Living with the quirky of small town America

By , csmonitor.com

I would like to ask the people of America one simple question.

Why are small towns in America so goshdarned quirky?

I don't mean to suggest that the quirk quotient of your local hamlet or particular burg is even the slightest gradation above the mean. I haven't been there, chances are, and so I wouldn't presume to judge. No, I'm just talking about the ones that I see on television.

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Take these examples, all of which seem to be cut from the same quirky cloth: Stuckeyville, on the NBC show "Ed," Starrs Hollow, from the WB's "Gilmore Girls", and, to a slightly lesser extent, Everwood, from the new WB show of the same name.

In these towns, people spend inordinate amounts of time and emotional energy on root vegetables, or invent delightful holidays which seem to require a great outlay of finances and very little logic, or blow up local kissing bridges to make a point. Characters who would be shunned or, better yet, committed in any other place in the country are treated as lovable eccentrics, and the actual lovable eccentrics tend to be our main protagonists.

The writers, actors, and directors of these shows are trying to bridge the most dangerous gap in popular culture, the seven-ten split of television: the distinction between "laughing with" and "laughing at". On the one hand, we're supposed to see these towns as the lost repository of all that is good, sweet, and noble in America. They're the kind of place that great American heroes could spring from – like, well, like Smallville, another town that has its own show on the WB.

On the other hand, the experienced (not to say jaded) guiding hands of these programs know that they've got to lace their morality with a bit of irony, so they let us chuckle at the rubes who do things like show the same movie at the local town film festival for 10 years in a row.

Smallville, as long as I've mentioned it, seems to be utterly unquirky, with the exception of the fact that some of the locals suffer bizarre Kryptonite-related accidents that turn them into homicidal killers until stopped by Clark Kent. This is because, with the exception of the audience's ironic knowledge that this boy will grow up to be Superman, Smallville seems to be an entirely family friendly, irony-free zone.

Compare this to Sunnydale, home of UPN's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," which is as drenched in irony as it is in the blood and gore which made it the least family-friendly show on television last year, according to the people who rate those kind of things. But the quirkiness trend seems to be on the rise, and it's a bit worrisome. Not only does it seem to perpetuate stereotypes about the small town as a bastion of wholesomeness and virtue, it gets wearisome. We wait to see what strange local custom or festival will be unveiled by writers looking for a sight gag. Trust the characters. They don't need to dress up as animals or behave as if they live in some alternate universe to hold our interest.

Now, some people may object to this. If they do, let me remind them of the custom of the citizens of Chippewawa Honeysuckle, Delaware, who traditionally send $20 bills to the person with whom they disagree. Now that's a quirk I can get behind.

Jeremy Dauber teaches Yiddish literature at Columbia University. He is also a playwright, theater director, and screenwriter. He is currently at work on his first novel.

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