Friends is coming to Netflix January 1, which is good news for the series' legion of obsessive fans.
But for some, it's impossible to get past those gigantic Greenwich Village apartments housing young people whose jobs suggest a level of income better suited to Ridgewood studios. Is the show really true to New York City? Good question. We'd better sort it out before you revisit your favorite episodes.
Below, you'll see a representative (but by no means complete) selection of 15 NYC-based sitcoms, ranked by just how much sense of place they provide and how “real” they seem. To compile this, we used IBM's powerful Watson supercomputer.*
To help with our decisions and add some academic gravitas, we enlisted David Bushman, television curator for the Paley Center for Media. Mr. Bushman eats, sleeps and dreams TV—you can check out a massive archive of more than 160,000 radio and television broadcasts at his place of employment. He said nothing about where each show ranked, but his insights added a lot to our understanding as we pieced these together.
*Editor's note: Actually, we just kind of felt it out. Also, we’ve counted as a sitcom anything that roughly fits the “half-hour comedy” parameter.
15. The Patty Duke Show (1963–1966)
Bushman would characterize this series' version of New York City as astoundingly fake, if enjoyable—but what do you expect from a show whose premise revolves around identical cousins? “They made Brooklyn Heights seem parochial, like it's a small town,” says Bushman. It's true. In contrasting the two cousins, the theme song declares: “Patty's only seen the sights a girl can see from Brooklyn Heights.” “Now,” says Bushman, “you'd think, wow, Brooklyn Heights is a cool place to be.”
We wondered exactly how incorrect this portrayal of NYC really was. Could some of this be chalked up to the fact that Brooklyn Heights was different in the 1960s? “Brooklyn may have been more like that then,” says Bushman, “but I don't think you're getting a very realistic depiction of anything on television in the '60s.…You had the three networks, and they were this hegemony. They didn't want to do anything to rock the boat. They were making millions of dollars.”
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14. 2 Broke Girls (2011–present)
It would be really, really hard for a truly broke transplant to live in Williamsburg these days.
13. Friends (1994–2004)
Ah, Friends. Have we mentioned that Friends is available on Netflix starting in January? Here are a few things to keep in mind:
a) No matter what your tour guide tells you, you cannot see the actual fountain where the cast dances in the opening credits during your trip to New York City. The footage was filmed on a Los Angeles studio lot.
b) The Friends apartment building from establishing shots is at the corner of Bedford and Grove Streets, in Manhattan's West Village.
c) Once you get past the somewhat far-fetched housing situation, Bushman argues the show has some real New York City character. “Everybody wants to live in an apartment with a great view,” he says, “but I think it was the bond between the characters” that defined the show. “It's about youth, and trying to make it in the big city—creating this surrogate family that helps you get through.”
Still, the series and conflicts therein frequently feel universal rather than New York–centric, and, in many episodes, the NYC character comes from the establishing shots. Having said that: happy streaming!
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12. Herman's Head (1991–1994)
Earlyish Fox series Herman's Head has been a target of mockery for its cheesy high concept and execution, but, as Bushman points out, at least one episode's plotline eloquently expresses a classic New York City dilemma.
In “I Wanna Go Home,” Herman—who's come to the City to become a writer, and works as a fact-checker at a magazine (it was the early '90s, folks)—is offered a secure job back home in Ohio. The personified voices in Herman's head debate whether to stay or go. His lust and intellect want to stay in New York for all of the thrills and challenges, but his anxiety and sensitivity feel that they could use a break. “There's beautiful women here; there are models; there are performers,” says Bushman. “But if you're anxious and you're crowded in a subway car with 800,000 other people, it's a tough city.”
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11. I Love Lucy (1951–1957)
One of the most popular sitcoms ever, I Love Lucy followed Lucy Ricardo's crazy schemes to hit it big and her husband Ricky's attempts to rein in her antics. Though the show was filmed in Los Angeles—like many shows set in New York City—Lucy and Ricky lived on New York City's Upper East Side.
In season 3's “Lucy Is Envious,” Lucy promises to donate $500 to charity in order to impress a wealthy former classmate. She doesn't have that kind of money, so to earn it she and Ethel agree to pose as women from Mars, kidnapping a movie promoter at the top of the Empire State Building as part of a publicity stunt. The episode combines the usual Lucy antics with a fairly recognizable re-creation of the Empire State Building observation deck. The plot's not so plausible—and it's comical that Lucy characterizes her roomy East 68th Street apartment (whose address, by the way, would place it in the middle of the East River) as “tiny”—but it's still funny all these years later.
