The island on Gilligan’s Island, Lost, or Survivor. The Max on Saved by the Bell, Monk’s Café on Seinfeld, or Arnold’s Drive-In on Happy Days. McLaren’s Pub on How I Met Your Mother or Sam’s bar on Cheers. Small town America, whether Mayberry on The Andy Griffith Show or Stars Hollow on Gilmore Girls. Sitcom living rooms and kitchens on Full House, Family Matters, Boy Meets World, The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Love Lucy, Home Improvement and countless others. Odds are, your mind is reconstructing these places right now. You’re remembering where the stairwells were, where the slapstick pitfalls happened, and where life lessons were wrapped up in half an hour. But even if you don’t instantly recall where these things happened, these television shows would be nothing without their places.
Anyone who has been married knows that marriage significantly affects TV viewing. With schedules hectic and time scarce, married couples compromise on TV viewing. Occasionally, my wife and I can divide TV time. I’ll watch football while she will work or play on her laptop, or she’ll watch Project Runway while I work on writing my latest blog post or catch up on reading. But on the whole, married couples learn to compromise on which TV shows will be watched together each week. The remaining shows pile up on the DVR to be watched late one night when the other has fallen asleep on the couch.
These compromises (like most in marriages) make us better, more well rounded people. My wife discovered a love of Homeland and I can’t wait to watch Parenthood each week. But one weekend, my wife lured me into watching a show I had long avoided—Gilmore Girls. I’d loved Lauren Graham since Bad Santa and my love grew as I reluctantly became hooked on Parenthood. And the other Gilmore girl, Graham’s daughter, seemed interesting enough, because I knew her from her role as Pete Campbell’s bipolar suburban mistress on Mad Men. My wife got me with the true sneak attack when she revealed that Melissa McCarthy (whom America fell in love with in Bridesmaids, but Gilmore fans had apparently loved for a decade) got her start on Gilmore Girls. So I gave the pilot a try. I liked it more than I wanted to admit. And while life and the new TV season stalled our viewing at the halfway point of Season 1, the episodes we did watch spurred my thinking about television, life, and the power of place.
The dialogue on Gilmore Girls was as witty and intelligent as promised, sprinkled with pop culture references and a version of small-town Sorkinese. Lauren Graham was as lovely as ever. The supporting characters populating the small northeastern town where the show takes place were quirky and memorable. But what hooked me was Stars Hollow, the fictional small town in Connecticut.
The reason I wanted to watch more Gilmore Girls was because I wanted to be in Stars Hollow. I wanted to visit there. I wanted to live there with my wife. I wanted to eat at the diner, take walks in the town square, and spend my day in battles of wits with the quirky characters that lived there too. I debated with myself and my wife about whether the characters made the town or the town made the characters. Of course, like the towns, cities, churches, and other places in our daily lives, the answer isn’t one or the other—it’s both.
Amy Sherman-Palladino described her visit to the town that inspired her to create Stars Hollow: “[A]t the time I was there, it was beautiful, it was magical, and it was a feeling of warmth and small-town camaraderie. . . There was a longing for that in my own life, and I thought—that’s something that I would really love to put out there.” Beautiful. Magical. Feeling of warmth and camaraderie. She had a longing for these things in her own life, so she wanted to put a place like that on television. Neither she nor us should be surprised. This has been happening on television since the dawn of the small screen. It has been happening in humanity from the time ancient civilizations have begun telling stories.
“Andy was Mayberry and Mayberry was Andy.” – Don Knotts
“Mayberry really was the star of the show.” – Andy Griffith
The emotions Stars Hollow evoked drove me to ponder all the television shows I have ever watched, whether with my family growing up or sitting on the couch with my wife today. I loved Stars Hollow the same way I loved Mayberry. I remembered the statue of Andy and Opie Taylor in Raleigh, North Carolina’s Pullen Park, with the inscription, “The Andy Griffith Show—A simpler time, a sweeter place, a lesson, a laugh, a father and a son.” To sit on main street, to have my hair cut at Floyd’s barbershop, or to sit on the small-town front porch at dusk talking about Sunday’s sermon or the latest gossip in the rumor mill. As a young adult navigating the uncertainties of life, the childhood memories of Mayberry seem ideal. Both when it premiered at the dawn of the turbulent 60’s and as it streams on Netflix today, we relax in Mayberry because it’s a place seemingly much better than all the places we know in our lives today.
Stars Hollow and Mayberry. I have to remind myself towns like these aren’t real. The places are idealized in my mind. Even the bar in Cheers, which was the setting for every minute of every episode in Season 1 and most moments throughout its eleven seasons, was devoid of the DUIs and belligerent, blackout drunks you’ll find in most pubs across America. Of course, any student of American history knows that the dark sides of small towns in America reveal something very unlike Mayberry.
But there is one important sense in which the depiction of place in these areas is realistic: real places shape real life just as pervasively and invisibly as fictional places shape fictional life. We treat the places in television how we treat the places in our own lives. We discount their impact in shaping our memories, our emotions, our fundamental selves. But a close attention to both TV and our lives shows how absolutely fundamental to narrative structure place is. The Cheers theme song evokes thoughts of the bar. When I hear that classic whistle from The Andy Griffith Show, I see main street Mayberry. When my wife asks to watch another episode of Gilmore Girls, I imagine Luke’s Diner and Suki’s kitchen. The characters are important and they pop into my mind in their proper places. But when I overhear someone discussing Lost, I think of the tropical island before my memories populate that island with the polar bear, smoke monster, castaways, and nuclear hatch.
When we scroll through our DVRs to decide what show to catch up on, what we rarely realize is that we are deciding what places we want to visit. Do we want to visit Walter White’s meth mobile or the monochromatic offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce? Do we want to visit the meandering millennial generation’s apartment on New Girl or pull out the DVDs to visit The West Wing or the pit on The Wire? Falling asleep on the couch, we wake up to syndicated reruns of Friends and find ourselves craving a 3 a.m. cup of coffee and a chat with Chandler Bing. We still don’t realize what we want most is to sit on the comfy couches of Central Perk.
As in art, so in life. Place is fundamental. We think our problems will disappear if we get a new job, new friends, new school, new house, or new city. But the places we have lived have some of the greatest impact on shaping who we are. How we remember life is crafted by the places where we’ve laughed until we’ve cried and where we’ve cried until we forgot what we were crying about. These good and bad times are inextricably linked to the locations where they happened. Escaping to a new location and trusting that past ghosts will disappear there is the same as me finally giving up hope on How I Met Your Mother that Robin turns out to be the mother.
It is only appropriate, then, that my fondness for television is closely linked with where I’ve watched television. Laying on the living room floor of my family home in Memphis. Watching Lost and 24 in lecture halls late at night at Vanderbilt. Holding my wife, sitting on the couch, visiting Stars Hollow. Yes, I love great TV, both as gritty realism and escapism. But, what I’ve always loved most of all is where I’m watching it and who I’m watching it with. The memory of television isn’t even the show—it’s the place where I watch it.