Considering what we know about the broad sweep of suburban TV shows

An Atlas Obscura piece on Levittown begins with a summary of suburbs on television:

gray scale photo analogue of television

Photo by Andre Moura on Pexels.com

From the air, the homes fan out like intricate beadwork. For decades, America’s suburbs have been a popular setting for television shows, from Leave It To Beaver* to Desperate Housewives, chronicling entertaining trivialities against the backdrop of meticulously shorn lawns, the drifting smoke of barbecues, the infrastructure of cars and roads: a pleasantly domestic—but fraught—version of the American dream.

There is no doubt about the claim in the second sentence: “America’s suburbs have been a popular setting for television shows.” Today, television viewers can still find new suburban sitcoms that play with the 1950s formula (actually begun in radio) of a happy nuclear family with plenty of resources working through entertaining yet relatively low-level issues. And as noted at the end (and developed by numerous scholars – I would recommend starting with the work of Lynn Spigel), the television image of suburbs was too pleasant and reinforced a well-off white image of the suburbs.

At the same time, I have published two articles on television in the suburbs and they contribute to a more complicated story of suburbs on television. In my article “From I Love Lucy in Connecticut to Desperate Housewives’ Wisteria Lane: Suburban TV Shows, 1950-2007,” I find that suburban-set shows never dominated the most popular American TV shows. Although such shows might be familiar, common, and live on in memories connected to a different era, they are not the only places Americans see on television. Take as one example the Brady Bunch: it may have been watched for millions in syndication, it may have particularly influenced younger viewers, and it had an iconic house but it never was a Top 30 television show. The suburban TV show is well-known but how influential they are is debatable.

Similarly, more recent suburban TV shows have truly tweaked the format. Lynn Spigel points out that twists to the typical format started early on while more recent shows feature suburban lifestyles from a different point of view (thinking of Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, and American Housewife off the top of my head). I wrote “A McMansion for the Suburban Mob Family: The Unfulfilling Single-Family Home of The Sopranos” and considered this critically-acclaimed and popular show set in suburban New Jersey. It has a similar set-up to 1950s suburban shows – the successful white nuclear family living in a big suburban house – but ultimately suggests all of this is an illusion as Tony Soprano’s mob dealings undergird and undercut the family’s attempts to live a normal suburban life. The Sopranos is not the only show to do this; others feature other family structures, deviant behavior, and alternative routes into and out of the suburban dream.

At this point, have television shows covered all of the stories of American suburbs? No. Is there still a typical format? Yes. Have creators played around with the typical format to present other stories? Yes.. Do Americans want to watch suburban TV shows? Yes and no.

Seinfeld on the suburbs (and city)

I have watched a few episodes of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. I recently saw the opening episode of Season 4 where Jerry Seinfeld talks with Sarah Jessica Parker that included Seinfeld discussing the suburbs:

I grew up in the suburbs, didn’t like it — always wanted to live in the city. Now, I want to live in the suburbs.

This could be the story of many Americans. Jerry Seinfeld was born in 1954, the era of a postwar population boom and mass suburbia. Millions grew up in new and expanding suburbs organized around single-family homes and driving. At some point, Seinfeld was drawn to the city where I’m guessing comedy and entertainment possibilities beckoned. His iconic television show Seinfeld revolved around quirky New York characters doing city things. Yet, whether he was in the suburbs or cities, he wanted to be elsewhere.

Seinfeld’s line in the episode is enhanced both three features of the episode: the 1976 Ford Squire station wagon Parker owns and loves, the discussion Parker and Seinfeld have about their growing up in the suburbs (with Parker just outside the suburban Baby Boomers but sounding like she had some similar experiences), and they drive out of Manhattan to the suburbs.

This could simply be the case of the grass is always greener on the other side. Seinfeld and Parker seem caught up in some nostalgia about simpler times. Or, it might hint at a larger conundrum in American life for many residents: is the suburban or urban life preferable? The big city offers cultural opportunities, jobs, unique communities, and often an urban identity. The suburbs offer private space, perceived safety and opportunities for kids, the American Dream.

