TV’s Most Realistic and Ridiculous Representations of New York City

By
Share:

While Hollywood still sits on top of a celluloid empire, TV production is rapidly moving east. New York may not have the temperate filming climate that Los Angeles boasts, but it does offer producers a 30 percent tax credit, instated in 2008, and of course the authentic New York City backdrop against which many shows are set. This season, 23 prime-time series are being filmed in New York, up from a measly nine in 2006.

But flying a film crew out east and renting out a Brooklyn loft doesn’t ensure that a show will get the aura — or the facts — right. New York shows have tried and failed to accurately portray New York City on screen, often apparently because they were too busy collecting a library of picturesque Central Park shots to pick up on the kinds of food New Yorkers eat, how much rent they pay, the way they talk to their neighbors, and the fact that most of us actually don’t spend all that much time in Central Park. We’ve rounded up our favorite Big Apple shows and ranked them from realistic to laughable. Which city show do you think is most representative of the real New York?

30 Rock

Although the show is based on Tina Fey’s experiences working behind the scenes of SNL, it’s hard to imagine that 30 Rock is anything but a highly caricaturized retelling of production studio tales. A class of self-obsessed New Yorkers who think the world revolves around them and couldn’t survive if it didn’t, Liz Lemon’s coworkers are disconnected from the “real” New York. But when they step out of their fortressed lives high up in the GE Building, the city that emerges does seem true to life, and the cast members start to blend in with the eccentric bunch treading the sidewalk.

The show pokes fun at the strange, seemingly random events that constitute the quintessence of New York, and makes clear that the city streets are equalizers that strip us of the status we have in our workplaces and private lives. Even stars and egotistical producers find themselves trapped in helpless situations in the anonymity of New York — like Jack Donaghy’s tragicomic experience asking strangers on the subway for help, beginning, “I’m not a drug addict. I’m an executive with the General Electric corporation,” while he scratches at his bed bug-ridden body and subway riders pretend not to notice him.

Verdict: Definitely Manhattan. 4.5 out of 5.

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit

Tied up with the script and plot of Law & Order is the landscape of New York City itself, and the show spans all of it, moving swiftly throughout neighborhoods in each of the five boroughs and, moreover, accurately capturing their personalities — often by building crime scenes in real New Yorkers’ living rooms. But while the show’s still frames of the city are plausible, its geography is less so. Unless those police cars know something that the cop cars we often see getting stuck behind obstinate taxis and regular rush hour traffic don’t, the speed with which they zoom from Red Hook to Harlem and back again during rush hour seems unlikely.

Law & Order also fails to capture the average New Yorkers’ relationship with the police force, which isn’t always particularly sympathetic. And while there’s no denying that the city is brimming with whack jobs, the show inadvertently makes it look like one of every five unassuming city dwellers stocks has a murderous predisposition.

Verdict: New York City with a utopian police force and zero traffic problems. 3 out of 5.

Seinfeld

While Seinfeld’s New York is an older New York, it’s New York through and through. The show captures how much of New York life revolves around the eatery, in general, and the diner, in particular — and just how much these establishments mean to the people who frequent them. Another reality that Seinfeld, more than any other television show, understands is that city dwellers spend just as much time with the strangers who work in their neighborhoods as they do with their friends, and that it’s their relationships with these idiosyncratic people that define their everyday lives. Not every New Yorker has their own Soup Nazi, but every New Yorker does have the bagel guy, the coffee guy, the nail salon lady, the hairdresser, the doorman, and/or the cleaner. While these people may be nameless faces, it’s with them that the city’s occupants spend most of their time and, often, grow closest.

Verdict: New York City to the core. 4.5 out of 5.

Gossip Girl

The Upper East Side no longer embodies the glitz and glamour that Gossip Girl associates with it; in fact, once you get a few blocks east of Central Park, it’s one of the cheapest neighborhoods in Manhattan to rent in right now, quickly filling up with young professionals (and by professionals we mean recent grads temping and waitressing). But even when the Upper East Side was the Upper East Side, it was hardly the one the Gossip Girl cast lives on. For starters, while Serena and Blair once wouldn’t step foot below 59th Street, it’s been lower Manhattan (and Brooklyn) that’s housed the “it” clubs, bars, and restaurants since long before the it-girls matriculated at Constance Billard School for Girls.

Additionally, the crowd at the center of Gossip Girl’s plot gains its city-wide notoriety in high school, and, perhaps with one or two exceptions, no matter what Fifth Avenue apartment you live in, your high school social scandal won’t make it to tabloid popularity. Need proof? Bravo offered some in the form its 2009 reality series NYC Prep, a true-to-life exposé on the elite private school kids Gossip Girl fictionalizes. Even sensationalized on reality television, their lives are not that riveting.

