TV + NYC

Sunday, September 13, 2020 - 5:40pm

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Design by Taylor Schott

There is no shortage of television that takes place in New York City. I truly believe there should be an Emmy category titled “Outstanding Series Based in NYC.” It’s almost maddening when you think about it. Do the universes overlap? Has Jerry Seinfeld ordered coffee from Central Perk? Do Olivia Benson and Captain Holt occasionally pass by each other at NYPD events? Did Barney Stinson ever try something weird with Samantha Jones? The streets of the Big Apple are overrun with characters from iconic shows, so much so that the city itself has become one of television’s most prolific stars. 

It’s hard for me to not dedicate this piece to “The Nanny” or “Everybody Hates Chris” — the TV seeds of my childhood that turned into full-blown obsession — but as important to New York television culture as those series are, they’ll have to wait their turn. There are two shows whose existences define NYC television, driving tourists to West Village street corners and Morningside Heights diners. Yes, Im talking about the two homogenous friend group-based sitcoms we love to hate or hate to love: “Friends” and “Seinfeld.” 

“Friends” and “Seinfeld” are the New York City sitcoms. I will actively ignore the existence of “How I Met Your Mother” for two main reasons: 1) Three out of the five main characters are Midwestern/Canadian transplants and 2) that damn finale. People may be angry that I’m putting “Friends” and “Seinfeld” in the same article, let alone sentence, but at the bare minimum, they are both about a friend group navigating life in the big city, and they were both actually filmed in California. With that being said, I do agree the two shows are incredibly different, primarily in the way New York City itself plays a role. 

I’ve said it before and I will say it again: “Friends” could’ve taken place in any city and still have been the same show. What was uniquely New York about it? The characters largely interacted with only each other, and ventured nowhere in the city beyond a nonexistent coffee shop and the occasional theater. Joey could have been a struggling actor in LA, Rachel could’ve worked at the Chicago Bloomingdales, Monica could be a chef in a Miami restaurant — the storylines would barely change. “Friends” couldn’t even bother to get NYC geography right. The characters often mention coming from or walking through Central Park, and in one episode Phoebe says her apartment is down the block from the park. Yet all of their apartments are in the West Village, specifically around Grove and Bedford, which is over 50 blocks from Central Park. And you rarely see them on a subway. It’s madness. 

The character potential of New York City is wasted in “Friends,” but “Seinfeld” has no such problem. From the Soup Nazi to George Steinbrenner, Mr. Pitt to David Puddy, “Seinfeld” utilizes the lawless good of the city that never sleeps. Even the main group itself is a personification of the city; chaotic adults who view life with a nonchalance and indifference that would be infuriating if it wasn’t so entertaining. Nearly every episode in this show-about-nothing provides a look into the zany tedium of city life. A bottle episode taking place in the waiting area of a Chinese restaurant. Fighting for chocolate babka in a crowded bakery. Failing to get sleep against the neon red glow of a chicken roaster sign across the street. These stories, and every odd character thrown into them, don’t try to stifle the absurdity of New York. They embrace it. 

It’s an easy choice to place a show in New York. The city makes for an easy and familiar backdrop, with enough murder to make for a good crime show and enough elites for a good schoolgirl drama. But any show not taking full advantage of the setting is wasting the city, tossing aside plotlines and characters that are essentially written for them on every subway ride and bodega run. Just leave it to the king of observations, Mr. Jerry Seinfeld, to explain it: “All people in New York are funny and get funnier as they get older, and everyone outside New York gets less funny.

Daily Arts Writer Samantha Della Ferra can be reached at samfd@umich.edu.