Since the early days of television, the best shows seemed to be set in New York. From comedies like “I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners,” to variety shows like “The Ed Sullivan Show” and Your Show of Shows,” and to the evening news, the “Today” show and “The Tonight Show,” television established the principle that New York was the place to be. As I was growing up, New York seemed a mythic place where life was more interesting and intense.
And that feeling never really went away. The list of shows set in New York just kept on growing: “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” All in the Family,” “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “30 Rock,” “The Cosby Show,” “NYPD Blue” “Sex and the City,” “Law and Order,” “Louie,” “The Apprentice” and “Mad Men.” Then there were shows like “Late Night with David Letterman” and “Girls,” which made New York City itself a central character. But for my mind, the show that has done more to establish New York as the coolest place in the world is “Saturday Night Live,” with its opening credits of people partying, riding the subway and otherwise living life to its fullest.
New York and TV have become so tightly interwoven that getting tickets to a taping (of “Colbert,” ”Stewart,” “Letterman,” “Fallon,” “The View,” etc.) is a major tourist objective, as is waving a sign outside the “Today” set, attending The Macy’s Day Parade or freezing in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. In fact, as you walk around New York these days, it’s hard not to feel like you’re in a huge outdoor set for a never-ending TV show.
New York has been the focus of television for so long that pointing it out now seems like the most banal observation, as in “duh, no kidding.” But if you think about it, it’s not really so obvious why this is the case. New York remains the largest metropolitan area in the country but its political and economic power has been eroding for over a century. Its manufacturing base has disappeared and it’s no longer a top shipping port. In short, New York is no longer the towering commercial power it was when TV first started broadcasting.
Nor is New York the entertainment hub that it was in 1950. The irony is that almost all scripted shows set in New York are filmed in Los Angeles, which actually IS the current entertainment capital of the world. So why the continued focus on the Big Apple?
Part of the answer is that New York has transformed itself from an industrial to a knowledge economy. Companies don’t make things in New York any more. They make ideas. It’s the world leader in business sectors -- financial, advertising, publishing, education, fashion, theatre, art, news – that require creative thinking, self-promotion, and communication, the very traits that are most widely celebrated in popular entertainment. The real New York and the TV New York are both filled with ambitious dreamers from all over the country who seem more interesting than the folks who stayed behind making widgets in their hometowns. That’s good fodder for TV.
But an even more important reason for New York’s outsized role on TV is that TV itself has transformed our very conception of New York. The idea that New York is the center of the universe becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy with every new show set there. There was no particular reason for “The Mindy Project” or “The Michael J. Fox Show” to be set in New York, except that it made the characters seem a little more ambitious and glamorous – building on a record of other ambitious and successful characters that had appeared in previous New York-based shows.
If anything, the importance of New York in the TV mindscape is growing. Jimmy Fallon recently moved “The Tonight Show” back to New York after 30 years in L.A. And when Fox decided to reboot “Glee,” it abandoned the high school glee club in boring old Lima, Ohio and focused instead on the original characters as they sought their fortunes New York City. The show’s external scenes of Manhattan could have been filmed by the New York Tourism Bureau, so convincingly did they convey the excitement and thrill of being in New York.
Eventually I fulfilled my own childhood dream and moved to New York. It’s not really like it is on TV, to be honest. The city is fast-paced to be sure, but no more so than Boston, Philadelphia or Washington. Ironically, what really makes the pulse quicken is walking by The Ed Sullivan Theatre when Letterman is taping, or passing the “Today” set when the anchors are in Rockefeller Center. In other words, New York is exciting precisely because TV is there; TV isn’t there because New York is exciting.