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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Rich, vivid specificity is the key to making a city sing, says novelist Oscar Casares. The depth of detail can provide a milieu from which characters draw a deeper sense of reality. The precision and extent of real-life detail "can often buy credibility for the fictional characters," he adds.Skip to next paragraph
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Cities can fight back. When the "CSI:" franchise unveiled a New York version after the success of the original based in Las Vegas and then one in Miami, the relationship got off to a rocky start. The initial shows were dark, even creepy, and the ratings faltered. But, says show runner Pam Veasey, "the city was much more than that and she let us know it."
The writing team rebooted its idea of the city to include broader stories with lightness, humor, and pathos. "She is heroic, sexy, and substantial," says Ms. Veasey with a laugh, and as the show heads into its seventh season, "we are still finding entirely new corners we and even people who have lived there for their entire lives have never heard of."
TNT's "The Closer" features an outsider trying to crack the city, personally and professionally. "New York, Paris, London, in all those cities people live much of their lives outside their personal space," says executive producer James Duff. But in L.A., life unfolds out of sight. "The city, like the case she is working, is a big mystery she has to solve," he says, adding, "even just getting around is a problem in a city with little public transportation."
Cities indeed have "souls," says James Farrelly, director of film studies at the University of Dayton, Ohio. "Setting is a prime element in establishing personal identity and a sense of place. What the ancients called genius loci [spirit of the place]," he writes in an e-mail. Writers such as James Joyce often use real locations – Dublin, for instance – that become shadowy characters in themselves. Switching locales would violate the integrity of the artistic vision. But in the world of TV show franchises, the sense of place is more a marketing device than a need to plumb the "spirit" of a particular city.
"There is certainly no strong sense of place in [producer Dick] Wolf's current move," Mr. Farrelly adds, "or in the decision made by producers of NCIS or of the CSI franchises to expand. Follow the money is the prime mover here."
Business strategy or not, television historian James Von Schilling applauds the recent outcropping of less-familiar skylines on the small screen. He points out that in the early days of the medium, live broadcasts emanated from more than just New York and L.A., but the consolidation of the industry on both coasts eliminated a natural regionalism.
But with the increasing pressure from basic and premium cable programming, "we're seeing more unusual cities being explored and that makes the television culture richer," Mr. Von Schilling adds.