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Stuck on small-town TV shows

'Gilmore Girls' and 'Ed' fuel a nostalgia for bowling and bobby socks.

By Kim CampbellStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 15, 2002

Actor Tom Amandes didn't have to do much research for his role in the new small-town drama "Everwood." After all, he grew up in Richmond, Ill. (pop. 1,100).

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Along with the job came an unexpected return to a place where secrets are hard to keep. He and his actress wife have had to exchange Los Angeles for Park City, Utah (pop. 7,500). The preschool their son attends is in the basement of a library, and the local paper could easily stand in for the Everwood Pine Cone.

But the actor is rediscovering the perks of small-town life as well. "We've made, in a lot of ways, more of a circle of friends in Park City already than in the eight years that I've been in L.A.," says Mr. Amandes, who plays the prickly Dr. Harold Abbott.

Most city dwellers just turn on the TV when they want to be transported to a place where people don't lock their doors. Watching "Gilmore Girls," "Ed," or "Smallville" - about Superman's formative years - lets viewers fantasize about the simple life without giving up Indian food and designer stores.

These shows don't usually crack the Top 10 - thanks in part to a lack of crime scenes or stars married to Brad Pitt. But their loyal followings suggest that for some viewers, the antidote to an anxious, harried world is a place where people have time to pack a picnic basket or hang out at The Smiling Goat.

"They really are sort of TV's comfort food," says Bill Goodykoontz, TV critic for the Arizona Republic newspaper. "There's an innocence there."

It's a thirst that Hollywood's been quenching ever since Andy Griffith set up shop in Mayberry. Even in the years before TV, radio soap operas were largely set in small towns, where pre-suburban America lived. Today, shows fuel a nostalgia for bowling and bobby socks - or one's own hometown.

Creators of the programs say that it's the characters, more than the setting, that bring viewers back. But they acknowledge that the lifestyle is appealing.

"The bigger places get and the busier people get, especially if you live in a city, there is that feeling of, 'Wow, you can just sort of breathe here,' " says Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator and executive producer of "Gilmore Girls" on the WB.

That her show is set in a made-up Connecticut hamlet is a coincidence - she happened to be visiting an inn in the state a few days after she pitched the network a show about a mother and daughter who are more like friends. "If we had gone to Fiji, [who] knows what would have happened?" she jokes.

At their most successful, the small towns become characters in their own right. Cicely, Alaska, and Mayberry, R.F.D, are now ingrained in public consciousness, even though you can't find them on a map.

Creators say their setting offers unlimited story ideas, but argue that a laid-back locale doesn't automatically equal stereotypical "small-town values." David Lynch's surreal "Twin Peaks" was set in a small town, for example.

"I am not holding small town up as, 'This is the way to live. This is the way you're going to be happy.' It was a vehicle for me to tell stories," says Ms. Sherman-Palladino.

She does demand that the town - created in a Burbank back lot - be a place her main character "could wake up in everyday and feel OK." "The thing about Stars Hollow that I wanted to keep kind of pure is that the people take great enjoyment in the things they do there."