Vacationing in southern California a few years back, we decided to go on some tours of Hollywood studios. After doing these tours, I started looking more into the different backlots for different studios. Then it hit me: I have seen these settings at least dozens of times. In commercials, television shows, and films. Over and over again. Here are a few of these backlot settings I cannot forget:
1. Colonial Street on the Universal Studios lot. There are so many houses here that have been used. Plus it served as Wisteria Lane in Desperate Housewives. (And also an Ace Hardware advertisement.)
2. The city streets on the Warner Bros. lot, particularly the New York Street set. The street corner featuring a storefront with a subway entrance right in front that is used all the time.
3. Wall Street at the Universal Studios lot. The key is seeing the large building with columns at the end of a shot down a long street.
Once you know what these settings look like, it is easy to recognize them.
Amidst the 25th anniversary of the start of Friends, numerous commentators pointed out the iconic Central Perk coffee shop and hinted at how it helped make the show. Architectural Digest called it an “iconic TV interior.”
But, this raises a chicken and egg problem for television shows: do the settings help make shows popular or critically acclaimed or do people celebrate the settings because other parts of the show are good?
In the case of Friends, much is made of its setting in New York. With six young adults living in apartments, Friends helped make urban living look fun. Would the show have worked if it had been set in San Francisco or Chicago or less dense locations? More specifically, does the coffee shop truly make it feel like New York or more homey?
Or, on the other hand, did the show really not need to involve New York because what really mattered were the interesting relationships between the six young adults plus the situations they got themselves into. If the characters and writing are good enough, could the show succeed even with a lousy or less interesting setting?
For the record, I saw the Central Perk set with my own eyes on a tour of a Hollywood backlot some years ago.
Seeing iconic settings like this is an interesting experience: they are both recognizable and not. Because you can see all that is right around the set but hidden on TV (such as the lights, the fake facades) the scenes seem very sterile. On the other hand, it looks like a very familiar place.
All television shows have settings and locations but few are as important as the large home on Downton Abbey:
The main character in Downton Abbey is not a person at all. It’s a building. Downton Abbey.
There it is in the opening credits of the new film and, despite a whole raft of new changes that I am trying not to give away, there it stands at the end, towering over all of the humans who enter and exit its doors, more custodians than owners, really.
The domestic edifice is this hugely successful franchise’s reason for being, the explanation for the movie, the lodestar for the show’s fans. Individual characters can die — and, God knows, they have. But if “Downtown Abbey” itself were ever to fall, then the story would be over.
This is unusual. Most long-running TV shows are centered on either an individual or a family. “Mad Men” could not survive past the death of Don Draper. “Dexter” needed Dexter. “Breaking Bad” tells the story of Walter White. “Game of Thrones” (73 episodes!) had numerous story arcs, heaven knows, but it still remained the story of communities, not unlike “The Wire” or “The Deuce.” “Star Wars” is a generational saga at its core. And, of course, superhero franchises need their superheroes. (Or their close relations.)
In many television shows, the setting functions more as a backdrop than anything else. The opening credits may show a city and/or home. The show itself may feature a few main sets, typically a place of residence and a workplace. But, swap one city or suburb for another or home for another home and the show could go on.
Would the same be true for Downton Abbey? If the show took place in a different English manor – which are occasionally seen on the show and in the movie – would it be a different show or a weaker show? Is the show popular because of the house or is the house popular because of the show?
It seems like a step too far to suggest that a bad or mediocre television show could be rescued by or solely built on a unique and interesting setting. Good characters encountering interesting situations is a necessary ingredient, even in a show that depends on an unusual and/or popular location. Yet, we could study the degree to which a setting or location or building figures in the plot and popularity of a show. For example, would The Sopranos be the same show without the suburban McMansion the family lives in?