OK, so Boston is not the location in which to set an American TV show. It’s not where “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” would be able to hang with Lenny Bruce, or where Liz Lemon could work at “30 Rock.” It’s not where the boys of “Entourage” would be likely to find their shiny toys, or where the denizens of “Melrose Place” could exchange illicit kisses and scandalous face-slaps by the pool all yearlong.
Nonetheless, many comedies and dramas have taken place here over the years, from “Spenser: For Hire” to Showtime’s “City on a Hill,” which wraps up its first season Sunday at 9 p.m. This is the city where you can make socio-economic sparks by mixing a Brahmin from Beacon Hill with a working-class dude from Southie — you know, the guy who drinks from a bubbler when he gets wicked thirsty. It’s the city where entire episodes can revolve around sports.
And some of those Boston shows have caught on in a big way, not just “Cheers” but “St. Elsewhere” and four efforts from our own David E. Kelley. There is a small canon of Boston TV series, and some of them are worthy of note. Here are our 10 favorites, judged by their quality, and by the accuracy of their Bostonia.
Agree? Disagree? Tell us in the comments.
“The Handmaid’s Tale”
Boston and Cambridge as we know them are mostly invisible in this haunting theological and misogynistic dystopia. But that only adds to the power of the setting: The one-time homeland of liberal politics and intellectual institutions, in the darkest of ironies, has been obscured by a regime of hate and its cold aesthetic. When remnants of the pre-Gilead world do appear in this artfully filmed show, they are covered in dust, like the Boston Globe newsroom in season two, or nefariously altered, like the Fenway Park hanging wall. The first season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” was a revelation; the second two seasons, while still gorgeously filmed and powerfully acted, have had to strain to keep Elisabeth Moss’s June alive and at the center of the story. Nonetheless, the locale has stayed compelling throughout, a visual representation of the adage “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
Permit me an entry that may well be unfamiliar to many. “The McCarthys” was a multicamera CBS sitcom, so it arrived in 2014 with some significant strikes against it. I tend to cringe when I come across laugh-track-driven network sitcoms and their vaudevillian brashness. But after a few episodes, as the writing and the ensemble chemistry improved, I came to love this series, which was about a working-class sports-loving Boston family and their awkward acceptance of their gay son (played by Tyler Ritter). It was created by Brian Gallivan, a former local who clearly had a strong sense of Boston, and Ritter’s character was a refreshingly cliché-free gay TV character. Laurie Metcalf — who can ham it up without making you want to go vegan by the end of a half-hour — played the matriarch, Jack McGee was the dad, and Joey McIntyre, Jimmy Dunn, and Kelen Coleman were the always amusing siblings. The ensemble was gelling nicely when the show got a premature ax. Given a fair chance by CBS, it could have caught on — and possibly kept Metcalf from returning to “Roseanne.”
Maybe you didn’t remember that this Fox sci-fi procedural started out on a Logan Airport runway, a flight full of passengers inexplicably melted in their seats, or that resident mad scientist Walter Bishop’s lab was at Harvard. In fairness, it was another Boston-set series in which just about everyone had a Canadian accent, and eyebrow-raisingly quick commutes — say from Roxbury to Weymouth — happened with some regularity. Besides, the setting was the least captivating element of J.J. Abrams’s cult phenom, which only got stranger and more ambitious with age. Across its five seasons, parallel universes went to war, case-of-the-week kookiness gave way to an epic fight for the future, and — years before “Orphan Black” — almost every actor played dual roles. Out of all the mythology-laden, character-driven dramas to follow “Lost,” “Fringe” had the biggest heart and wore its geek colors most proudly.
Showtime canceled this Southie-set comedy after two seasons, the latter of which arrived under a dark cloud of allegations that creator and star Frankie Shaw had seriously mismanaged the set, leaving writers and at least one cast member feeling uncomfortable. That Shaw, a first-time showrunner, made serious mistakes while filming “SMILF” is a shame on multiple fronts. One is that audiences won’t hear anything further from Shaw’s Bridgette Bird, the chaotic and irrepressible single mom at the show’s center. Prickly but warm-hearted, honest yet unexpectedly surreal, “SMILF” flew higher in its second season, for which production was moved from Los Angeles to Boston. We’ll hear more from Shaw, who grew up in Brookline and South Boston, but the two seasons she did make of “SMILF” were roundly terrific — a very funny portrayal of resilient motherhood that made the smart choice to show respect for its setting.
