New York is one of the most iconic American cities: known around the globe as a cultural nerve center. Manhattan and it’s surrounding buroughs don’t just house a disproportionate amount the nation’s hippest, most creative, and richest citizens. It also is home to the some of the grittiest, most neurotic, and shockingly average.
There is always something or someone interesting to tell tales of in the Big Apple, which is probably why it is one of the most (if not the most) televised metro areas in the world.
I’ve always loved television. I grew up watching hours upon hours of sitcoms and family dramas and as an adult became immersed in the world of reality TV as well. For an Anthropologist / Sociologist, TV isn’t just mindless entertainment, but an endless source of cultural data. Sitcoms and family programming are designed to relate to the demographic of the moment and typically encapsulate a cultural mindset or direction. Reality TV further serves to give us pseudo-ethnographic data on a number of cultural and subcultural pockets: a window into the world of how different social circles spin=round and where they fit in the macro-cultural machine.
With all this spinning around in my brain, I started thinking about how our American perceptions of NYC have been shaped by media and how TV in particular has played a lead role in building that context.
Here are some examples of Iconic TV shows that star New York in all of it’s glory:
The Honeymooners: Set in Brooklyn in the 50s painted a brutally honest portrait of our love-hate relationship withworking class life: counter two the Leave It To Beaver and Donna Reed ideal that misinformed an entire generation about America’s True colors. 😉
That Girl: An iconic 60’s sitcom about a young aspiring actress who moves to NYC to make it big, but ends up working at a number of temp jobs along her journey where hilarity ensues. In the era of “women’s lib” this show captured the newfound entreprenuerial spirit of America’s young women, set in the place where making it meant you could conquer anything!
The Odd Couple: set in NYC in the 70’s, this show based on a Niel Simon play takes us to the realities of life for middle aged divorced men in NYC at a time when we start seeing more marraiges calling it quits …and the first show about “two dudes living together”, with a portrait of “bachelor” life in the big city
All In The Family: set in 1970’s Queens, this show featuring Carrol O Connor as a “loveable biggot” with old-school gripes dealing living in a world frought with up and coming social change and tackling social issues like racism, homosexuality, rape, and the vietnam war. It was painfully real and hysterically funny and was the first show to have the honor of topping the Nielsen ratings charts for 5 years in a row
The Cosby Show: unlike it’s earlier predecessors, this 80’s sitcom featuring African American Characters set in Brooklyn featured an upper middle class family dealing with the realities of day-to-day coming of age and the challenge of parenting in a modern world. Everyone (myself included) wished Cliff Huxtable was their Dad and could relate to very mainstream subject matter while empowering the cause for equality and education.
Sienfield: an iconic 90’s parody set on the Upper West Side of Manhattan: showcasing the emerging reality of Gen X extended adolescence and single life in a self-centered city during a very self-centered era. This show also introduced America to the older generation of wacky northeaster Jews (like my parents) who had begun their migration to South Florida as is written in the bible somewhere. 😉
Friends: As we approached the new millennium in the mid to late 90’s, this show set in Greenwich Village showed us the loveable side of the younger Gen X Generation, trying to come of age and find a chosen family to live their lives with. This concept of the extended family and friend tribes preceded the social networking era but brought to life the emerging need to connect that young American Adults were feeling, and cast New York as it’s natural habitat.
Mad Men: in an era where we were all starting to become painfully aware of our lives as marketing targets (the 200s) and increasingly interested in tracing our American Heritage (what little of it we have compared to most other countries on Earth), this program showcases the emergence of the Advertising Industry as inspired by and bred on Madison Avenue during a very misongynistic when girls like “That Girl” were just starting to come up and embrace their freedom to get out of the kitchen and into hte world. We see how our consumer culture was shaped by the boy’s club even during a time of change and how Advertising started changing everything!
Smash: At a Time when NYC is finally making a cultural resurgence and Broadway is on it’s way back, this interesting twist on branded entertainment satisfies our reality-tv induced lust for “behind the scenes” insight as it shows us the path to Broadway stardom for a young talented hopeful while simultaneously setting the stage for the opening of an actual Broadway show based on it’s content (keep your eyes Peeled…Marilyn will be hitting a Broadway theater before you can say “put your lips together and blow”.
This list is small but the impact of these shows on our impressions of NYC are huge! That being said, see a couple of other resources for a full list of the shows you forgot to remember but are a foundational part of our shared American culture: