Despite the immense push toward "character-driven" drama, which has overtaken genre entertainment to the point of completely ruining it, recent television programs have also taken some pains to create fictionalized cities or towns that, to viewers, become almost as comfortable as home.
Imagine "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" without Sunnydale, or Clark Kent (Tom Welling) without Smallville. It is hard to do because the small town setting became synonymous with the characters themselves.
Big cities certainly have their place in science-fiction- and fantasy-based entertainment Nobody will deny the iconic status that fictionalized big cities like Metropolis (Superman) and Gotham City (Batman) have achieved. Still, it's hard to see these cities as anything but imitations of New York and Los Angeles, which are incredibly overused in the entertainment industry to begin with. Does changing the name, but keeping the characteristic of iconic big cities city really fool anyone?
Small town charm and ambience, however, seem to be driving the recent trend in genre-based entertainment. While some of these towns and cities have taken hold of viewers and helped draw them into the world being presented, others have failed to establish their own cultural identity, resulting in a quick death for the series in question.
Vampires are all the rage again, thanks in no small part to Stephanie Meyer's ridiculously popular Twilight series. Meyers forgoes the fictional small town though, using the very real Forks, Wash., as the primary setting. To her credit, Meyer does describe Forks with affection, and though the town isn't fictional, she perpetuates the small town locale that has become synonymous with modern vampires.
The aforementioned "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" revolved around Sunnydale High School, the kids hung out at The Bronze, and that cemetery was used so often, I still know the place by heart. Of course, having a seven-year run helps breed familiarity, but despite the danger of being located on a Hellmouth, viewers felt quite comfortable in Sunnydale.
The east coast equivalent to Sunnydale would have to be Mystic Falls, Va., home of the Salvatore brothers in The CW series "The Vampire Diaries." Don't let the Mystic Falls website fool you. The town is fictional and the coupon for 10 percent off at the Mystic Grill simply leads to The CW website. Mystic Falls is a beautiful city, and the drama, like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" often involves the local high school. The Salvatore and Lockwood mansions add an element of upper-class wealth that separates it from the seemingly middle-class Sunnydale.
No modern vampire discussion would be complete without mentioning Bon Temps, La., home to Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) in HBO's "True Blood." This series is entirely for adults, so the local high school is not the nexus for social activity. That honor goes to Merlotte's, a remote bar and grill that looks so incredibly familiar that I swear I have been there before. That's because it looks like probably a thousand such places rooted in local communities.
Despite the danger present and a community full of weirdos and monsters, Bon Temps is one place I truly wish was real. There's an odd, believable comfort that is captured by the Sookie's farmhouse.
Not all fictional towns, though, succeed in making viewers feel comfortable. The short-lived ABC series "The Gates" populated its gated community with a bunch of monsters and people nobody cared about. It too employed the high school paradigm, but the series, and the community, failed to connect with viewers. Certainly, the community and its occupants were appealing, but tossing people into a metaphorical cage just doesn't make viewers comfortable. It was hard to watch that show without a sense of being trapped.
Vampires certainly are not the only ones who get to play in fictional towns. Syfy's "Eureka" has developed a believable town in which unbelievable events happen. When the action isn't focused on something being destroyed at Global Dynamics, people can often be found sampling cuisine at the Café Diem. Car needs fixed? Head over to Henry's Garage.
"Haven," a Syfy adaptation of Stephen King's "The Colorado Kid," uses Nova Scotia to double as King's fictional Maine town. The setting is gorgeous, and gossipy small-town life is captured believably and sentimentally. Even when the episodes aren't good, the town of Haven always offers up a view that makes me want to visit such a small coastal town.
Though it is very early into its freshman season, "The Secret Circle" employs Chance Harbor, Wash., and the early returns are positive. Viewers have already gotten comfortable with the local high school and the obligatory teen hangout, the Boathouse Grill. Toss in a small town mystery tying the families together, and "The Secret Circle" has already established a comfortable small town.
Whether it succeeds in establishing its own identity, or collapses under the clichés it has borrowed, remains to be seen.
With these successes though, come some failures. The short lived "Battlestar Galactica" prequel "Caprica" struggled to create an identity for Caprica City. At the same time, writers had to create an alter ego for the city itself, New Cap City, in V-World. On top of that, there were 12 colonies, but viewers rarely saw anything but inside shots.
While not a small town, this setting was greatly under-utilized. "Caprica" had its faults, but this program had tremendous potential. Undoubtedly, the short duration of the series and budget constraints are part of the reason this series failed to grab hold of viewers.
NBC's series "The Cape" floundered in many ways, not the least was with the fictional Palm City, Calif. It wasn't Gotham. It wasn't Metropolis, It wasn't anything anyone could identify with. Identity in general seemed to be a secondary concern. Tossing a cape and a mask on a character and letting him run around a city we know nothing about, meeting people with mysterious pasts left viewers both confused and apathetic.
To succeed, a bond between the character and the city must be established. Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) became synonymous with Sunnydale because it was the place she was needed, and it allowed her to become what she was supposed to be. Sookie cannot leave Bon Temps because that's where she was raised, and that's where her Gran lived.
Take the geniuses out of Eureka and plop them in Chicago, and the series fails. In some instances, the setting becomes a character we grow to love, despite its faults and the dangers present.
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