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10. Night Court (1984–1992)
Night Court is a place where some of New York City's more outlandish characters congregated, and that idea comes across nicely in the episode where Michael Richards, later of Seinfeld, thinks he's invisible. His reasoning? People took no notice of him, even when he was behaving in a manner designed to attract attention. Of course, veteran New Yorkers know that acting crazy is a good way to make sure people will treat you as if you were invisible. Enjoy!
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9. 30 Rock (2006–2013)
Where but New York City could you set a series about a sketch-comedy show with a suspicious resemblance to Saturday Night Live? This one was even shot in our fair city. In the pilot, The Girlie Show's head writer, Liz Lemon (played by real-life former SNL head writer Tina Fey), teaches a man who cuts a hot-dog-cart line a lesson by buying all the franks so he can't have any. This type of fantasy is common for any New Yorker who's ever been wronged by someone who doesn't abide by the rules of a civil high-density metropolis. Also fun: Liz's absurd list of new, hip New York City neighborhoods in the episode “Brooklyn Without Limits.” Most acceptable for nycgo.com's standards and practices: Van Beardswick.
8. The Honeymooners (1955–56)
This show followed the lives of Ralph and Alice Kramden, a bus driver and his wife living in Brooklyn. Though its approach to domestic life could be charitably described as outdated, it remains beloved as a pioneering sitcom. For TV in the 1950s, it was a pretty “real” representation of New York City. “It's very blue-collar,” says Bushman. The Ralph Kramden statue at Port Authority Bus Terminal stands as a testament to the enduring appeal of the show's depiction of working-class New Yorkers. Still, “this is a guy who is always concocting some plan to make it big.” Case in point: “The $99,000 Answer,” in which Ralph needs to name famous pop songs on a game show in order to win a life-changing amount of cash—but is ultimately felled by his own hubris. “They have a very hard life,” says Bushman of Ralph and Alice. “They're constantly looking for money, and Ralph is often afraid of losing his job. But they find their ways through it. They're indomitable, which I think is very much what New Yorkers are.”
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7. All in the Family (1971–1979) and The Jeffersons (1975–1985)
Archie Bunker may have been a bigot, but it's almost universally acknowledged that he was a realistic character—and plenty of New Yorkers could probably recognize a bit of Bunker in someone they knew (that he was complex enough to change some of his views over time and endear himself to many viewers emphasizes this). On the other hand, he may not have been all that specific to his place of residence—which, by the way, was somewhere in Queens (the exterior of the house is in Glendale; Bunker names his home as Astoria; many claim the inspiration to be Corona). Bushman also notes the family support system in a tough city as being part of the New York realism of All in the Family.
As for The Jeffersons, a spinoff about Bunker's neighbors who move to Manhattan, “it's about a guy who is able to make it big, to live the dream that so many people come to the City for. And it obviously was a step forward in City depictions,” Bushman says, noting the importance of a black family's place at the center of the show. While NYC is among the world's most diverse places, it doesn't always look that way on TV.
6. Sex and the City (1998–2004)
Here's where we get into a discussion of realism vs. sense of place. Does Sex and the City seem “real” to most New Yorkers? Of course not. On the other hand, Bushman points out, “If we look at any of these shows, I start to wonder how real they are.” Much as critics question the apartments on Friends, inquiring minds want to know how humble columnist Carrie Bradshaw could possibly make enough of a living to rent a place in Manhattan and buy enough designer clothes to fill an Olympic-size pool. But there is obviously a segment of the population that has been inspired by Sex and the City to visit or even move to New York City, whose streets, clubs and restaurants played a starring role on the show. And Bushman doesn't think that's so bad. “It's an idealized view of what life in New York could be like,” he says of the cast's many relationships, headfirst dives into nightlife and immense professional successes. “I think it's based on a certain stereotype, which probably exists for a small, privileged population of the City. If you look at it in an isolated way, I think that's where the problem is.”