There may even be places that offer some of both. New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and numerous other major cities offer urban residential neighborhoods that have single-family homes where urbanites can escape to private dwellings and still be close to the urban excitement. Or, there are some suburbs, often inner-ring suburbs, with denser residences and downtowns, that feel more lively than the stereotypical suburban bedroom community.

This also gets to the crux of Seinfeld as a show. While it was massively popular and helped lead to a run of popular television shows on network television in the 1990s, Seinfeld’s quote above makes me wonder: is it a critique of cities or is it a celebration of them? Just as the characters turn out in the series to now be nice people, how does New York City fare in the end? The individual characters are not happy or content people; is this because of their personalities (the types that would never be happy anywhere) or is it provoked by the setting? Jerry lives in the city but the city always presents problems, from people who get in their way to unusual settings.

Even though these might just be television shows and personal memories, how these are later interpreted – positive sentiments regarding the suburbs or city? – can later influence whether Americans pursue a suburban or urban future.

The most McMansiony residence on Modern Family

Adding to earlier posts on the details of the three primary residences on Modern Family and the way the show was successful even with three McMansions, this post considers which home is the most McMansiony.

https://www.housebeautiful.com/design-inspiration/house-tours/a23472261/abc-modern-family-house-design/

To make this decision, I am working with the four traits of McMansions I developed: size, relative size, poor architecture/design, and a symbol for other American problems.

The Pritchett House: this is the biggest home at over 6,000 square feet. The relative size is hard to judge since the neighboring homes are almost never seen (I cannot recall seeing them). The home is built in a modern style with big windows and some strange angles. There is a good-sized pool in the backyard. With its size and design, the home could definitely be considered for the wealthy and Jay Pritchett is a successful business owner.

The Pritchett=Tucker home is in a more Mediterranean style (title roof, stucco, balcony, some arched windows and an arched doorway). There is a round turret in the middle with the doorway. Cam and Mitchell have the least space (since they only occupy the first floor on the show). Again, we do not have much of a sense of the surrounding neighborhood since other homes are rarely shown. This is easy to select as the least McMansiony home, at least as presented on the show as a oe story dwelling.

The Dunphy home is nearly 3,000 square feet and built to look like a traditional home with its white picket fence, covered entryway, and front entrance that leads to a hallway as well as a staircase to the bedrooms upstairs. The home seems to fit in of what we see of the neighborhood; we see more of the Dunphy neighborhood than any of the other homes. Phil and Claire are portrayed as typical parents who with three kids are just trying to help their kids be successful and keep their sanity at the same time.

Based on my definition and what we see on the show, I think the home of Jay and Gloria Pritchett best fits the bill of a McMansion. It is large. All that space for a family of four. (When the whole family gathers there, it looks like they all fit easily.) It is the most expensive of the homes. It has newer features plus a pool. The architecture is unique though not necessarily garish – this could depend on one’s view of more modernist homes. As the patriarch with his second family, Jay clearly has plenty of resources (and there are other hints of this on the show as well).

Perhaps a more interesting question is whether the Dunphy home is really a McMansion. It is a larger than average home. It costs quite a bit, though this is due more to its metropolitan market and its location. The home does not look garish on the outside; the proportions may be off, the entryway covering is large, and there are multiple gables but it does not scream ostentatious. Furthermore, the show does not portray the family as evil or overly-wealthy McMansion owners; they are a typical sitcom family. Given all of this, I am on the fence about calling this home a McMansion even as a majority of Americans could not live in such a home in that real estate market.

More on the McMansions on Modern Family

Following up on yesterday’s post, here are some more details on the main residences featured on Modern Family and which one I think qualifies as the most McMansion-y. (This post draws on “Stalking from Los Angeles: Houses from Modern Family” – denoted as SfLA below, House Beautiful – denoted as HB below, and the Modern Family Wiki – denoted as Wiki below.)

  • Phil and Claire Dunphy’s house.

