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.

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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.

At least two McMansions on the list of “26 most Iconic TV Interiors”

Architectural Digest has a list of the “26 most Iconic TV Interiors” and it includes at least two McMansions:

The Sopranos memorialized early-2000s New Jersey in all its gritty glory. Perhaps most memorable among fans was the Soprano family kitchen, with its light wood palette, where Tony was often seen in his robe, rummaging for cold cuts. But the show’s production designer Bob Shaw has said he found the office of Tony’s therapist Dr. Melfi the most interesting, because it was round. For a mobster confronting his own mind, there was nowhere to hide…

The rich and beautiful but down-to-earth Cohen family was the family every O.C. fan wished would adopt them—but only Ryan was so lucky! The Italianate McMansion in Newport Beach, California, was actually built on a soundstage—so, that breathtaking ocean view from Ryan’s poolhouse? That was a photo backdrop made by production designer Thomas Fichter, who was also responsible for all the “weather” you ever saw on the show.

I have a lot to say about the Soprano McMansions here.

The home from The O.C. has some similarities to the Soprano’s McMansion: it is in the suburbs and was built (and aired) in the same time period. Yet, the inhabitants of Orange County on the show faced more conventional suburban problems – teenagers stuck in a world of largely successful adults with big houses – compared to the twist of a gangster family living in a well-kept New Jersey McMansion.

Two other thoughts on this list:

-There are at least a few outright  mansions on here, including the impressive setting for Downtown Abbey.

-The brief descriptions do not provide that many insights as the list contains mostly very popular shows. Did the interesting setting help make the shows popular or did the settings become interesting because the shows took off? The list does not really have any failed shows though I imagine some short-lived television shows had some very interesting interiors.

Houses and locations from TV shows can draw visitors

To follow up on yesterday’s post regarding the importance of the English manor to Downton Abbey, some more on the popularity of the home:

When the Downton Abbey producers first approached Highclere in 2009, the family faced a near £12m repair bill, with urgent work priced at £1.8m. But by 2012 the Downton effect had begun to take the pressure off. Lord Carnarvon said then: “It was just after the banking crisis and it was gloom in all directions. We had been doing corporate functions, but it all became pretty sparse after that. Then Downton came along and it became a major tourist attraction.”

Visitor numbers doubled, to 1,200 a day, as Downton Abbey, scripted by Julian Fellowes, came to be screened around the world after becoming a hit in the UK in 2010 and then in the US. It is now broadcast in 250 countries…

VisitBritain’s director, Patricia Yates, said: “The links between tourism, films and TV are potent ones.” She added that period dramas have also raised the popularity of regions outside of London.

Keeping an older house maintained and running is an expensive task. Tourism spurred by television or film can help some locations stay afloat even as dozens of other homes languish. More broadly, when I studied the primary home on The Sopranos, I ran into stories of Sopranos tours and merchandise that utilized the show’s New Jersey locations. A Simpsons home outside Las Vegas has attracted visitors even as the home has remained as a private residence. Fixer Upper helped bring people to Waco, Texas. Some shows do indeed seem to spur tourism.

On the other hand, visiting the locations and homes of other shows would prove disappointing. Many television homes, such as the residence of the Brady family on The Brady Bunch, do not match the actual home even if the exterior is recognizable. Numerous shows use establishing shots of real locations and then the filming takes place on soundstages and backlots. For example, a tour of New York City based on Friends makes little sense since most of the action took place inside fictional locations (though the 25th anniversary pop-up location in New York City is sure to attract visitors). On a tour of the Warner Brothers backlot, I saw Wisteria Lane and part of Stars Hollow; in both cases, knowing that this was not a real place changed how I later perceived the shows.

In a world where cities and places chase tourists, television shows that use that location and become popular can be a boon because there is little a community has to do with it. What exactly those tourists expect to get – perhaps a little closer to the on-screen characters? to drink in the mystique of the entertainment industry? – is another matter entirely.

Argument: the star of Downton Abbey is the house

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?

Finding the Simpsons home in the sprawl of Las Vegas

A subdivision in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson features a home made to look like the Springfield home of The Simpsons:

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Once upon a time, the house on Red Bark Lane wasn’t just another address in a sprawling suburban development: It was originally built as a nearly exact three-dimensional replica of 742 Evergreen Terrace, the Springfield residence of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie Simpson. Working on a short schedule, architects and builders de-fictionalized the home featured in The Simpsons for a 1997 giveaway that was intended to leave one lucky fan with the ultimate in cartoon memorabilia. No detail was spared, from a food dish for their cat, Snowball II, to Duff beer cans in the fridge.

But controversy soon erupted in this faux-Springfield mock-up. The homeowner’s association wasn’t keen on having a cartoon house that broke conformity requirements by being painted solar yellow. The sweepstakes winner rejected it outright. And the current owner had to learn to live with the property being a source of perpetual curiosity for fans of the show who brazenly turn her doorknobs and peer through her windows at all hours of the day and night. As it turns out, the reality of living in a fantasy can get a little complicated…

Once the project was approved, Woodley and Gonzalez pored over 100 episodes of the show and storyboards on loan from the production to try and discern a layout. “We took a floor plan we already had and did things that still had to meet building code but was reminiscent of The Simpsons,” Gonzalez says. “We never would have put in a rounded door or windows in the spots they were in.”

