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?
Portland once wasn't so special. In the early 1970s, Portland was just another midsized city with a downtown full of parking lots, half-empty storefronts, and street-killing freeways, similar to my native city of Norfolk. Then Oregon and Portland tore down a freeway, passed a state growth-control measure, established a regional government, and capped downtown parking. The state and the city began becoming distinctive places, as well as more prosperous. Population figures tell the story. The city of Portland grew from a low of 366,000 people in 1980 to 540,000 today. Norfolk by comparison, has shrunk from 307,000 in 1970 to 230,000 today. Two cities once roughly comparable are now starkly different.
And in the long run, being distinctive is a positive thing for a city because rather than being nowhere, you're somewhere. It can't be faked though. It's about confronting hard choices and making the right ones. Here's hoping that more cities and states follow Portland's and Oregon's lead, and become distinctive.