“Phil is the only one working in the Dunphy family and as a realtor he’s doing very well. The Dunphy house is worth almost $1.8 million, according to Zillow.com.” (SfLA)

“Phil and Claire’s house is a little more traditional, almost as if it’s ripped directly from an early 2000’s catalog. And that was exactly the goal: The space is supposed to be very comfortable and lived in, with a vibe that’s “Pottery Barn meets Restoration Hardware,” production designer Richard Berg told Architectural Digest back in 2012.” (HB)

“It is a detached, suburban home with two living rooms, kitchen/dining room, 2 bathrooms, 4 bedrooms, and a garage. Outside it has both a front and back garden with a trampoline.” (Wiki)

  • Jay and Gloria Pritchett’s house.

“According to Zillow.com Gloria and Jay’s house in Brentwood is currently worth more than $8 million. This 6,359 square foot (590 square meters) single family home has 5 bedrooms, 6 bathrooms and a pool.” (SfLA)

“Fun fact: That exterior is an actual, two-story house in Los Angeles’s Brentwood neighborhood, though most of the filming is done on a soundstage. The Modern Family production team had built “80 percent” of the set before finding the perfect house to serve as its exterior, so they had to go back and change its windows and layout to match, Berg said.” (HB)

“It seems to be the largest and grandest house of the three families, as Jay earns a lot of money from his job. Contains 2 floors, a living room, 1 kitchen, 3 bedrooms, 1 bathroom, and a garage…Outside there’s a front garden and a huge pool that is first seen in “The Incident“, and is frequently seen ever since…The real house is located in Brentwood, 15 minutes away from the house used for Mitch and Cam. There is a whole extra wing of the house that is not show in the shots of the house for the show.” (Wiki)

  • Mitch Prichett and Cam Tucker’s house.

“Cameron’s and Mitchell’s house is very near to the Dunphys (well, for L.A., of course). Their house has 4 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms. Its worth: $1.3 million (source: Zillow.com).” (SfLA)

“Mitchell and Cameron’s apartment, with its villa style and ivy snaking up the walls, definitely caught people’s attention. It’s a little more romantic, and even though their home would mean settling for less square footage (they live in the ground-floor apartment of the two-story, technically), their interiors tend to be a little more upscale and collected over time. “We saw the couple as being new to the parenthood plateau and fresh off the plane from years of travel and singledom,” Berg told the magazine.” (HB)

“Unlike The Dunphy House or The Pritchett House, it only has one floor, the upstairs is open for rental, revealed in Slow Down Your Neighbors. Their floor contains a living room, 1 kitchen, 1 bathroom, 2 bedrooms, and a garage. It is revealed in “Mistery Date“, that Lily’s bedroom was previously Mitchell’s home office, but they had to give it up for her room. Outside it has both a front and back garden..” (Wiki)

In summary:

The homes are all large and expensive, located near each other west of downtown Los Angeles, are meant to reflect the characters that live there, and have recognizable exteriors that are then recreated on sets where the interior scenes are shot.

Tomorrow, I will compare how the features of each home match up traits of McMansions. In other words, which Modern Family dwelling is the most McMansion-y?

Modern Family a successful TV show for taking place in McMansions

McMansions do not have a positive reputation yet they can serve as the primary setting for popular television shows. For example, Modern Family had a successful run and featured three large homes:

The path of the mockumentary series arcs from a trailer park in Nova Scotia to a McMansion in Los Angeles. In 2001, the Canadian cult comedy Trailer Park Boys inaugurated a soon-to-be-ubiquitous style of show: deliberately messy, handheld camera work paired with confessional interviews and presenting scripted fiction in the style of candid reportage. In 2020, the ABC megahit Modern Family wound down after 11 seasons and 22 increasingly aggravating Emmy wins. Between those two events lies the rise and fall of a genre that was not reality TV, but came up alongside it and echoed its conventions.

Since the rest of the article is more about mockumentaries as a genre than about the residences of main characters in such shows, I will go on the McMansion tangent regarding Modern Family. Here is what is unique about the McMansions on the show:

1. The McMansions are not objects of derision or mockery. The genre may lend itself to this but Modern Family sought to end episodes and story lines with feel-good family togetherness. The characters were portrayed as goofy or quirky suburbanites who otherwise lived normal lives. The McMansion is the center of family life and good things result for the family that lives there. (Compare this to many recent portrayals of troubled families that live in McMansions – see examples here and here. Or, consider the McMansion on The Sopranos.)