5. The Odd Couple (1970–1975)
The TV adaptation of a play by dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker Neil Simon followed the lives of Oscar Madison and Felix Unger, mismatched roommates tossed together by circumstance when Unger's wife throws him out of their house. It's a favorite of Bushman's, and he feels the show's writers made the most of the NYC location. “There were many opera-themed plots,” Bushman remembers, and there were plentiful references to arts and culture in New York City. Even their jobs—a sportswriter and commercial photographer—seem quintessentially of New York. And the stress (“Oscar's ulcer was always acting up”) speaks to the fast pace of the five boroughs. This being the 1970s, safety was a factor as well: in ” Security Arms,” Oscar and Felix, worried after a break-in, briefly move to a higher-security building. An episode that came to Bushman's mind was “The New Car,” in which Oscar and Felix win a car in a radio contest (thanks, naturally, to Felix's opera knowledge). Though they're excited at first, they get stymied by the challenges of parking—all of which is in keeping with the theme of La forza del destino (“The Power of Fate”), one of the opera answers that wins them the car in the first place. Early wakeups to abide by alternate-side parking rules (years before Seinfeld tackled the subject), long waiting lists at the garage and a lack of spots on the street take the fun out of having a new set of wheels.
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4. Taxi (1978–1983)
This series, set largely in a downtown taxi garage, follows the exploits of cabbies who are chasing other dreams but driving to pay the bills. Its New York City roots are evident right from the opening credits, in which a cab cruises over the Queensboro Bridge, but the NYC character goes far beyond a few landmarks. The show was inspired by a couple of 1970s feature articles in New York magazine, which chronicled the lives of taxi drivers who picked up fares to make a living while they pursued their real aspirations on the side. In the show, Bushman remembers, “Bobby wants to be an actor. Tony has to give up fighting…people come here to fulfill their dreams,” he says. Those dreams are thwarted in Taxi, but you can glimpse them in scenes like one of Bushman's favorites, in which the cast performs “Lullaby of Broadway” in tribute to Elaine's desire to star on the Great White Way. In the show's undercurrent of darkness and frustration, Bushman sees an antecedent to current cable shows like Girls and the next entry on our list.
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3. Louie (2010–present)
Here we are in the 2010s, an era that one trusted media confidante has affectionately referred to as TV comedy's “grunge phase.” One of the leaders among cable's pack of gritty, single-camera comedies is Louie, which chronicles the travails faced by a fictionalized version of divorced father and comedian Louis C.K. As we've noted before, the critically acclaimed series is jam-packed with real NYC locations, and has even aired the world's most vivid cinematic portrait of appetizing landmark Russ & Daughters. While the show can't be entirely classified as realistic—its detours into the bizarre include a helicopter picking up Louie's love interest mid-date when things aren't going so well—it does capture many of the different sides of NYC, as when Louie follows a cashier up to Harlem or a young bully to Staten Island. And Todd Barry's explanation of how he fills his days without a wife or a child feels uniquely suited to the New York City landscape.
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2. Girls (2012–present)
Also notable in the grunge sitcom set is Girls, which follows a group of young creative types (what some might call “trustafarians”) as they try to make it in Brooklyn. The show's essence rings true for a certain set of New Yorkers: neighborhoods like Greenpoint, Williamsburg—and, now, Ridgewood, Bushwick and the like—are indeed saturated with youthful, ambitious, artistic folk. Some of them, like Hannah, doubtless aspire to be “a voice of a generation,” but work at places like Café Grumpy to make ends meet while they wait for their ship to come in. We rounded up some of the real-life City places showcased on the series after season 1.
1. Seinfeld (1989–1998)
We're already on record as calling Seinfeld the New Yorkiest show of all time, and nothing has happened to change that. Shot in Los Angeles, the series was powered by a distinctly New York City viewpoint. Our whole Seinfeld list is packed with evidence of this fact, but—if you only want to watch one episode—check out “The Subway,” whose plots are built around the gang's frustrations during a difficult day on New York City's mass transit system.
Bushman sums up the New Yorkiness of this show and others that depend on forced interaction: “In LA, you get in your car; you drive to the garage; you get out of the garage; you go to your office. In New York, there's this relentless up-close exposure to people—whether you're walking down the street, on the subway or on the bus. [That's] something that very much characterizes New York.”
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Interested in exploring New York City through the lens of film and TV? On Location Tours offers excursions around NYC themed by such favorites as Sex and the City, Gossip Girl and The Sopranos. Learn more at onlocationtours.com.