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What the decade’s top movies and TV shows say about our cities

Thought-provoking set design and urban insights on the big and small screen

A still from the movie Black Panther set on a landing pad in the fictional city of Birnin Zana.
Wakanda, the kingdom that takes center stage in Black Panther, shows a vision of a city that actually works.
Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Studios

During the age of peak television and rapidly proliferating streaming services, TV and film viewers have had more choices than ever, making it that much harder for anything to break through the clutter. But even in an era with fewer common cultural touchstones, there were spaces and places we saw on screen that were particularly memorable and significant.

In keeping with Curbed’s interest in set design, and how it reflects architecture, urbanism, and design trends, we’ve curated a list of nine settings from film and television that helped define the last decade. This selection isn’t intended to be a list of the best examples of each genre. It’s not even a list of the most influential. But it does aspire to list the places, the settings, that helped capture the aesthetic and visual tone of the 2010s, and perhaps help, in some way, to explain the decade.

Wakanda, Black Panther

A still from the film Black Panther showing the city of Wakanda.
In Black Panther, the city of Birnin Zana combined traditional African architecture, incredibly sophisticated urban technology, and next-level public transit.
©Marvel Studios 2018

Technology, and of our perceptions of technology, shifted over the course of the 2010s. Many startups hailed as solutions to urban problems have proven to be, if not outright busts, complicated companies that have exacerbated existing issues. It was so thrilling at a time of tech skepticism to see Wakanda, the kingdom that takes center stage in Black Panther, show a vision of a city that actually works.

As Curbed’s Alissa Walker wrote after the film came out, the city of Birnin Zana combined traditional African architecture, incredibly sophisticated urban technology, and next-level public transit. Even better, it was a vision of “grassroots urbanism where the residents have customized their structures and their communities to fit their needs.” The future of smart cities doesn’t need to be designed by a tech giant or be top-down megalopolises shaped by authoritarian data collection. Wakanda offers a vision of technology serving city residents, and an optimism often missing from recent science fiction—and city planning.

Magic Castle Motel, The Florida Project

A man and child meet outside a room of a roadside motel in Florida.
Six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and Bobby (Willem Dafoe) at the Magic Castle Motel in The Florida Project.
Marc Schmidt

Set in the shadows of Disneyworld in a series of past-their-prime roadside Florida motels, The Florida Project tells the story of six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), her mom Halley (Bria Vinaite), and Bobby (Willem Dafoe), and the well-meaning manager who can’t manage to save them. The film offers a gut-wrenching portrait of Americans slipping through the frayed edges of the social safety net. It’s a cruel childhood saga that dramatizes the dark thesis of sociological chronicles like Nickel and Dimed and Evicted: This nation and its citizens face rampant housing insecurity.

Gilead, Handmaid’s Tale

A rich interior of a home in the television series A Handmaid’s Tale, featuring white marble, rich green colors, and low light.
“She should feel like a mouse in a cage,” says production designer Julie Berghoff of the handmaid Offred, played by Elisabeth Moss. Hulu

This Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel debuted seemingly in concert with the rise of the anti-Trump #Resistance and the #MeToo movements, offering a chilling, worst-case scenario to many who were afraid of threats to reproductive freedom and civil rights. The grim but detailed production design did succeed in bringing the repressive, theocratic, male-dominated regime of Atwood’s imagination into sharp, unsettling, and piercing detail—production designer Julie Berghoff told Curbed about using colors and sets, such as the bleak bedroom of Handmaiden Offred (Elizabeth Moss), as tools of character development.

BoJack Horseman’s House, BoJack Horseman

A still from the Netflix series Bojack Horseman. Bojack stands on a roof deck. The roof deck has a swimming pool, lounge chairs, and palm trees. The adjacent house is pink.
BoJack Horseman’s Hollywoo Hills home.

Of all the journalistic tropes that have taken shape during the last decade, one of the most reliable has been the New York media getting Los Angeles wrong (for California-curious Manhattanites, here’s the info you really need). These consistently incorrect takes make it even more entertaining that one of the best portrayals of Los Angeles comes from an adult cartoon named after an anthropomorphic horse/washed-up sitcom star.

