More TV shows are Big Apple to core

NEW YORK STATE OF MIND

October 20, 1992|By New York Times News Service

Forget those decadent "Dallas" and "Dynasty" and "Falcon Crest" rich people of the 1970s and 1980s on television. Forget the never-never world of "Love Boat" and "Fantasy Island" and "Charlie's Angels." What's hot now, at least in television, are the gritty streets and the grittier characters of New York City.

Never before have so many television series been set in New York in a single season -- but with a twist. Most of these shows with New York settings are actually filmed on Los Angeles studio lots because New York (which really means Manhattan to TV executives) is considered simply too expensive.

New Yorkers have always served as sources of laughter, and even lightning rods, on television. There were Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton, Archie and Edith Bunker.

There were cop shows like "Naked City," "The Defenders," "NYPD" and "Kojak." New Yorkers were generally depicted as blue-collar guys (and gals) with Noo Yawwk accents. (There were exceptions, of course, including the enormously popular "The Cosby Show," which took place in Brooklyn Heights.

But now, the numerous New York shows are strikingly different. They inevitably take place on the Upper East Side and the West Side of Manhattan, not Brooklyn or Queens like in the old days.

And the major characters are not Archie Bunker types married to long-suffering women, but Italian and Jewish neurotics involved with gorgeous WASPs from the Midwest. They usually have a melting pot of black and Hispanic friends.

Precisely why so many shows are set in New York is unclear. Bill Haber, a television agent at Creative Artists Agency, and one of the most prominent in Hollywood, maintains that the nation's economic downturn and apparent darker mood are central to the plethora of New York shows.

"In the 1980s the escape we all wanted was pleasant -- 'Love Boat,' 'Fantasy Island,' " Mr. Haber said. "Now it's a time of reality. People want to see some semblance of truth. The comedies now are meaner, edgier. The shows are grittier. New York is a microcosm. It's a canvas upon which everyone is drawing the reality of the '90s."

Paul Reiser, a comedian who grew up in Manhattan's Stuyvesant Town, is one of the creators and stars of "Mad About You," an NBC show about newlyweds setting up an apartment on 12th Street and Fifth Avenue.

"A lot of writers come from New York and tend to write what they know," he said. "To set this show in Istanbul -- or, for that matter, Los Angeles -- makes no sense, even though I live in L.A. New York just has a faster, funnier edge.

"It's realistic to start a scene in New York with a guy walking into his apartment, cursing and saying 'Unbelievable! You wouldn't believe what happened to me! A lady dropped dead on the bus. The doorman spit on my shoes.' Whatever. Here in L.A. it's like, 'You're not going to believe what my agent said to me today.' Who cares?"

Jerry Seinfeld, who was born in Brooklyn and attended Queens College, and whose comedy "Seinfeld," is one of the most popular on television, said, "The older shows set in New York, 'That Girl,' 'The Odd Couple,' weren't scary. Now the city is quite scary. It's crazy. It's nuts out there. And most of the time that's the take of these TV shows. New York characters are generally a certain type. You spend a lot of time walking around, going to movies and ordering Chinese food up."

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