs the same or globalization has homogenized experiences within and across cultures. It might be hard to truly invest in a story or narrative arc if it literally could take place anywhere. Having a recognizable place or name at least gives people something to work with in their imaginations, even if the shows do not fully explore their geographic context. The small nods to geography can also serve to help differentiate shows from each other: the New York version is slightly different compared to the Los Angeles or the Chicago version. (Again, we usually do not get a broad palette of American locations but rather easily identifiable locations.) If anything, the restricted number of possible locations helps studios who can make backlots look like many places. (And you can see this on studio tours: we took a tour a few years ago of Warner Bros. where the set for Gilmore Girls, small town Connecticut, Desperate Housewives, suburban everywhere, and the big city were all a short distance from each other. And once you have viewed these sets up close, you see them all over in commercials, shows, and films.)

Coming back to Roseanne: I do not think it really matters that it is modeled on Elgin, Illinois or uses an exterior shot of a home from Evansville, Indiana. It could easily be set outside of Milwaukee, Cleveland, Buffalo, and dozens of other locations where working-class Americans live. Having a rough approximation of a location outside of Chicago may have helped writers and viewers place the show but it is not terribly consequential for the themes of the show or the characters.

 

The geographic inconsistencies of Roseanne and the placelessness of TV shows

Roseanne may be based on Elgin, Illinois but the show draws on various locations in Illinois and Indiana:

“Roseanne” is filmed on a studio lot in Los Angeles, but is set in the fictional Illinois town of Lanford. Where in Illinois is Lanford supposed to be? Some conflicting clues about the town’s location are sprinkled throughout the series, which originally aired from 1988-97.

Consider Season 1, Episode 20. Amid fierce winds, Dan Conner turns on the radio for the weather report: “As of 5 p.m. Central Standard Time, a tornado watch is in effect for Fulton County.” Darlene Conner bursts into the room: “Hey, that’s us!” In real life, Fulton County is west of Peoria.

Now Season 8, Episode 7. While in the car with her sister, Roseanne Conner suggests going to “that big outlet mall up in Elgin.” Jackie Harris sniffs, “Elgin? That’s an hour away.”

A representative for the ABC network, which aired “Roseanne” in the ’90s and will air the new season starting March 27, said Elgin is used as the reference for Lanford, both geographically and demographically…

The exterior of the Conner home is also not an authentic representation of Illinois. The series features shots of a house in Evansville, Ind., about 325 miles away from Elgin.

Geographic inconsistencies are not unknown in Hollywood. Television shows use various devices – verbal suggestions, establishing shots and some exterior images, fandom for local sports teams, architecture, attempts at accents or local eccentricities – to suggest a location but rarely pinpoint a real life location or community. What we see is more of a pastiche of a location. Most of the action takes place inside in interior settings or generic outdoor settings that could be anywhere. The shows want to both hint at a particular place and be generic enough to appeal to a broad audience. Roseanne may claim to be about Elgin, Illinois but it has to roughly match hundreds of working-class locations (or match perceptions of working-class places) across the United States.

More broadly, this suggests television shows may be more or less explicitly attached to particular cities and locations (crime shows often are) and yet they often exist in a placeless world much of the time. If anything, the biggest cities in the United States – New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago – are the most depicted on television while other cities or smaller communities are anonymized. But, even these big cities are not really the focus of the action; the characters swoop in and around recognizable locations while certain parts of cities or everyday urban life never are on the screen. This is depicted effectively on The Simpsons where the location of Springfield is not clear, the city itself and its surrounding area can change according to the whims of the writers, and the action ranges from the mundane to the absurd.

The (inaccurate?) depiction of Elgin, Illinois in Roseanne

The TV show Roseanne is set in a fictional town modeled after communities in northern Illinois:

Show star Roseanne Barr told the Hollywood Reporter in February that the working class sitcom’s fictional setting of Lanford is based on Elgin. The producers even conducted a focus group in Elgin before embarking on what is the 10th season for the show, which last had new episodes in 1997.

