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A character not listed in TV dramas: The city itself

As 'Law & Order: Los Angeles' ramps up, the role cities play in storytelling is seen in the tone, shaping of other characters, and cultural backdrop.

By Staff writer / August 11, 2010

More television dramas look beyond New York and Los Angeles to draw on strong, local characteristics such as Baltimore’s urban landscape in ‘The Wire’.

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Casting for the new NBC spinoff "Law & Order: Los Angeles" is well under way, but perhaps the most important role was filled the moment the franchise opted to move west.

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Around the writers' room of the just-canceled, 20-year-old mother ship of the crime series, it had long been an article of faith that Manhattan itself was "a seventh character," says executive producer René Balcer, who cohelms the team behind "LOLA," as the new iteration is known. And so, as the show's architects construct a new vision for the crime-and-punishment format in southern California, the City of Angels is already a potent presence, informing and helping to shape the show's tone, story lines, and other characters.

"We will go into neighborhoods you haven't seen before," says Mr. Balcer, not the well-worn haunts of a relatively narrow swath of real estate between Hollywood and Beverly Hills, but gritty enclaves such as Sylmar and San Pedro, to tap the residents and events unique to those districts. "The city will speak through all of these characters."

A strong sense of place has always enriched a good yarn. One can imagine a long-ago ancestor describing a firelit cave in detail. But the modern city has taken on a particularly powerful identity, says Elizabeth Richmond-Garza, professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at Austin. For centuries, she points out, it was possible to pinpoint a person's parentage, education, and aspirations with remarkable clarity. But as industrialization forged new, teeming urban cores, cities have evolved as "an almost malevolent force," she says, exemplified in the Baltimore-based cable street drama, "The Wire."

The careful use of urban landscape detail, as well as tales that resonated with the zeitgeist of a city in social and economic free fall, turned Baltimore into an unforgettable "character," says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. "I can think of few better examples of a city used to not only contextualize a story but be so totally integrated as a character," he says, adding that it is a perfect example of "the city as a repository of identity." Writer-creator David Simon, who brought the Baltimore stories to life, has moved on to yet another iconic American city in the new HBO series "Treme," which is centered on post-Katrina New Orleans.

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