During UnHerd’s Flyover Culture series, Liam Halligan focused on Hollywood’s depiction of flyover country. But in this golden age of US TV, what happens on the small screen is at least as important as what happens on the big one.
To the rest of the world, American television once meant cowboys, cop shows and glitzy soaps such as Dallas and Dynasty. There wasn’t much room for subtlety. Today, thanks to satellite, digital and streaming services such as Netflix, America can represent itself to a global audience in greater detail and from more perspectives than ever before. When successful shows run over several seasons of 10 or more episodes per season, there ought to be plenty of room for subtlety and nuance.
However, like its film industry, America’s TV industry is dominated by the coastal elites – so how do they represent the rest of America to the rest of the world?
It’s a mixed picture. For reasons of cost, practicality and narrative context, many, if not most, shows are still set in and around the big coastal cities (even if they’re actually filmed in Canada). That said, flyover country is not entirely ignored.
Starting at the bottom, we have the reality TV shows, in which non-cosmopolitan America is served-up at its exaggerated best/worst. Examples from recent years include Duck Dynasty, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Jersey Shore. Though obviously intended as light entertainment – and subject to the manipulations of the reality TV maker’s art – these shows provide domestic and international audiences with a window on America beyond the big cities. Of course, there’s a question as to who, in the audience, is laughing with, and who is laughing at, the protagonists.
As for actual comedies, most American sitcoms are decidedly metropolitan in their settings and values. Think Friends, the Big Bang Theory, Seinfeld, 30 Rock, Cheers, Frasier, Community, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, etc etc. There is, however, an interesting exception – the big cartoon comedies, which typically feature small town settings in obscure parts of the country. Thus we have South Park somewhere in the Rockies, Family Guy in Rhode Island, King of the Hill in Texas and of course, the Simpsons in ‘Springfield’ – a place so obscure that no one really knows where it is (one of the show’s recurring jokes).
These settings are so deep into flyover country that on some shows some of the characters are practising Christians – and, what’s more, not all of them abusive religious maniacs! Watch most American TV shows and you’d never guess that they were set in the most religious country in the western world. You’d also wonder where the Republican Party gets its votes from – so rarely do you see conservatism portrayed as anything other than a personality disorder.
The worst offenders are the ‘young adult’ dramas such as Glee and Riverdale. Though, like the cartoon comedies, they tend to have small town, flyover settings – they embody a very different set of values. Where the ideological agenda is out in the open, it is predictably ‘woke’ – with the politics of New York and San Francisco transposed to the Rust Belt. The real issues facing young people in flyover communities are glossed over, if indeed they’re mentioned at all.
Many of the most successful US dramas have supernatural or sci-fi plotlines. Symbolically, the fantastical elements are frequently set in contrast to a mundane flyover background. For example, when Superman was a lad he lived in Smallville, Kansas. His is hardly the only tale of a special child growing up in a stultifyingly conservative community – the classic set-up for a parable of liberal individualism.
A variation on this plotline, is when the protagonist stays the same, but everyone else is transformed (and not for the better). A great example is The Walking Dead, set in the Deep South which features hordes of ravening zombies (well, somebody must be voting Republican).
One way or another, the abiding image of TV’s flyover country is as a place to escape from. Except that deep down, liberal America knows that there’s no escape, they have no choice but to share America with their fellow, but very different, Americans.
In this respect, the Netflix prison drama, Orange is the New Black, is powerfully allegorical. It begins as we follow Piper Chapman, a privileged white woman, into Litchfield Penitentiary, where she is to serve a 15-month sentence for drug smuggling. Having introduced its audience to the prison through a character not unlike themselves, the story broadens out, getting into the lives of the other inmates .
The show has been praised for the diversity of its cast and characters. Care is taken to avoid the pitfalls of tokenism. For instance, the hispanic characters aren’t generically hispanic – but written to distinguish their distinct cultural backgrounds, whether Dominican, Puerto Rican, Mexican or Colombian. However, OITNB is at its weakest when it comes to the most identifiably flyover characters. The rednecks are either there to provide light relief (the hapless meth heads) or an air of menace (the tatooed skinheads).
The best-developed of the rednecks is Tiffany ‘Pensatucky’ Doggett, a psychotic Bible-thumper whose religiously motivated persecution of Piper leads to Season One’s violent conclusion. And just in case the viewer doesn’t get the symbolism, the weapon that the former wields against the latter is a sharpened wooden cross.
In subsequent seasons, Pensatucky’s character is humanised – but with the aid of flashbacks in which the flyover culture of her home town is demonised.
In conclusion, I think it’s significant that of all the TV genres, it is the cartoon comedy where small town America is least likely to be ‘othered’.
The cultural elites, while willing to put flyover country on camera, can’t quite look it in the eye.