If New York City seems inundated by endless rows of film trucks and mazes of spotlights backlighting corners around Brooklyn and Manhattan, it’s because it is. As binge watching and new networks have facilitated a scripted-television renaissance over the last few years, few places have benefitted as much as New York, which now plays host to a local film industry adding $9 billion to the local economy. A record 52 series shot in the city during the 2015–2016 season.
But have our portrayals of New York kept up with the changing metropolis, and deepened our understanding of contemporary city life? The portrayal of the city has come a long way from turn-of-the-Millennium fables such as Friends and Sex and the City, generic, and many would argue fantastical, tales of city living that functioned like glossy lifestyle magazines.
But at a time when more and more young adults are moving into cities, the glut of televised dramas set in New York are challenged more than ever to showcase an authentic view of New York, to act less like single-camera situation comedies and more like dispatches. As writers, producers and showrunners continue to mine the city for new stories, should they question the impact of their work after the show airs?
A variety of recent shows have showcased corners of New York life that don’t often find themselves in the spotlight: High Maintenance, the cult-hit-turned-HBO-series about a weed deliveryman called "The Guy" that's actually more about his clients; the paranoid, politics-laden Mr. Robot on USA; and the summertime limited series from HBO The Night Of, which covered a murder trial and the suspect's home in an ethnically diverse Queens neighborhood.
Examples like these have driven some young filmmakers to focus more on the community aspect of their work. Local actor and writer Chris Myers recently filmed episodes of a show called Guap, a comedy series he crowdfunded on Kickstarter that tackles gentrification in the Washington Heights neighborhood. For him, it was vital that his show not repeat the mistakes of the past, and focus on involving the local community, a largely Dominican population, in as much of the creation and realization of the show as possible.
"One of the most destructive forces on the city of New York was Sex and the City," he says. "It was a tempting and detailed fantasy. I don’t think the Sex and the City creators paused to consider how they were shaping the city. It’s definitely something I’m grappling with."
Myers isn’t claiming that his show, which was shot this summer and is still being edited, is in any danger of blowing up cupcake stores or inspiring double-decker bus tours. But he does believe in a better way, and is trying to set an example. He’s making sure the characters and extras are played by Dominican actors ("You’d be surprised how often this doesn’t happen," he says), and that the consulting chef for the series, which involves a restaurant, is Dominican, in this case, Kelvin Fernandez. When characters purchase beer at a local bodega in one episode, it’s from Dyckman Beer Company, started by a Washington Heights native.
Myers is also aware of the irony of shooting a series about gentrification in an area, and in effect, bringing more attention to that neighborhood, which could potentially cause more gentrification. Knotty cause-and-effect aside, he thinks it’s more important than ever for filmmakers and writers to examine issues of who moves into, and who is priced out of, a neighborhood, and how this urban push and pull can often be by design (a history that is part of the backdrop of the new Netflix series The Get Down). He wants to make something that’s grassroots. He’s excited to screen the show in the neighborhood; it’s more important that the community gets it, as opposed to the "anonymous internet."
"What are the responsibilities of filmmakers when it comes to this?" he says. "Everybody has to decide how they want to live in this world, and what questions they want to ask themselves. My work is very informed by the social and political issues."
Trying to identify a causal relationship between television and gentrification can be a very tricky game. It may be easy to say Girls hypes a certain type of over-the-top hipster lifestyle, but Lena Dunham’s series has also helped support and champion local businesses; during a community hearing last year about the impact of filming in New York, owners of Greenpoint’s Cafe Grumpy testified that the show attracted enough customers to help them "keep their doors open."
High Maintenance isn’t explicitly about gentrification; the show’s creators Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair, who plays The Guy, focus on making the actors sound "contemporary and colloquial," and strive for a similar visual aesthetic. The series, a DIY affair that premiered on Vimeo and just made the leap to HBO, excels at incredible character studies, creating a panorama of New Yorkers (and, perhaps, neuroses), but it also offers an authentic window into where and how these characters live.
"We were really interested in creating the most New York world possible," says production designer Almitra Corey, who joined the crew for the new season that premiered last week on HBO.
That meant searching for locations all day, every day, checking out a ton of apartments, and drawing inspirations from what they found during scouting trips that turned into sociological survey of NYC. Previous seasons offered slices of life from across the spectrum—from one couple’s mishaps with Airbnb and sharing their loft with eccentric guests, to a pioneering couple moving to Ditmas Park, beyond the "well-tred," gentrifying areas of Brooklyn, and struggling to survive the longer commute and maintain a connection to friends.
"I love that it still has that DIY vibe," says Corey. "We really tried to shoot in parts of New York that haven’t been featured as much as other shows. It’s not like we’re discovering new neighborhoods, obviously. But we’re trying to showcase places people aren’t as familiar with, go beyond Greenpoint and Williamsburg and explore places such as Crown Heights and Astoria."
Whether the issue is addressed directly or not, it’s difficult for a series to portray New York realistically without addressing the rapid pace of change, the rising cost of rent, and the feeling by many of displacement. As more and more cameras crawl across city streets, showcasing New York isn’t the issue; it's about framing that view with a sympathetic and honest storyline.