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?