Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Set in Wisconsin: Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Picket Fences, Step by Step, That 70's Show, and The Young and the Restless

The population of Wisconsin is 1.8% of the United States. Which makes it curious that so many relatively high profile television series have been set there.

Now, some shows truly required their setting to be in other states. I mean, you couldn't have set The Sopranos in Wisconsin and made it work. Obviously that had to be in New Jersey.

And you were never going to find a group of young people living in Wisconsin near the shore of Lake Superior that would have provided the entertainment value that people apparently found in The Jersey Shore.

And Dallas? Well, the name says it all.  

But why set a show in Wisconsin at all? Let's study the history of it.

Happy Days (and Laverne and Shirley)

I mean, Happy Days was not about Wisconsin. It was about nostalgia for the 50's at a time when America was reeling with the loss of the Vietnam War and wishing to return to a more innocent time not so long ago.

The sets for the show consisted almost exclusively of the inside of the Cunningham house and the inside of Arnold's Drive-In, places that could have been anywhere.

So, why place it in Milwaukee?

There is the concept, I suppose, of "Any Town, USA." And Wisconsin, begin so centrally located and already having such national recognition as the primary dairy producer, is the perfect place to set a story if you want the entire country to be interested.

Maybe there's even something Freudian about setting a show in Wisconsin. Wisconsin is the place your milk comes from. And so, on a deep level, one can see it as if it is their primordial mother.

Happy Days ran from 1974 to 1984, and spawned a number
of spin-offs, such as Laverne and Shirley (1976-1983), which was also set in Milwaukee, until they had the show move its location to California for the final three seasons. In my opinion, that move was, as it were, "Jumping the Shark."

Picket Fences

From 1992 to 1996, the popular David E.Kelly series Picket Fences aired on CBS. While the show was filmed entirely in California, it was set in the rural town of Rome, Wisconsin. It was a small town drama, that dealt with a number of topics controversial for its time, such as homophobia. It won popular acclaim, evidenced by a total of fourteen Emmys.

Now, that would already be a lot of shows for a state with 1.5% of the US population. But wait, there's more.

Step by Step

Set in Port Washington, Wisconsin (25 miles north of Milwaukee), the sitcom Step by Step ran from 1991 to 1997 on ABC (and then moved to CBS for a final season). 

It starred Suzanne Somers and Patrick Duffy, whose character was, not surprisingly, a Packers fan!

That 70's Show

Running from 1998 to 2006 on Fox, That 70's Show was set in a fictionalized suburb of Milwaukee, Point Place, Wisconsin. The show was, of course, the launching pad for the successful careers of Mila Kunis and Aston Kutcher.

I went to high school from 1980 to 1984, and I was in Madison, not Milwaukee, so I can't confirm if the show really accurately depicted typical youth behaviors of the period/place.  

The Young and the Restless

By far the Wisconsin-set show with the longest duration is The Young and the Restless. It began in 1973 and is still going strong as of this posting in August, 2014.

The Young and the Restless is filmed entirely at CBS studios in Hollywood, but it is set in Genoa City, Wisconsin, which actually is a small town a bit on the Wisconsin side of the border with Illinois (but the city depicted in the show can't possibly be the Genoa City of reality).

Again, why was this set in Wisconsin to begin with? It's the saga of competing family dynasties running cosmetic companies, which, as I recall, has never been a big industry in Wisconsin.

And yet, somehow, placing this story in Wisconsin soothes a viewership from coast to coast. 

I first got into watching the Young and the Restless while in Romania. My mother-in-law watches it there religiously, although they are three years behind the US in the episodes they watch. So when I first got hooked and came home and started watching, I was shocked to find that no marriage was intact from the timeline I was accustomed to!

Wisconsin-Based Television Shows

How to finally explain this curious phenomenon? In the words of Blaise Paschal, "Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point." (The heart has its reasons that reason knows not.)

And so, in the final analysis, I'm not exactly sure why Hollywood producers choose Wisconsin as the setting for a show.

I guess, Wisconsin is this place that so many of you have never been, and yet have heard so much about. And that's because anyone from there, myself included, just never stops talking about it.

Keith Massey was born and raised in Madison, Wisconsin. He has his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Biblical Hebrew, with a minor in Arabic. After 9/11, he served as an Arabic linguist at the NSA. He is currently a Latin teacher at a public high school in New Jersey.

Keith is the author of Intermediate Arabic for Dummies. His fiction novels follow the adventures of Andrew Valquist, roughly patterned after himself--a man born and raised in Wisconsin who gets pulled into the world of international intrigue. 

Keith's novels are A Place of Brightness, Amor Vincit Omnia: An Andrew Valquist Adventure, Next Stop: Spanish, and In Saecula Saeculorum.