If there’s one thing Gossip Girl portrays with some precision, it’s uptown residents’ initial scorn for Brooklyn and gradual capitulation, in recent years, to the commute — even if Dan clearly only lives in Williamsburg. Or is that DUMBO?

Verdict: We’re not sure where this place is. LA? Europe? 1 out of 5.

Sex and the City

When was the last time you saw a picture of Tonne Goodman or Chloe Malle on the side of a bus? When was the last (or first) time you heard their names come up in conversation? We thought so. They write for Vogue, as does Carrie Bradshaw (in addition to her column at The New York Star, a fictionalized version of the Observer), which, somehow, lands her a larger-than-life pin-up on the side of New York’s city buses and universal name recognition among the cultural elite. But the even bigger mystery in Sex and the City is her large, rent-controlled apartment, complete with walk-in closet, on a leafy green, tree-lined block on the Upper West Side. Let us know if you locate her building. And if there are any vacancies.

But despite the fairytale living conditions it grants its stars, Carrie’s world does encapsulate something very real about friendships in New York. Circle-of-friends TV shows tend to imagine worlds in which buddies spend most waking hours, together, talking, drinking, and laughing. Sex and the City realizes that Miranda, Charlotte, Samantha, and Carrie are best friends, but they live very separate, even isolated, lives, which is common to New York groups. The four women do not tackle their daily issues together, nor do they socialize with all the same people. They experience their crises, delights, relationships, and comic situations on their own; then they meet up in a coffee shop a couple times a week to dish.

Verdict: New York people in a Philadelphia housing market. 2 out of 5.

How I Met Your Mother

The frequency with which Ted Mosby and his friends meet and trust smart, beautiful, interesting people at their neighborhood bar borders on impossible. As is the amount of time they spend with each other. And the fact that after a full day of work, they always have the energy to spend the evening in a crazily well-lit bar where other professionals have time for regular mid-week drinking, too.

But Ted and his friends aren’t an altogether unrealistic New York bunch, either. The constant social stimulation and extreme loneliness that Ted struggles with is characteristic of singles living in such a large, bustling city. And the light-hearted elitism typical to New Yorkers comes through brilliantly every now and then — usually whenever New Jersey is mentioned, but most memorably when Barney warns Ted about a girl’s Long Island disposition by spitting out a jumble of area codes that New York viewers most likely laugh at and with: “She’s 516,” Barney says. “She might dress like she’s 718 and act like she’s 212, but trust me she’s 516. Oh, and her husband letting her out alone on St. Patty’s Day? If that dude’s not 973, I’m 307.”

Verdict: We buy it. 4 out of 5.

Friends

For the stars of a show about a group of friends searching for employment and trying to get their lives in order, Rachel, Ross, and the gang live in much too nice apartments to spend the amount of time they do drinking coffee at Central Perk. While the group of six we all followed so closely for much of the ’90s hardly ever work, they seem to have the monetary freedom of much more established, mature people and, somehow, aren’t bogged down by the rent on their spacious apartments. But, to its credit, the show occasionally acknowledges this unreality. In one episode, seated around their usual table, Phoebe asks her friends why none of them are at work at 11am on a Wednesday, at which point they embarrassedly rush out.

What Friends does get at are the chance city encounters that lead its cast to meet the minor characters they date, hang out with, and (seldom) work with — relationships that develop over time and begin with a comment to a stranger at a coffee shop or to a friend’s friend at a party. The situations at the heart of this sitcom are in themselves believable — just more so in a different city.

Verdict: True to life, also to Ohio. Or something. 2.5 out of 5.

The Honeymooners

The 1950s show is among the only New York television portrayals that doesn’t upgrade its characters’ apartment and living conditions. Ralph and Alice Kamden live in a tiny Bushwick apartment, while Ralph drives a bus to bring home money. The two struggle to get out of their hole in the wall and end up just getting by in it. The honeymooners are witty and sharp, which the city tends to require (or at least manufacture), but they see possibility in New York, so they don’t even question why they’re living a cramped, difficult life in a box in Brooklyn just for the proximity it affords them to the cultural center of the universe. Sound like any city folk you know?

Verdict: Paying off loans in Bushwick, 1950s style. 4.5 out of 5.

I Love Lucy

Lucy herself is a bit too cartoon to be true, but her life is everything a woman in her situation and era would encounter in New York. Lucy and Ricky share a one bedroom in the east 60s that Ricky works tirelessly to fund, but the lovebirds enjoy city culture and the escape it allows them from their otherwise mundane lives.

What I Love Lucy also touches on that many other city-based shows, in its era and past it, do not are city dwellers’ conflicting emotions about raising children in the city — and, in Lucy and Ricky’s case, their eventual breakup with New York once baby Ricky is born and they decide to relocate to the suburbs.

Verdict: The characters may be too quirky even for New York, but they’re in New York. 3.5 out of 5.