Stuck on small-town TV shows

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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).

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.

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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."

For the creators of NBC's "Ed," the model for Stuckeyville was a town like Springfield on "The Simpsons" - one that could be anywhere. "For us it's [about] very human struggles, and ... an everyday place where people can relate to each other the way most of us do in life is just the perfect setting," says Rob Burnett, an executive producer for "Ed."

On the WB's "Everwood," the small-town message is less subtle: "The gift of community is that each one of us is absolved of the burden of completeness," intoned a preacher in a recent episode. "At every moment, we can lean on one another for the elements that we lack."

"Everwood" creator Greg Berlanti, was influenced by his own upbringing in a smallish community and by cultural influences like the novel "To Kill a Mockingbird." The result is his story about a New York neurosurgeon (played by Treat Williams) who relocates his family after the death of his wife. Mr. Berlanti says he tries to tackle the question, "What is a small town to each of us?"

It's a question that critics are increasingly asking as well. Common complaints include sappiness or hyper-quirkiness, which some say can take away from the story line or at the very least get tiresome. "Don't tell me it's Fall Harvest Hot Dog Day again," jokes Mr. Goodykoontz. Well, maybe not, but this week, mother and daughter Gilmore did enter a 24-hour dance marathon.

"The problem is, when you overplay your hand, instead of quirky it becomes cloying," says Goodykoontz, who also grew up in a small town. "Everwood" is "kind of sappy," he says - a label Berlanti can live with.

"I definitely think those elements exist on the show," he says, noting it's probably only about one-tenth of the content. A recent show on teens and a sexually transmitted disease has been requested by teachers as an educational tool. "Our appearance of being occasionally sappy actually allows us to deal with some really serious subject matter," Berlanti says.

Those who've lived in small towns say the shows offer a realistic, if somewhat exaggerated view of what life is like. Few people make rapid-fire references to pop culture as they do on "Gilmore Girls." But rural America is peppered with eccentric townsfolk and an abundance of festivals, where dressing up children as chickens is not out of the question. (See Harrisonburg, Va., for the annual Poultry Parade.)

In real life, not all towns come equipped with everything residents need. Or, in the case of "Gilmore Girls," the implication is that the residents have access to all the latest movies and music - which likely appeals to urbanites.

"People who live in cities ... really want to be reassured that there are smart, hip people in small [towns]," says Kembrew McLeod, a communication studies professor at the University of Iowa.

Sherman-Palladino says her show features city-like women living in a small town. But even people who are in small towns are connected to pop culture now thanks to technology, she says. Ultimately, though, any self-contained setting can serve as a hometown. "Taxi," the sitcom set in a New York cab office, is often mentioned as an urban take on a small-town community. The same argument could be made for "E.R."

If a show's relationships are set up correctly, says Sherman-Palladino, it doesn't matter if it's set in a city or a small town. "It's really about, 'Do you care about these people?' "

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