Our Sponsors:

Read more »

Our Members

Many thanks to Kathleen Woodward and Andrew Elston some of our many supporters.

ALL MEMBERS »

For Portland, being distinctive brings rewards

"Life Unexpected," set in Portland, shows how doing unexpected things brings a city the honor of distinctiveness.

Portland: now a major television series!

Portland: now a major television series! wikipedia

As snow and cold weather swept over so much of the nation for the holidays, many families huddled around the television were likely watching an old but still popular television series set in an often icy and windswept place: The Mary Tyler Moore show.

Quick, tell me where was this show set? Minneapolis/St. Paul, I bet most people remember. When the series debuted in 1970, the Minnesota cities represented an unusual and risky choice. Would viewers connect with a region so far from both coasts and the bulk of the country's population?

But the Twin Cities as location helped establish the show's distinctive personality. The opening credits with the bouncy theme song — “You might just make it after all!” — show the newly single “Mary Richards” taking the exit ramp to “Minneapolis/St Paul,” walking by Donaldson's department store (now of course defunct), and walking through wintery streets clad in fur. Now a statue of “Mary” stands in a square near to where Donaldson's Department Store used to be.

More than a major league sports team, more than an opera house or symphony, having a network set a television series in your city is an announcement that you have arrived as a metropolis.

Not that many midsized or even larger cities have been the setting for shows. Boston Legal was set in of course Boston. Breaking Bad from AMC is set in Albuquerque. Mork & Mindy, the 1970s show where Robin Williams startled a nation with his talents, was set in Boulder. The Wire from HBO was set in Baltimore, although its portrayal was not flattering. Seattle has a long list of shows set in its area, notably "Frasier" (1993-2004)

Whatever the city, the choice of location for a show is a big deal. New York City defined the popular comedy Seinfeld, even though, like the Mary Tyler Moore Show, it was actually filmed in California.

One city that has recently arrived is Portland. The show “Life Unexpected” from the CW network, now in its second season, is set there. The show, which is about a 16 year-old girl raised in foster homes finding her birth parents and moving in with them, is cloying and annoying in its characters and plots, but the city of Portland shines through bright and clear. Just about every scene switch is transitioned by shots of the city's light rail trains with “Gresham” on the front, or the steel-girder bridges across the Willamette River, or shots of the city's skyline. The opening credits are a mini travel guide to the city. The show is actually mostly filmed in neighboring Vancouver, but as with Mary Tyler Moore or Seinfeld, that's not what is important.

Oregon and Portland have been pursuing the road less traveled for at least four decades, passing growth management laws as well as things unrelated to urban planning such as assisted-suicide laws, motor voter bills, and medical marijuana laws. This has earned them the enmity of various established interests, including sometimes the federal government. But one more clearly positive thing it has earned the city, which really can't be separated from the state, is distinctiveness. Beyond income per capita, unemployment rate or overall wealth, Portland is a city that is itself and nothing else. That's rare these days.

Portland and Oregon have taken a lot of flak for their choices, and they're having a tough time in the Great Recession. But right or wrong, they should be praised for having the courage to go their own way, to be democracies in the fullest sense of the word. What this has earned them over time is specialness.

It's hard to imagine other midsize cities have enough personality and presence to carry a TV show. Hovering around Portland in size, if you compare metro areas, are such cities as Tampa, St. Louis, Sacramento, Orlando, Charlotte, and Indianapolis. Can you imagine a drama or comedy set in one of them? Can you imagine a viewer tuning into one of those cities week after week?


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Sat, Jan 1, 7:51 p.m. Inappropriate

Alex, the Mary Tyler Moore Show was set in Minneapolis, NOT Minneapolis/St. Paul. Minneapolis and St. Paul are two separate cities, in different counties.

And having seen every single episode multiple times, I don't see how you can say the show's setting was anything other than an afterthought--Mary wasn't particularly upper-Midwestern (she was originally supposed to be divorced), and aside from the exteriors shown in the opening credits, Minneapolis only got mentioned in passing when someone talked about the weather. As Rhoda Morgenstern famously said, "I love the white Christmases. It's the white Easters I can't stand." Sadly, the show missed a golden comic opportunity by not having WJM be licensed to Coon Rapids, MN, an outer suburb of Minneapolis (not St. Paul).

In fact, MTM followed the fashion of the time, which was to set primetime TV shows in cities other New York and L.A. The networks' motivation seemed to be a perhaps misplaced desire to make the shows easier for viewers in the Great Flyover to relate to.

