NYC in Television: Past, Present and Future

From Yesterday to Today, New York City is a Popular Stomping Ground In These Shows


Published: April 1, 2010

As Fordham’s motto tells us that New York is our campus, perhaps we should learn to appreciate good depictions of our campus in fictional media. Through television, we are given a look into the past, present and future of this city, and can thus appreciate it on many levels. We see a wide variety of depictions of its people (normal or abnormal) and locations (in the city, in a studio or even made up) depending on the style of each specific show. No matter what your tastes or preferences may be, chances are that there’s a depiction of New York City that will be to your liking. While I’ve been told that my choices are masculine (though I also left out “Sex and the City’s” somewhat male counterpart “Rescue Me”), I’ve also been told that the selection is good, so there really should be something for everyone.

Mad Men
For a look into the past of New York, there is the popular ’60s-set “Mad Men.” While there are understandably few exterior shots of the city given the limitations of a television budget, it wouldn’t fit the style of the show to have any walk-and-talk scenes. “Mad Men” mostly depicts its characters as relaxed or drinking (or relaxed and drinking ), to the point where it can seem pretty glamorous until they hit you with the reality of the times. It’s a show where creator/executive producer Matthew Weiner is so committed to aesthetic authenticity that he even got rid of a napkin holder because it would not be made until two years after the episode was set to have taken place. Its realistic quality can be felt even if you don’t know much about such minute details or the lives of advertising men in the ’60s.

“Seinfeld” also gives us a good look into the past of New York although it was set in the then-present day of the ’90s. It was shot in studios, but there are exterior shots like that of Tom’s Restaurant, which really does exist on the Upper West Side, even though the interior is completely different. While later seasons became more plot-heavy, earlier seasons established “Seinfeld” as a true show about nothing, where entire plots dealt with things like waiting in line at a Chinese restaurant, looking for a car in a parking garage, and getting stuck on the subway. Its structure around mundane, average and everyday activities worried NBC, and yet being a show about nothing is what turned it into a success. Its depiction of New York is easy to identify with, even today, as certain cultural customs still give people trouble.

30 Rock
Based on creator/executive producer Tina Fey’s experiences on “Saturday Night Live,” while not necessarily a good representation of the realistic lives of average New Yorkers, “30 Rock” does offer up a nice knowledge of the city’s experiences. When Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) gives a speech on the subway about how he is “bed bug positive”—in reference to both the bed bug epidemic as well as the fact that every single homeless person in the subway is HIV positive (or an acapella group as shown in the credits of the episode)—it’s a nice reminder that this isn’t just a show pretending to be in New York. There’s some nice location shooting in areas like Rockefeller Center, Riverside Park and the Brooklyn Bridge, and exterior shots show that Liz Lemon (Fey) lives on 160 Riverside Dr.—five blocks away from where I live—which gives the show more authenticity, for me, at least.

If past-set-in-the-present, present-set-in-the-past or present-set-in-the-present shows aren’t doing it for you, there is always “Futurama” to give a look into the year 3000. In the show’s vision, New New York is built on top of the ruins of Old New York, our present version of the city, which has been destroyed by aliens. New York is rebuilt into a clean modern metropolis with flying cars, transporting tubes and Madison Cube Garden. It’s certainly a more flattering portrait of a city than that of Los Angeles, which is seen as a desolate “Road Warrior” style wasteland, and that seems to be normal to people of the 31st  Century. (Interestingly, “30 Rock” has also gotten in a dig at L.A.) And good news, everyone: “Futurama” has been brought back from the dead by Comedy Central and is set to air new episodes on June 24.

Law & Order
Who hasn’t seen a “Law & Order” production truck at some point? While the fact that the show is almost as old as I am and still on the air (with two spinoffs to boot) makes it so that few if any people have seen every single episode, it’s hard to imagine an area of New York that hasn’t been covered or a real life event that didn’t lend itself to a ripped-from-the-headlines story. In one crossover episode of the Baltimore-set program “Homicide: Life on the Street,” detectives Mike Logan (Chris Noth) and Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) debate over which city is better, showing the love that the location shooting gives to both shows. “Law & Order” is one show that encompasses the past, present, and, given its long lifetime, most likely the future of the city.