“Ally McBeal” 1997-2002
I almost decided not to put this series on the list. By the end of its run, “Ally McBeal” was all forced quirk, and star Calista Flockhart was a bag of tics. But I can still recall its early excellence, as David E. Kelley mingled drama with comedy and music — and surreal sequences — to invent something entirely new and culturally provocative. The first seasons were endlessly creative. Kelley took the idea of catch phrases to a visual level. He bound the legal cases to the lives of the characters, before doing that was de rigueur. He had the characters play out social riddles and gender issues (remember the unisex bathroom?) with both comedic and dramatic impact. And he sent up our litigious culture with a glee that was a raspberry in the face of the still thriving Court TV. The world of “Ally McBeal” was detailed and specific in so many ways — except when it came to local flavor. Kelley grew up in Belmont and went to law school in Boston, and the city captured his imagination enough to inspire four shows set here. But wisely, he chose not to add in bad accents and Southie clichés; “Ally McBeal” could as easily have been set in Chicago.
“Spenser: For Hire”
They just don’t make them like this anymore. ABC’s detective drama was adapted from Robert B. Parker’s classic Spenser novels and carried over their lived-in knowledge of the Boston area. With a fast wit and even faster right hook, Robert Urich’s titular private eye — often seen behind the wheel of a battered ’66 Mustang and packing a Beretta 9mm — gave good noir. But even casual viewers, like me, know the best part of the series was Avery Brooks’s icy-cool Hawk, a trenchcoat-wearing mob enforcer who often teamed up with Spenser to crack heads and cases. Impressively, “Spenser” was shot on location in Boston, even during the winter, meaning it offered plenty of local flavor and some memorably snowy chases across Beacon Hill. That commitment to authenticity is classic Parker.
I know, I know! It doesn’t take place in Boston. But the first few seasons were consumed by story lines intimately connected to South Boston, where the Donovan family — and their accents, some OK, some unbearable — originated before moving to the West Coast. It might as well have been set here, as two of the Donovan brothers — Ray and Bunchy — were abused as children by their South Boston priest and struggled to cope with the post-trauma. Ultimately, Ray ended the guilty priest’s life, if not the serious damage the priest did. Another major early story line involved a gangster named Sully, who was the show’s stand-in for Whitey Bulger, along with a Boston Globe reporter looking into his death. After the first two or three seasons, the show drifted away from its Boston-centricism, as well as from its sharp storytelling, but early on it was deep in the Southie grain.
Before it spun off into the meta-absurdities of “Boston Legal,” David E. Kelley’s drama was a legit legal thriller. And it was a good one, paving the way for the likes of “The Good Wife.” At one point in the genesis of prime time, drama writers were encouraged to avoid multi-episode plot arcs; executives thought they turned a series into a cult and alienated potential new viewers. But Kelley ignored the taboo, and he extended the show’s legal cases across a handful of hours, allowing them to deepen and allowing him to play — and then play some more — with our expectations. The ragtag law firm, run by Dylan McDermott’s financially strapped Bobby Donnell, took on cases that dug into ethical issues about cigarette companies, assisted suicide, and knowingly defending murderers. One of the best cases, about a diabolically clever serial killer, introduced the world to Michael Emerson at his creepiest best; he went on to star in “Lost” and “Person of Interest.” Like “Ally McBeal,” “The Practice” contained very little Boston flavor beyond the names of neighborhoods, but that didn’t lessen its excellence.
“City on a Hill”
Sure, it’s just now finishing up its first season over on Showtime, meaning “City on a Hill” could still go downhill fast in future episodes. But did you really think a series bent on becoming Boston’s answer to “The Wire” wouldn’t make this list? The early episodes have painted a colorful — but mightily convincing — picture of the city’s crime-riddled ’90s, from opening with the infamous Charles Stuart case to tracing the ties that bind a decorated but dirty FBI agent (Kevin Bacon, whose accent’s better than you’d think) and a hard-charging assistant district attorney (Aldis Hodge). As they hunt a family of armored car thieves from Charlestown — the series taking admirable care to follow the cops and robbers about equally — “City on a Hill” pulls back to evaluate wholesale the infernal machinery of Boston’s criminal justice system. Though parts of the show’s first season were shot here, it might be a sore spot for some that production primarily took place in New York (amusingly, according to one writer on the show, because modern-day Boston’s too pretty to play its former self). Most will nonetheless give Quincy-bred showrunner Chuck MacLean credit for how thoughtfully he tangles with one of his city’s most tumultuous eras.
Do you think I would dare to leave out this crowd favorite, an NBC “must-see” classic that ran for 11 seasons and won 28 Emmys? For so many people across the country, “Cheers” is synonymous with Boston, as thousands of tourists per year visit both the Beacon Hill pub the show is based on and the re-created set at Faneuil Hall. The show worked toward some authentic local flavor; we knew that Ted Danson’s bartender, Sam Malone, had been a relief pitcher for the Red Sox, we heard about local sports players and their teams, we listened to Cliff’s exaggerated Boston accent, and we watched local celebs such as Tip O’Neill and Kevin McHale put in cameos. But then so much of the sitcom took place inside the bar, Boston was ultimately more conceptual than real. With its ensemble of friends-as-family, its extended story arcs, and its central will-they-or-won’t-they relationship, “Cheers” was a hugely influential TV comedy. The quality of the show went up and down, but overall, it was classic comfort-food comedy.
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