Location, Location, Location

Drew Scheeler, Film and Television Reporter

Choosing the setting for a television series is like casting another lead actor. Sometimes you’re lucky and your setting will tie the entire series together. Where would “How I Met Your Mother”be without its New York backdrop? Could the excess of “Beverly Hills 90210” have transferred to Tacoma or Portland? Just try to think of “Full House” without remembering the montage of Golden Gate Bridge shots during its theme song. The idiosyncrasies and Midwestern hospitality of our own Cleveland was highlighted for a decade on The Drew Carey Show. Other times, a mismatched city can contribute to the downfall of an otherwise mediocre attempt at television by alienating viewers and contributing nothing to the final product. Without a realistic world to fall back onto, even the least ambitious series loses just that much credibility. The network television class of 2012 exemplifies why location is such an integral component of series development; apparently, the secret to developing a new television series for 2012 involved throwing a dart at a map and shoehorning a clichéd concept to fit that place.

Having seen another round of hackneyed pilots, perhaps the most egregious misuse of location this season comes from the CBS drama “Made in Jersey” which – as of this past Wednesday – has received the first official cancellation of the new television year. Janet Montgomery plays a New York City lawyer… but, in a twist that no one sees coming, she’s from Jersey! How can she ever adapt her rough Jersey upbringing to working in the personable and friendly streets of Manhattan? Just in case you doubted her character’s upbringing in a state located a 15 minute train ride away, the ethnic stereotypes fly as Martina Garretti also must deal with her Italian-American heritage. Admittedly, I could only make it through the first act before giving up. But perhaps one of the seven people who watched “Jersey” can get in contact with me and confirm whether there’s a pasta joke in there somewhere.

Another example of mismatched location can be seen in NBC’s new “Chicago Fire,” produced by Dick Wolf. At first I was confused because none of the detectives were in Manhattan and there was neither an interesting case of the week nor the familiar “clunk clunk” sound. In fact, it was like these detectives weren’t even trying to solve a case as they drive around in their fire trucks. Then I realized that the show is a watered down version of “Rescue Me” and not the latest entry in the “Law and Order” franchise that Wolf is more famous for. I love our nation’s fire departments. My Eagle Scout project was in support of the local fire department, who valiantly came to our rescue when my family’s garage burned down back in high school. But look out “Modern Family” because we might have a new Best Comedy winner at the Emmys this year! The opening scenes of “Chicago Fire”at first appear to parody the rescue genre. Two-dimensional characters are constantly repeating lines and exposition points as if the actors must remind themselves of the plot. Thankfully, the deafening roar of the blaring sirens drowns out any unintentional nuances the actors might have been trying for. Once they get to the fire, you know that the only black man is in charge because he has a handset and keeps repeating phrases like “move in” and “look out.” When one of the fighters gets caught in a deadly exploding fireball, this normally stoic critic started laughing. It is as if the special effects team was screaming, “here’s where our entire budget went.” You know your show is already burnt out if the explosions lose their excitement. Choosing Chicago is a lose-lose scenario, and “Chicago Fire” perpetuates that stereotype about midwestern cities always burning down when they aren’t becoming more decrepit. If Dick Wolf got a quarter every time I watched an episode of the Law and Order franchise, then I am responsible for at least 15 seconds and several thousand dollars put toward that special effects fire. I am so sorry America.

About the only proper use of setting I have yet observed this season is from ABC’s new drama “Nashville.” “Nashville” is a sprawling drama set in the world of country music with a nearly flawless cast and some deftly handled plots involving politics and affairs thrown in just to show how easily its creative team can run circles around its freshman competition. Connie Britton stars as the aging country music star Rayna James whose career is in a standstill and beginning to slow down. Her record label pressures her to tour with Julliette Barnes, a sexier up-and-coming Taylor Swift stand-in played by Hayden Panetierre. Callie Khouri hasn’t done much since getting catapulted into the screenwriting hall of fame with “Thelma and Louise.” But if she’s been putting her effort into this project then her absence has totally been worth it. We’re just one episode in and already the characters are tragic and real and funny and, well, human. It’s a wonderful time to visit “Nashville.”