Fictional, gritty Lanford may be modeled after Elgin, but local residents said it’s not really an accurate reflection of their hometown…

Southwest side resident Vicky Lundy, 53, said she’s picked up on some geographical errors in placing where Elgin would be, particularly in relationship to Chicago. One episode implied that Chicago was so far away that one of Roseanne’s granddaughter’s couldn’t afford to buy a bus ticket to the big city. Another has a branch of the University of Illinois in St. Charles, which has a U of I extension, not a campus.

Kim Lang, 41, of South Elgin noted that on the “Roseanne” reboot, “there are no Hispanics anywhere, which is a core element (of the Elgin area).”

Three quick thoughts:

  1. Rarely have I seen residents of or local officials in communities depicted on television suggest that the TV portrayal was accurate. It is hard to know whether local residents are unable to see their community from a birds-eye perspective, whether locals only perceive television as promoting negative ideas, or whether television shows cannot easily capture community life (see #2).
  2. Many television sitcoms and dramas involve a limited number of characters and do not actually depict much of the larger community. The focus of the show is Roseanne’s family, not the larger community of Lanford. In many such sitcoms, the family rarely leaves the inside of their house or their yard. On the whole, I do not think television shows are usually set up to portray a whole community (outside of some establishing shots and occasional references or interactions).
  3. Working-class communities are not depicted much on television and are not necessarily depicted favorably. (For example, see the documentary: Class Dismissed: How TV Frames the Working Class.) Many sitcoms revolve around middle- to upper-class families that have sizable homes, rarely work, and encounter certain issues but not others.

As a thought exercise, we could think about what a television show would need to be to truly capture life in Elgin, Illinois. A more diverse set of characters? Regular interactions out in the community at known sites? Elgin is a large suburb of over 100,000 people and while it has a more traditional downtown, it is also quite sprawling. Could an accurate depiction fit with typical conventions of how television shows are made?

Do suburbanites watch screeds about suburbia?

I recently read a review of a new documentary that addresses the housing issues and racism of the American suburbs. This led me to a question: do Americans in a largely suburban country watch films that directly criticize the suburbs?

I made a list of the first movies that came to mind as being known for their critique of suburban life. I have also included their box office earnings:

American Beauty – 1999 – $356 million

Far From Heaven – 2002 – $29 million

Pleasantville – 1998 – $49 million

Revolutionary Road – 2008 – $75 million

Stepford Wives – 1975 and 2004 – $4 million, $102 million

This is not an exhaustive list at all though it does quickly become tricky to determine whether a film is truly about suburbia and its way of life or the plot is simply set there.

Two quick thoughts:

  1. There is clearly an audience for such films. Not all of them were blockbusters but they made decent money.
  2. Some more data would be useful such as how much money was made on each film and how these box office figures compare to other films of their time.

Based on the research I have done on suburban-set popular television shows, I would guess television shows that try to critique suburbia do not tend to be popular.

 

 

The one Beatles song that mentions suburbs

“Penny Lane” was released in 1967 as a double A side single with “Strawberry Fields Forever.” The chorus for the song included these lines:

Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes
There beneath the blue suburban skies
I sit, and meanwhile back

See the official promo video featuring the Beatles here:

While the Beatles did not grow up in a prototypical American suburb, they did grow up outside the city center of Liverpool. Here is how Paul McCartney described it:

A lot of our formative years were spent walking around those places. Penny Lane was the depot I had to change buses at to get from my house to John’s and to a lot of my friends. It was a big bus terminal which we all knew very well. I sang in the choir at St Barnabas Church opposite.

John Lennon made a similar statement:

The bank was there, and that was where the tram sheds were and people waiting and the inspector stood there, the fire engines were down there. It was just reliving childhood.

The Beatles were not immune from writing about everyday subjects: on their previous album Revolver, the first three songs revolved around mundane topics like paying taxes, lonely women, and sleeping too much. This song combines mundane life – a place with a bus terminus – with childhood nostalgia. This location is far from the Beatles’ urban (Liverpool, Hamburg, London, New York City, other major cities) and country (estates, getaways) lives with which they would become associated.

While they probably did not intend to do so, the song hints at the postwar existence of many in the English speaking world: suburban-like neighborhoods with single-family homes, relatively safe streets, working class to upper-middle class residents, and a steady life revolving around family drama, school, and happenings in the neighborhood. Including the forming of bands with kids around your age who share some of your interests and are also trying to be cool.