As for Frasier, it almost got set in DENVER. I can only imagine someone pointed out to the show's producers that far too much suspension of disbelief would be required to accept the notion of the prissy Frasier and his brother Niles being from a frontier town where petroleum is a major industry. Not that the two had any likelihood of being Seattle natives, either. And again, aside from Frasier's killer view of the Space Needle (from a 20-story building on the south slope of Queen Anne Hill...hmm, what's wrong with that sentence?) and the occasional coffee joke, Seattle never figured into the show that much.

I've seen a several episodes of Life UneXpected (yes, that's how it's supposed to be written :-P), and I'm going to guess it got set in Portland because someone saw an article about the Rose City in the New York Times, and someone else probably has a friend of a friend who thinks it's pretty cool. Aside from that amazing amount of Portland b-roll and the fact that Shiri Appleby's character drives a Prius and lives in a really cool old house in inner Northeast, the show (which is likely to be canceled due to low ratings) could take place anywhere. There's nothing in it that's really about Portland. Oh, and it's mostly filmed in Vancouver, BRITISH COLUMBIA, not Vancouver, USA.

I will give you this, Portland is a unique place. And I say this as someone with two stints of living there and many, many visits over the last 30 years. But it's not Shangri-La, except in the Stuff White People Like Dot Com sense. That freeway got knocked down, yes, but a new one got built on the less prosperous (and less politically powerful) east side of the Willamette. Yes, Oregon created the vaunted Urban Growth Boundaries, but they work only because Clark County, Washington loves beige suburban sprawl and is more than happy to accommodate it. Portland's population continues to grow because people want to live in Portland, Oregon. However, Portland, Oregon's economy is notable for a singular inability to create jobs. The jobs that do exist pay poorly. This is not something new; natives and longtime residents will tell stories of having to leave to find work. A disturbingly large number of these newcomers couch-surf with their friends. Portland is many things, but prosperous it is not.

Movies and TV shows that are really about a place make that place as a much a character as any other. Think Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry films, or the TV series Moonlighting. Life UneXpected, not so much. But it's no wonder the kid is messed up. She was named after a dishwashing detergent...

orino

Posted Sat, Jan 1, 7:54 p.m. Inappropriate

I love Portland and much of how it does things. Small point though: Some of that growth was annexation, i.e. not growth.

I suspect Portland was chosen for the new show because the Portland brand/image is attractive, and becoming known. But I wouldn't discount the ability of other cities of that size...sometimes shows/movies want to be set in a defined yet "average" place, and the Indianapolises and St. Louises of the world good for that.

mhays

Posted Mon, Jan 3, 12:05 a.m. Inappropriate

And it's worth pointing out that The wire wasn't "set" in Baltimore. The show grew out of a newspaper series about very real drug activity ("The Corner") at a specific intersection in downtown Baltimore.

Posted Mon, Jan 3, 10:18 a.m. Inappropriate

I volunteer Everett for a new tv show..."Life Uneventful"

bubbie

Posted Mon, Jan 3, 5:09 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks Crosscut, for awarding revisions of history an editor's pick. Sometimes we misled appreciate being better advised. We take as fact half-truths as in the above writer orino, whom I agree with on other points in the post about Portland being distinctive. Keep it weird.

"That freeway got knocked down, but a new one got built on the less prosperous (and less politically powerful) east side of the Willamette."

Harbor Drive went and the Mt Hood Freeway came and went more than a decade AFTER I-5 was built on the eastbank of the Willamette.

"Oregon created the vaunted Urban Growth Boundary rule, but they work only because Clark County, Washington loves suburban sprawl and more than happy to accommodate it."

The UGB system has worked. Where tried, UGBs teach important lessons. Implying Clark County sprawl (in some way) enables or assists Portland's development pattern is a simplification. Sorry.

"Portland's economy is notable for its inability to create jobs."

So, you don't like McMennamins? Storm-windows, double-pane glass industry branches in Oregon. How about Oregon landscape architecture? Why do Seattle parks all have glorified suburban-style lawn motifs?

Yeah, he's right, Portland isn't prosperous, except in livability. Seattle's problems are worse, admittedly. It needs more transit designed to work. For instance, the SLU streetcar should extend to 1st Ave and stop. 1-mile of track (or so) plus a few nice stations. Triple ridership overnight, guaranteed. Plan this first and do it. A streetcar line on 1st Ave is not advisable at this time. Trolleybus is better on 1st for now. etc etc etc.

Wells

Posted Fri, Jul 15, 4:34 p.m. Inappropriate

January 1st, looking back 7 months, a couple weeks and 1 day, I am reminded of the better perspective I try to practice. Know what I mean? Thanxagaynol...

Wells

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »