More worry over McMansions than LeBron’s teardown that replaced a midcentury modern

Are McMansions in Los Angeles disliked because of who might live in them or because of their architecture?

Newly signed Laker LeBron James’ $23 million digs on Tigertail Road in L.A.’s Brentwood come with a deep roster of industry neighbors, from stars (Jim Carrey) and execs (ABC’s Ben Sherwood, Scooter Braun) to reps (CAA’s Fred Specktor, Lighthouse’s Margaret Riley), writers (John Sacret Young) and movie royalty (or at least movie royalty-adjacent: John Goldwyn’s ex Colleen Camp)…

The tony community is taking well to its new neighbor, says one homeowner, who adds that there’s more concern about the explosion of “McMansions” in an area that boasts so many architecturally significant houses, like the William Krisel-built midcentury modern that was torn down in 2014 on the lot where James’ new home sits.

While James’ new-build eight-bedroom home has been under renovation since May as he adds a basketball court and indoor wine tap, the construction hasn’t been particularly disruptive, says the resident, given the large number of homes being built and updated throughout the neighborhood. “[His house] is set on the hillside, very tasteful and pretty, and it’s been low-key so far,” says the neighbor. “People were a lot more upset when Justin Bieber was looking around here.”

Even though James now lives in a large house that replaced an “architecturally significant house,” at least one neighbor does not think it is a problem for three reasons:

  1. The new house is “very tasteful and pretty.”
  2. LeBron James is not Justin Bieber. Not only is Bieber less popular than James, he has a Los Angeles reputation for parties and fast driving.
  3. The construction “hasn’t been particularly disruptive.”

So because Lebron James is simply a better-liked neighbor than Bieber, the construction of a mansion (or McMansion) can be overlooked? According to some, midcentury moderns are worth celebrating compared to McMansions.

Bill O’Reilly, growing up in Levittown, and experiences with race

While doing some research on suburbs and race, I ran into a 2014 exchange between Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly about the latter growing up in Levittown, New York:

Of Levittown, Stewart riffed, “It gave you a nice stable, a cheap home — there was no down payments. It was this incredible opportunity … Those houses were subsidized … It wasn’t lavish,” said Stewart.

The back-and-forth that followed is essential to understanding the Fox News celebrity:

O’Reilly: No, they weren’t subsidized. They were sold to GIs, and the GIs got a mortgage they could afford.

Stewart: Did that upbringing leave a mark on you even today?

O’Reilly: Of course. Every upbringing leaves a mark on people.

Stewart: Could black people live in Levittown?

O’Reilly: Not in that time — they could not.

Stewart: So that, my friend, is what we call in the business “white privilege.”

O’Reilly: That was in 1950, all right.

Stewart: Were there black people living there in 1960?

O’Reilly: In Levittown? I don’t know.

Stewart: There weren’t.

O’Reilly: How do you know?

Stewart: Because I read up on it.

O’Reilly: Oh, you read up! You don’t know that. I can find somebody…Why would you want to live there? It’s a nice place, but it’s not a place like … Bel Air, come on!

The paradigmatic suburb of the post-World War II era did not allow blacks in the community for years. This influenced thousands of residents in Levittown, thousands of black residents who instead had to move to other suburbs, and many more who lived in similar suburbs across the country that had similar exclusions.

While the conversation above is about Bill O’Reilly, it hints at a broader connection that many would like to make: growing up in a more diverse community in terms of race and ethnicity (less is made here of social class) will lead to more tolerance and acceptance of difference for those same adults. Because O’Reilly lived in a white community at a critical age, he had fewer opportunities to engage people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds and develop relationships and understanding.

Even if the stereotype of the white and wealthy suburb continues (and for some good reasons), suburbs today are less homogeneous and this can lead to a variety of experiences.

How close to San Francisco does a house have to be to be considered “in San Francisco”?

The short answer: closer than north of Oakland on the east side of San Francisco Bay.

The current edition of Brother vs. Brother on HGTV features two homes undergoing renovation in the Bay Area. However, they are located in the suburbs of El Sobrante and Pinole, respectively a 45 minute and one hour drive from San Francisco. This is similar to a post from years back when I wrote about Procure Proton Therapy claiming a “close to downtown Chicago” location with their Warrenville facility. Can the show truly claim to be about houses in San Francisco?

I would say no for three primary reasons:

  1. The location is just too far away from San Francisco to claim it is in the city. One could visit San Francisco from these locations but the show is not about San Francisco; it is about suburban housing. This is particularly noticeable in each episode with the size of the homes, the price of the homes, and the property each house sits on.
  2. This is not just about being relatively far our from the big city; the homes are also beyond Oakland. The Bay Area is a unique one in that there are three major cities within a relatively short distance from each other: San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose. The largest in population is San Jose, the 11th largest city in the country, followed by San Francisco at 13th, and Oakland at 45th. Even though San Jose is closest to Silicon Valley, San Francisco is the most prestigious city with Oakland trailing both. If these suburban homes are to be connected to a big city, Oakland would technically be more accurate.
  3. Many suburbanites rarely make it into the big city if they do not work there or have business that regularly takes them there. They may still identify with the big city in the region, especially when talking with people from other parts of the country or world who have little knowledge of little communities but know certain big cities. Yet, their day-to-day experience is markedly different from that of a San Francisco resident.

I know the marketing is driving this. “Brother vs. Brother: San Francisco” is a lot more exciting than “Brother vs. Brother: Bay Area Suburbs.” Still, the consistent shots of San Francisco is a bit much when these are suburban homes that could fit in many regions across the United States.

 

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.