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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.

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"This is a city that is essential in the American psyche," he told reporters in January, prior to the show's launch. "It is the best and worst in American culture, as well as the birthplace of its most iconic export: jazz. African rhythm and the pentatonic scale meeting European instrumentation and arrangement comes from about 12 square blocks in New Orleans," he says. "And yet," he adds, "the nation witnessed the city's near-destruction."

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"It's coming back on its own terms as best as it can with a lot of concern from some quarters but a lot of indifference from much of the country," he says. "The Wire" implied what was at stake in the American city, he says, but "Treme" is actually "an examination of what it is, what living as disparate and different people compacted into an urban area can offer."

Cities can play the heavy in lighter fare as well. New York was a sparring partner in the observational humor of "Seinfeld," and an elusive lover in the HBO romantic comedy "Sex and the City," says Mr. Thompson. No television city has wielded a stronger psychic presence than the fictional Mayberry, N.C., in "The Andy Griffith Show," he says. "That embodiment of all our values in postwar America spoke to all of us; it was palpable and overwhelmed everything, even Barney Fife."

In "Memphis Beat," a TNT police drama that debuted this summer, the town that has become synonymous with Elvis Presley is also a microcosm of America, says cocreator Liz Garcia. "It is a fusion of black and white culture," she says. At the same time, she adds, it's a tourist magnet for music lovers as well as an industrial city that has fallen on hard times.

The show's main character is passionate about both Elvis and the city he made famous. In the pilot episode, the beat cop comes across an elderly, homeless woman suffering from dementia. As he searches for her identity, it becomes clear that she is the long-ago radio DJ who first introduced him to Elvis's music. "His fight to restore her to her rightful place becomes a metaphor for the city and its lost innocence in a way," says Ms. Garcia. "He wants to save her and the soul of the city."

The show grew from a love of Southern culture and a desire to bring an authentic Southern story to the small screen. The trick, says Garcia, is detail – lots of it. "We did an entire show about barbecue, the rub, the sauce, all of it, because it is so important in that town and food is such a key part of Southern life," she adds.