2. The homes are all clearly large and their architecture is unique in different ways: Cam and Mitchell’s home has a turret (and supposedly has an upstairs apartment), Jay and Gloria’s home is more modernist, and Phil and Claire’s home tried for a traditional look. In other words, the show displays the variety of McMansions.

3. These are not just large homes; they are expensive homes in an expensive housing market. The Dunphy home went on the market several ago with a price tag over $2 million. The homes are portrayed as normal yet the houses are not within the reach of many viewers.

4. There is little doubt that Modern Family was successful: 11 seasons? 22 Emmys? A long life in syndication? And it happened even with the consistent presence of McMansions, homes critics would say symbolize all sorts of large American problems. Did the show work in spite of the homes? Was it all just one big wink and nod about the characters and their homes?

Amazon wanted a really big tax break with HQ2

When Amazon went on a search for a second headquarters, it was motivated in part by looking for a big tax break:

When Elon Musk secured $1.3 billion from Nevada in 2014 to open a gigantic battery plant, Jeff Bezos noticed. In meetings, the Amazon.com Inc. chief expressed envy for how Musk had pitted five Western states against one another in a bidding war for thousands of manufacturing jobs; he wondered why Amazon was okay with accepting comparatively trifling incentives. It was a theme Bezos returned to often, according to four people privy to his thinking. Then in 2017, an Amazon executive sent around a congratulatory email lauding his team for landing $40 million in government incentives to build a $1.5 billion air hub near Cincinnati. The paltry sum irked Bezos, the people say, and made him even more determined to try something new.

And so, when Amazon launched a bakeoff for a second headquarters in September 2017, the company made plain that it was looking for government handouts in exchange for a pledge to invest $5 billion and hire 50,000 people. The splashy reality-television-style contest generated breathless media coverage, attracted fawning bids from 238 cities across North America and ended with Amazon deciding to split the so-called HQ2 between New York and Virginia. Then progressive politicians attacked the $3 billion in incentives offered by New York, and Bezos pulled out. Amazon was widely ridiculed for its failure to court New York politicians. To understand why that happened, Bloomberg interviewed 12 people familiar with Amazon’s effort. Their story, outlined here for the first time, depicts a team that became the victim of its own hubris. Bezos’s frustration with what he deemed meager government largess prompted executives to scrap lessons learned through the years in favor of an unapologetic appeal for tax breaks and other incentives.

This news came just as we finished introducing the concept of growth machines in my urban sociology class. In this theory, coalitions of political and business leaders drive development decisions with profits and growth in mind. In this particular case, Amazon looked to cut a deal with the city that was willing to give them the most. If Amazon chose their city, political and business leaders could claim they won because of all the new jobs plus the prestige of an Amazon headquarters while Amazon would profit from massive tax breaks. As I noted then, let the race to the bottom begin.

The biggest problem with all of this is not that there is competition between locations for headquarters and business activity. This has gone on for a long time and for a variety of organizations; read about the bids to land the United Nations headquarters. The issue is that the large tax breaks mean that some of the benefits of a business moving to a community are offset by tax breaks. And who benefits more in the end? The corporate leaders, not the community as a whole.

I can imagine a television game show format with all of this: a corporation says they want to expand and help a community or region along the way. Bidders/communities bring their pitch to the show, showcasing the best of their community (and the money). The corporation narrows it down and in the end names the one winner. Everyone else loses out (outside of making a public pitch regarding the best aspects of their community). It could be very entertaining.

Depicting heaven, hell, and in between through mid-century modern, the 1980s, and the Getty Center

The creators of The Good Place aimed to create a specific aesthetic for the locations on the show:

Rowe: There’s a signature that is heavily inspired by mid-century modern. Not just because it looks cool and clean, but because [the creative team] made a very deliberate dedication to a certain style per world. So the ’80s were the Medium Place. The Mad Men era was the Bad Place. The heightened, more European, I would say, version of that influenced the backlot. Dan Bishop created that cute, charming, endearing vibe from European villages. Those ice-cream colors and those colorful pops in our flowers—those defined what the rest of the world would look like.