BoJack Horseman skewers so many aspects of the 2010s—celebrity culture, journalism, social media—but, as Curbed’s Alissa Walker writes, it still manages to “create an entire Los Angeles universe that feels like it was made for people in LA.” Many of the greatest shows of the decade manage to combine excellent writing and acting with a real sense of where the story takes place; BoJack does it one better with a lovingly crafted parody of place that navigates the tight space between tired jokes and insidery winks.

A parade of farmhouse-chic homes, Fixer Upper

Television stars Chip and Joanna Gaines stand in front of a bookshelf, fireplace, and mantle.
Chip and Joanna Gaines show off their latest renovation.
Photos courtesy of HGTV

Few networks defined the reality of real estate in the 2010s like HGTV. And among the many reality TV celebs to grace the network’s lineup, few had the cultural cache of Chip and Joanna Gaines. Even Marie Kondo, arguably in the same pantheon of stardom, can’t be said to have popularized a style, or be linked to as many purchases. The Gaines’s didn’t invent reclaimed wood interiors or hanging Edison lightbulbs, they just mainstreamed the modern farmhouse and probably got your mother to invest in some shiplap and an apron sink.

Don Draper’s apartment, Mad Men

Mad Men’s Don Draper stands in the empty, sunken living room of his empty, midcentury modern apartment in Manhattan.
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) confronts an empty apartment in Mad Men.

This series, a pillar of the era of serious television, thrives on both the selling and deconstruction of the American Dream. What space represents those impulses better than the Manhattan home of Don Draper (Jon Hamm), where the creative force tries to sell himself and others on his success and happiness? One of many influential, meaningful, and, in many cases, magnificent examples of midcentury and modernist design in TV and film this decade (see also the homes in Ex-Machina and Arrival), Don’s living space finds him drowning in his own deceit, and often taking others down with him.

Mexico City, Roma

A husband and wife embrace next to their car as one of their children and the family’s maid look on from the sidewalk.
The rich recreation of the Roma neighborhood in Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical film is a visual marvel.
Photo by Carlos Somonte/Netflix

Many of the decade’s greatest moments on screens big and small recreated a place and time with great skill and care. Few were as transportive as Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical look back at his early ‘70s childhood in Mexico City. While the set pieces were climactic and charged, especially a riot that spills across the city, it’s the small flashes of the domestic life of the family maid Cleodegaria “Cleo” Gutiérrez (Yalitza Aparicio), from hanging laundry on the rooftops to scrubbing the driveway, that provide the kind of detail that only comes from nostalgic attention.

Suburban subdivision, Get Out

Guests at an outdoor party stand around and raise their glasses.
Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) stands in the center of a increasingly anxious scene from Get Out.
Justin Lubin/Universal Pictures

Jordan Peele’s film debut established him as not only a master of the horror genre and a talented filmmaker, but immediately vaulted him into the lofty realm of a director with something to say that everyone needs to hear. And while the film is filled with terrifying places, both physical and mental—the mad scientist basement of the Armitage family, the sunken place where Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) sinks with slow-motion dread, a contemporary United States where Chris fears the final flashing lights he sees may be a cop that will shoot first and ask questions later—one of the scariest moments takes place in the creepy, dimly-lit suburb where a black man is snatched and kidnapped for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Peele plays on, and examines, a whole host of racial tensions and terror in this film, but from the outset, the idea of the suburb as a place hostile to a black man—an idea that formed the basis of this nation’s housing policy—immediately underscores why he calls this movie a “social thriller.”

Various New York apartments, High Maintenance

High Maintenance’s main character, the weed deliveryman Guy, being greeted by a customer.
Guy (played by High Maintenance co-creator Ben Sinclair) looks up as one of his clients gets a closer look.

So many shows showed the reality of life in the big city in the 2010s, but the ones that really succeeded, like Broad City and this web series-turned HBO show, made sure to mix pathos with laughs. How else could you approach urban living in America, as costs escalate, opportunities decrease, and public transit systems fall apart?

As I wrote earlier this year, “the travails of the Guy (played by High Maintenance co-creator Ben Sinclair) is simply a comedy of errors about that particular urban fixture, the affable weed delivery guy, cycling between customers with comedy ensuing at every stop.” But the parade of apartments, situations, and cultures Guy connects with during his trips around the city not only show the rich diversity and beauty in New York, but also the human stories behind oftentimes faceless streets.