The team’s goal was to be 90 percent normal, with occasional lapses into cartoon continuity. Door frames were widened and lengthened to accommodate Marge’s hair and Homer’s girth. The stairs leading to the second floor were slightly steeper than normal. The downstairs floor was poured and painted concrete rather than hardwood or carpet, the better to mimic the show’s flat colors. Bart’s treehouse was erected in the backyard.

Like other homes on TV, the floor plan doesn’t exactly work. What makes this case interesting is that this is an animated show that does not have the same constraints as one with actors. With live actors, homes may not have walls or have rearranged features to allow cameras to have wide views. The proportions with live actors will also be different.

The interest from fans is understandable; TV shows offer few physical spaces where fans can connect to a show. Fans can go to studio backlot to see locations (I have toured a few and it is an interesting experience to see places that are on TV screens for seasons) or track down interior and exterior shots (for example, see a comprehensive list of locations on The Sopranos). But, many family shows revolve around the single-family home. The famous opening credits end with the family in front of the TV in the family room. The family regularly gathers in the kitchen for meals. The kids and parents talk in bedrooms upstairs. The garage, basement, and backyard are home to many scenes. The article asks why the contest winner did not accept the home and make money off tours; perhaps the better question is why someone has not recreated the house elsewhere and catered to Simpsons fans.

Finally, that the replica is located in Henderson, a fast-growing suburb in the desert outside Las Vegas is a fun contrast to the small town charm of Springfield. The show creators have famously kept Springfield’s location secret but it would difficult to imagine the home located in a neighborhood like that shown in the Google satellite image above.

Quick Review: “Square-Footed Monster” episode of King of the Hill

Few television episodes tackle the topic of McMansions. Thus, here is a review of Season 13 Episode 3 of King of the Hill titled “Square-Footed Monster.”

First, a quick synopsis of the plot and relevant dialogue from the main characters. The issues begin when an older neighbor lady dies and her nephew comes to fix up the ranch home to sell it. The men, led by Hank, help fix up the house. It sells in one day. The next day, the house is torn down by a large excavator and the local developer says he is breaking ground on a “dream home.”

SquareFootedMonster1Amid scenes of constructing a large balloon frame, the builder brings the guys peach chardonnay (clearly indicating his different status) and shows them a rendering of the new home. Hank’s response: “Looks like a bank. No, a church. Wait, A casino? I don’t know what the hell I’m looking at.” The developer says it is a speculation house.

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Hank and the guys decide to fight back. They go to City Hall and show images of the modest homes in their neighborhood compared to the new home with “4,600 square feet of obnoxiousness” (Hank’s description). The leaders say the home is by the books so construction continues. The guys consult the local legal loophole expert as Hank says, “someone is building a jackass McMansion that’s going to destroy our neighborhood.” There are no loopholes to help them.

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The next scenes show a massive McMansion blocking out the sun and going right up to its property lines. Hank notes, “Ted’s using cheap building materials too. It’s all spackle and chicken-wire.” In the subsequent big wind, the house starts falling apart. Wanting to protect their own homes, the neighbors take chainsaws, axes, and other implements to help the home collapse.

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The next day, the developer looks at the damage done by the neighbors and accuses them taking down the home. Hank responds: “We don’t have anything to hide. The only one who did something wrong here was you. Your shoddy McMansion was going to destroy our homes. We only took it down in self-defense.”

The case goes in front of a local judge who with some prompting by the local legal loophole expert rules in favor of the neighbors. The developer tries to get the last laugh by selling the property to the city to use as a power substation.

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After lamenting the new land use, the men construct a fake house around the substation. Hank says, “I’ll take a fake house over a big ugly one any day.”

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This episode contains several themes common to narratives about McMansions:

  1. The developer simply wants to make money without regard for the existing character of the community.
  2. A teardown McMansion can be very invasive: it looks out of place compared to nearby homes, it encroaches on lot lines and the street, it blocks the sun, and its construction is disruptive to neighbors.
  3. The new large home is poorly constructed – it starts falling apart in heavy winds – and has dubious architectural features including turrets, pillars, and balconies.
  4. Neighbors resent the intrusion of the new home but there is little they can do to stop it (hence the need to find obscure legal loopholes and attack the homes themselves). There is one neighbor who appreciates the new home for what it could bring to the neighborhood but he is in the minority.

In the end, the neighbors do win out: instead of a dilapidated ranch home next door, they have a substation that looks like a well-maintained ranch home.

In twenty-two minutes, this is a decent summary of how teardown McMansions could go. The episode does not provide much perspective from the view of the developer of the home or local officials outside of quick references to making money and an interest in large new homes. Some lingering questions remain including why construct such a large new home on a street of ranch homes of working-class residents. The neighborhood may have been saved but the episode also hints at how fragile a set of homes and the associated community might be if just one property falls into the hands of a developer.

(All screenshots of the episode are from Hulu.)