It’s very important to point out that [Ted Danson’s character] Michael was an architect, and that was a character choice from Mike Schur that influenced everything from there. What architect going to school, at any stage doesn’t love mid-century modern? Plus the age of the actor—he’s all dressed up. If he was designing kooky ’80s architecture or ’70s skyscrapers, I don’t know if those would fit.

The focus on European villages gets at some features of desirable places: existing at a human scale, full of street-level activity including food and shopping alongside people talking and walking, and a relatively small set of people. (One feature of these some villages that might be missing on the TV show: the homes seem to be set apart from the village area, separating home and work.) While the village streetscape could be part of a larger city (perhaps each neighborhood or district has a village area like this), it hints at more small-town life. Residing in smaller-scale villages might fit better with human history than the substantial urbanization of the last two centuries. At the same time, we view big cities as centers of progress and human achievement. Perhaps the choice of villages hints at human desires for social connections and a human scale rather than big cities. (But Michael’s depiction is not what it seems – so is this commentary about European villages?)

As for heaven itself:

Rowe: When heaven showed up, it was pretty much unanimous right away that they wanted to shoot at the Getty [Center, an art museum in Los Angeles]. There was a lot of discussion that happened to help the Getty get on board, because obviously they have a brand they want to protect. The location manager went and said, “It’s a show about heaven, and we’re showing the Getty as a place of paradise.”

We actually didn’t do that many things there, because the architecture speaks for itself. People breeze through that museum, and you can ask them, “Oh, did you see any paintings?” And they’re like, “Yeah, I kinda saw the modern stuff upstairs, but I was basically outside the whole time.”

The Getty Center is indeed a unique building and it connects modern architecture, gardens, and a view overlooking Los Angeles. As an oasis set apart from the Los Angeles bustle, I could see how it would be compared to heaven:

Getty2

Comparing depictions of heaven across time and cultures could prove to be a fun exercise. How much do the depictions reflect contemporary tastes or standards? If the architects of today or those with architectural knowledge generally like mid-century modern, this is what they might prefer heaven to look like. Would Christians throughout the United States agree? There have been too many depictions of clouds for that not to show up somewhere and ancient Greek architecture – familiar to Americans in a number of important buildings including government structures – might be popular. Would heaven look more like the nondescript suburban megachurches of today or more like a Gothic cathedral? Or, would Americans prefer heaven to look like mansions in a well-kept suburb or prefer it to be more about nature? And global depictions would likely differ significantly from these options.

The top 5 posts of 2019: the suburbs (on TV and the development of), changing households, and potholes

As 2019 comes to a close, here are the five most visited pages on Legally Sociable for the year:

  1. The exterior vs. the interior of the Brady Bunch house and architecture in TV and movies. This post continues to be popular; here are three possible reasons: there are dedicated fans of the Brady Bunch, this home is particularly iconic, and there is relatively little scholarly work about depictions of suburban homes on television (though this post helped inspire two publications of mine: one on suburban TV shows and one on the fictional McMansions of the Soprano family).
  2. A new term: the “accordion family.” Household arrangements continue to change in the United States and this is one of the changes that emerged out of the economic troubles of the late 2000s: more twenty-somethings living at home.
  3. The highest post from 2019 on this list: Rethink Rezoning, Save Main responses share similar concerns – Part One. This overview of two local zoning concerns, one a proposal to rezone property along a major road through a town and one a proposal to build a five story apartment building in a suburban downtown, had a Part Two with more sociological analysis that was nowhere near as popular.
  4. Responding to “The Disturbing History of Suburbia.” I add some scholarly sources and discussion to this video which is a good starting point to thinking about the large role race and ethnicity played in the creation and maintenance of American suburbs. It is hard to escape the importance of race in understanding the American suburbs.
  5. Song invoking filling potholes with cement (which the gov’t is not doing). There are few songs even hinting at these topics and Twenty One Pilots are popular.

Of the top posts, three involve reactions to popular culture (the Brady Bunch, Adam Ruins Everything, and a song from Twenty One Pilots), one is about a sociological concept, and three invoked sociological reaction in two areas of my research interest (suburbs on television and suburban development).

On to a new year of sociological commentary.

Three backlot settings I cannot forget

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.

Did Central Perk make Friends or did Friends make Central Perk?

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.

CentralPerk2

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.