In the chorus of the song “Team,” Lorde sings,
We live in cities you'll never see onscreen
Not very pretty, but we sure know how things.
Whenever I hear that line, I cheer along, internally—I too am from an offscreen city, I think. But on reflection, it seems like non-hub cities are nearly always the ones you see on the screen these days. Think about the setting of Ozark and of Breaking Bad before it: the attention to the details of ordinary neighborhoods in the Southwest and Midwest, not ruined but in the slow process of ruination, homes built in the ’70s and never updated, small town business strips emptied out except for antique stores and city hall.
Think of how many people around the world now recognize Scranton, Pennsylvania; Pawnee, Indiana; or Letterkenny, Ontario. A story set in Manhattan? Sounds like a splashy, high-budget romcom from 30 years ago that starts with gratuitous helicopter shots of skyscrapers—a dinosaur, in other words. 1988’s Mystic Pizza and its exploration of a sleepy Connecticut town was a better indicator of what was to come than When Harry Met Sally, Pretty Woman, or Serendipity that came in between.
On the one hand, this line from Lorde is just the classic gesture towards home, an artist representing the community she came from, trying to say that one of us made it for the rest of us. On the other hand, it’s probably false. In singing the line, it becomes untrue: she has put her city on a stage.
Obscurity is central to many Midwestern origin stories. In creating a personal mythology, being “from nowhere” makes “becoming something” a more interesting narrative. Obscure origins and interests become a point of pride, a reason to see ambition as worthy and not just ordinary upward striving that we share with people everywhere.
Lorde is from Auckland, New Zealand. With a population of over one and a half million people, it’s the largest city in New Zealand, a small country notorious as a destination for tourism and as the filming location for Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films. And similar cities are onscreen, relentlessly.
I was born in Boston and grew up in St. Louis, two places that productions have glommed onto because of the very nature of their grim ordinariness. Before Mystic River or Good Will Hunting, greater Boston was just another collection of post-industrial New England communities crumbling into poverty, not a well-defined cultural touchstone for corruption, Catholicism, and hard lessons about the way things are. Boston movies, in a way, set the precedent for why it could be fun and commercially worthwhile to feature cities outside of New York.
The film Up in the Air featured a George Clooney character traveling to various sad-looking Midwestern cities after the 2008 recession, but in fact they were all just shots of St. Louis, Mo., from different angles, including scenes in Affton, one suburb over from where I grew up.
There’s a memorable monologue where Clooney speaks up for St. Louis’s airport, once a hub for the vanished TWA. His sister had asked him to take a photo with Lambert in the background. Anna Kendrick’s character, taking the picture, asks him what the point is. “Are you kidding—Lambert Field? The Wright brothers flew through there,” he replies enthusiastically. “That domed main terminal is the first of its kind, it's a precursor of everything from JFK to de Gaulle.” He has the obscure secret knowledge that helps explain, after all, why St. Louis matters, why everyone else is foolish for not knowing about the place.
I could have stood up and cheered when I first heard it. But now, I think it’s a little like the Lorde song—the place’s obscurity is used as the justification for its value. And in talking about it to millions of viewers, the beloved obscurity slips away as soon as it’s recognized.
Is it actually interesting to have grown up somewhere outside of New York or LA, or is that just a useful myth for a Midwesterner trying to create meaning out of an ordinary life? Maybe—it depends. One thing I’ve learned is that I’m less interested in art that sets itself in a lesser-known place just to add an aesthetic grimness and more interested in projects that investigate the identity of a place on its own terms.
That’s why coming across Adult Swim’s Joe Pera Talks to You shorts felt like such a revelation. The titular character is a middle school choir teacher who speaks directly to the viewer like Mr. Rogers or Bob Ross, trying to describe the constellation of places and things that make his corner of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, or UP, a place of wonder rather than boredom. In the middle of the informative monologues, he’s often derailed by other characters. In the first episode, “Joe Pera Shows You Iron,” a documentary about the UP’s rocks and minerals instead becomes an introduction to his friends and neighbors. Composing a musical about the Rat Wars of Alberta for his students to perform becomes an argument with Sarah Conner (Jo Firestone), a music teacher with whom he’s beginning a relationship, about whether his interest in obscure subjects actually matters in the context of threats from climate change and food insecurity. Like a good essay, the episodes begin with one topic and opens unexpected doors to others.
The episodes that follow chase that idea—do my obscure interests matter?—with a level of insight I did not expect to find in comedy shorts. It’s a show about young adults realizing they aren’t finished growing up, and perhaps never will be. Joe, raised by his grandparents and often acting out a character that is half obsessive teenager, half grandfather, grows into a more mature relationship to his passions. He’s able to balance healthy bonds with Sarah and others while trying to tell the outside world about Sugarloaf Mountain, growing beans, or the lighthouses of Lake Superior. He might spend days on his backyard bean arch, but he also helps care for his neighbor’s kids while the parents move through a rough patch in their marriage.
Joe Pera Talks to You feels like something that could only have been made in the UP, even when the plot isn’t necessarily UP specific. The grocery store, the middle school, and the local church give me the sense that the show lives in Marquette, Mich., even when it’s offscreen (after all, it’s only onscreen for 11 minutes at a time.) That, I think, is what makes it different from the way a show like Ozark approaches its setting. Southwest Missouri is there chiefly to provide an ambience of desperation and decay. Missourians might recognize the place, but ultimately the Ozarks could be substituted for other economically depressed areas without the show losing much meaning. Ozark is set where it is because Breaking Bad already covered doing crimes in the desert, not because it has much to say about the unique truths of living near an artificial lake in the lower Midwest.
I’ve never been to the UP, so perhaps it’s not fair for me to judge Joe Pera’s verisimilitude. But what it stands for, in my mind, is art that’s of a place, not just incidental to it. It speaks truths shared by many Midwesterners: having a personal geography of places that sound largely uninteresting for tourists but are beloved to you, seeing a modestly-sized city like Milwaukee as a metropolis, smaller things like the weekly trip to a supermarket with wide aisles and familiar people. And it reckons with the question of obscurity: whether the obscurity of a subject is enough, on its own, to make it worthwhile. The answer the show comes up with is something like: not necessarily, but if you can show why the thing means something to you and your own story, then it could be interesting.
Even though I quibble with her phrasing, I think this is what Lorde was getting at in “Team”—what it means to love a place that most others see as uninteresting. “Team” and Joe Pera are trying to do something beautiful and strange, which is to explain love, as accurately as possible, to an uninterested third person. It’s the song I find myself singing all the time.
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