My adopted city is going through a lot right now. There are simple common sense reasons why New York’s number of Covid-19 cases are so much more numerous than the rest of the country’s, even accounting for the fact that we’re doing more testing here. The main reason, articulated so eloquently by Governor Cuomo, is that this is where the people are. And not just “people” — but people from everywhere on earth, constantly moving in and out, and all in close physical proximity to each other. I’m just a few miles from Flushing, Queens, the most diverse place on earth. There’s little doubt that people from China, Italy, Iran, and everywhere else that had the disease have been here, bringing the delightful microbe with them (and get ready — because there is also little doubt that people from here have been to your town as well). Anyway, right now it may look like New York is where the death is, but that’s only because New York is where the life is. That’s why those of us who weren’t born here moved here. We were ATTRACTED. Like moths to a candle, like flies to a Venus Flytrap? Maybe. But such light! Such nectar! Those who can’t take it, they go back home. The rest of us, come what may, have no regrets.
I’m from a small town in New England, and images of NYC from movies and television in the 1970s and early ’80s beguiled me, seduced me, really. Just over 40 years ago I made my first trip to New York, a school field trip, and man, that did it. We went to Leo Lindy’s Restaurant. Look! I later inserted my own photo amongst all the other comedians on the placemat.
I saw my first Broadway show — West Side Story at the MInskoff Theatre on that trip. I’m now friends with one of the producers of that very production! I didn’t know that until recently, I still have yet to tell him, to thank him for that. That experience literally changed my life. Anyway, the Minskoff is dark at the moment, thanks to the pandemic. A friend took this picture the other day:
That’s what become of the hustle and bustle of Broadway. This has to be its greatest crisis since the early 1930s. So it seems like a good time for a little cheering celebration of this beleaguered, bunkered-down town.
Here are eight television shows that made me fall in love with NY and want to move here. With one exception, the shows are about the grit and struggle of life in Manhattan. While there were plenty of shows I enjoyed that were set in uptown penthouses (e.g., Family Affair or The Jeffersons) or the outer boroughs (All in the Family a or Welcome Back Kotter ) or the New York suburbs (The Dick Van Dyke Show or Maude) what attracted me most as a kid was the idea of being in the thick of things, where all the action was. The resilience, the toughness, the humor, the colorful characters. Is it an angry place? Yes. I LOVE anger. Most of these shows didn’t sugarcoat it. They showed that life in New York could be a hassle, an inconvenience, even a trial. But it was always somehow WORTH it. That’s what’s always intrigued me about it. What could be worth that frustration? I had to find out. New York really is like the Emerald City. It’s the Emerald City with realism.
Here are the shows:
That Girl — This sitcom featuring Marlo Thomas as aspiring New York actress Ann Marie ran from 1966 through 1971, so I watched it mostly in reruns. As I wrote in my post, it may have been one of the earliest factors that inspired me to pursue theatre and show business, and certainly one of the first that taught me to respect and admire independent career women, however daffy and adorable Ann Marie was. While Ann was always having to take quotidian survival jobs, her life seemed to have glamor and excitement. As did that of her boyfriend Donald, who worked at a magazine, another career goal I eventually realized!
The Odd Couple — This influential show ran from 1970 through 1975, and as I wrote here I’ve seen every episode at least a half dozen time in reruns. As a professional photographer and a newspaper sports columnist, Felix and Oscar lived a more upscale lifestyle than the characters on most of these other shows. They lived in a doorman building; Felix attended the opera and museums, and Oscar got to watch his ball games from the press box; and they both interacted with celebrities. But they still had to deal with the same New York inconveniences as other mortals: crime, blackouts, smelly subways.
McCloud — While I also watched other NYC cop shows of the era, like Kojak and Baretta ,what made McCloud special is that it allowed us to experience New York through the eyes of an outsider. It was all about the culture clash between a friendly, open hearted New Mexico lawman and the cynical, streetwise New York cops, robbers, and citizens he constantly interacted with. For those of us outside New York, he was our Virgil in this concrete Hades. McCloud ran 1970-77. More on the show here.
Rhoda — This wonderful spinoff of The Mary Tyler Moore Show brought that show’s wisecracking best friend, a department store window dresser, back to her native city. Other than the cray-cray title sequence we seldom got exteriors of the city, but Valerie Harper’s CHARACTER — that ACCENT! — brought it all to us. I loved the way she said “Ma”, for example. It seemed to encapsulate the entire immigrant experience in one syllable, two letters. The show ran 1974-78. More on it here.
Barney Miller — The first place I ever saw the World Trade Center was in the opening credits to Barney Miller. I first visited the Twin Towers on that first trip to NYC too; we went up to the observation deck — but I’ve spilled a million words on that topic elsewhere. The genius of Barney Miller (1974-82) was that the very setting for the show — a plainclothes detective squad in lower Manhattan — was a crossroads for every kind of colorful NYC nut or malcontent, as I wrote here.
Taxi — Likewise with Taxi (1978-83), one of the most perfect sitcoms of all time — the situation of being professional cab drivers allows the characters (already a wonderful cross-section of humanity themselves) to meet and interact with every conceivable type of person moving through New York. In point of fact, Taxi was my comfort show just a couple of days ago — I binge-watched a bunch of the first season to escape the horrible news of the day. More on the show here.
Fame — The tv series Fame ran from 1982 through 1987. As will already be apparent from the above jottings I was a drama nerd in high school, so we were all hardcore devotees of this show, which was about kids at New York’s high school for the performing arts. Our annual Junior Year talent show even had highly Fame-inspired dance numbers. More appreciation here.
The Honeymooners — Here’s my one exception to the “no outer boroughs” rule. Ralph Kramden drove a bus in Manhattan, but he and his wife Alice lived in Brooklyn. I include The Honeymooners on this list because I have always found something romantic — kind of “storybook” — about that apartment. It’s so simple and picturesque. They don’t appear to own anything — like ANYTHING. It reminds me of a frontier cabin or a cottage in a fairy tale. It’s dreamlike. A table, 2 chairs, a fridge, a stove, and some kind of secretary next to the door. That’s it. And a bedroom we never see. And the fire escape out the window — ESPECIALLY that fire escape, which is so exotic to those of us who are not from the city. If you don’t romanticize poverty, you REALLY won’t understand, but I have always been drawn to the bohemian New York, the place of poor poets in garrets writing by the light of a candle in a bottle. Ralph Kramden is not THAT — but his apartment is. Naturally I watched these classic episodes from 1955-56 two decades later in syndication. More on it here.
Those are the eight! Now: many of you will scream Friends or Seinfeld or Law and Order! but guess what? When those shows debuted I had already moved here! The deal was already sealed by then. But rest assured, those shows would most certainly would have bolstered my internal argument for coming here, and they certainly enhance my appreciation now. Be safe and healthy, friends!