Black Mirror portrays a future in sleek, modernist structures

In watching episodes of Black Mirror, I noticed a pattern in the buildings and streetscapes depicted on the show: they are often modernist. There could be multiple factors behind this:

  1. This is how Western society often portrays the future: in contemporary structures comprised of glass and steel and with sharp lines and minimalist decor. This trend goes back decades with modernist architects and culture producers from the early 1900s to today exercising a significant influence on what we think the future should look like.
  2. This particular vision of a future in modernist buildings also allows the show to hint at the problems with future technologies. While everything may look impressive, these modernist spaces can be perceived as cold and unwelcoming. When discussing the show’s title, creator Charlie Brooker said, “The “black mirror” of the title is the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.”
  3. Many of the episodes are set in England. Perhaps the architecture there is indeed different than what is found in many American locales. Perhaps local residents and organizations are more open to modernist architecture. I’ve argued several times before in this blog – here is one example – that average Americans tend not to like modernist architecture for their own dwellings.
  4. The plot lines for the episodes tend to involve futuristic technology created by tech companies. Tech companies in modernist buildings seems to make sense. The campuses of Silicon Valley, such as the new Apple headquarters, as well as their retail locations, such as the new Apple store on the riverfront in Chicago, reflect these design choices.

Could you have a show about futuristic technology that takes place in older homes and buildings? Would this seem too anachronistic? For better or worse, much of the near future (think at least the next few decades) will take place in structures built decades before the Internet, smartphones, and driverless vehicles. Indeed, some people may want to live and work in these older structures because of their character and history even as they also enthusiastically embrace the modernist dictates of new technologies to be thin, sleek, and modernist.

Using humorists to predict the future because they can push beyond plausibility

Predictions made by experts are often not very good so why not let humorists try their hand at looking at the future?

This is not because “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening and his teams of writers through the decades are sinister geniuses. They are, of course, but the phenomenon of jokes coming uncannily true is not at all unique to “The Simpsons.” So at this time of year, when lots of people are making forecasts or looking back at how last year’s predictions went, I’d like to make the case that humorists may make the best futurists of all.

The writers of “The 80s” would not have won one of Philip Tetlock’s forecasting competitions: The great majority of their “predictions” were wildly wrong. Congress didn’t ban the consumption of meat, Muhammad Ali didn’t become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Disney didn’t buy the United Kingdom, a musical version of “1984” starring Leif Garrett, Tracy Austin and Marlon Brando (as “Big Brother”) did not become the movie of the decade, cancer was not cured with “a substance secreted in the cranium of the baby harp seal when its head was struck repeatedly.” But given that the aim of the book was not to make predictions but to entertain, that was OK. It’s like with “The Simpsons”: You’re not watching it to get a rundown on the world to come; the fact that you sometimes do is a happy bonus…

The humorist’s approach to looking into the future bears some resemblance to scenario planning, a practice developed in the 1950s and 1960s at the Rand Corp. and Hudson Institute. Scenario planning involves coming up with alternative story lines of how things might plausibly develop in the future, and thinking about how a business or other organization can adapt to them. It’s not about picking the right scenario, but about opening your mind to different possibilities.

To make stories about the future funny, they usually have to be pushed beyond the bounds of plausibility. If they’re not pushed too far beyond, though, they can sometimes come true — with the advantage that few “serious” forecasters will have predicted them. The Trump presidency is a classic case of this. He had been talking about running since the late 1980s, but those in the media and political circles had learned over the years not to take him seriously. So it was left to the jokers.

Looking into the future is a difficult task since the future is a complex system with many variable at play. Even with all the data we have at our disposal these days, future trends do not necessarily have to follow in line with past results. This reminds me of Nassim Taleb’s writings from The Black Swan and onward: there are certain parts of reality that are fairly predictable, other areas that complex but more knowable, and other areas that we do not even know what we do not know. See this chart adapted from Taleb by Garry Peterson for an overview:

Taleb's quadrants

This also gets at an important aspect of creativity: being able to think beyond existing realities.

Another bonus of looking to humorists to think about the future: you might get some extra laughs along the way.