How the Pacific Northwest Became TV’s Favorite Setting for Speculative Fiction

TV Features Pacific Northwest
How the Pacific Northwest Became TV’s Favorite Setting for Speculative Fiction

If television is to be believed, the temperate rainforests and rocky seashores of America’s Pacific Northwest are filled with time travelers, mad scientists, vampires, witches, werewolves, more time travelers, shape-shifting lady seamonsters, fairytale monsters passing as human, fairytale hunters passing as law enforcement, actual fae passing as both, still more time travelers, zombies, huckster cryptids, real cryptids, belly-buttonless alien-clone-mystery boys, even more time travelers, multiple Bigfeet, and at least two Kyles MacLachlan.

And it’s not just traditional television that’s pushing this regionally specific (sur)reality: Boasting the tagline Only Slightly Exaggerated, the Miyazaki-inflected Travel Oregon ad published to YouTube virality in March of this year goes so far as to suggest that the Beaver State is teeming with cloud-sized rabbits, whale-filled clouds, and smiling caterpillars riding their fixies all over the verdant mountainous wilds surrounding the city hipsters go to retire.

Of course, barring the many Kyles MacLachlan flitting around the country’s every burg, (probably) none of these spooky, supernatural things are real. The Pacific Northwest, however, is. And something about it, some intrinsic part of its green, rainy soul, has attracted such a great magnitude of American television’s sci-fi, fantasy, and supernatural storytellers over the last few decades that the identity of speculative fiction has become as firmly tied to the moody, lichen-swathed forests of the Pacific Northwest as noir got tied to the hot, neon-soaked streets of Los Angeles in the 1940s.

The trend started out slow, with Twin Peaks (Washington) and Harry and the Hendersons (Washington) premiering in 1990 and 1991, respectively, but started picking up steam after Dead Like Me (Seattle) and The 4400 (Washington) got in the game in 2003 and 2004, with Kyle XY (Seattle) and Eureka (Oregon) premiering in 2006, The Secret Circle (Washington) and Grimm (Portland) in 2011, Continuum (Vancouver, BC) and Gravity Falls (Oregon) in 2012, iZombie (Seattle on television/Eugene, OR in the original graphic novels) in 2015, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (Seattle) and Travelers (unclear, but somewhere near Olympia/Seattle/Portland) in 2016, and both Siren (Washington) and The Crossing (Coastal Oregon and Seattle) this spring. Rick and Morty, recently renewed for [checks notes] one billion more seasons, (apocryphally) takes the Seattle exurbs as its rare Earth-based setting.

So, sure, a terrestrial sci-fi/fantasy/horror/monster show could be set anywhere across the continent—The Originals and True Blood have made stellar use of Louisiana’s inherent spookiness, while Wynonna Earp and Warehouse 13 find barren mysticism in the high desert plains, and The Vampire Diaries and Falling Skies mine the bleak colonial magic of Virginia and New England—but based on sheer volume alone, it’s increasingly those sweet, sweet coastal range breezes that keep sounding their siren song. Even the short-lived MTV/Spike adaptation of The Shannara Chronicles (2016-2017), full as it was with elves and orcs and magic trees and in zero evident need of ties to a recognizable contemporary setting, was set in a post-apocalyptic Pacific Northwest several millennia in the future.

So what is it, exactly, about the Pacific Northwest that has put it in such a genre-defining position?

The most prosaic answer is that Vancouver (British Columbia) is such a booming industry town—at the time of publication, there are 19 movies and television series filming in Vancouver; 62 have wrapped since 2018 began—that it makes as much sense to force a series’ setting to match Vancouver-like locations as not. But the PNW setting isn’t limited to live-action series, and the majority of the projects filming in Vancouver, spec-fic or otherwise, aren’t set in the PNW, so there must be other factors at work. Which means [adjusts Dipper Pines conspiracy hat] it’s time for some theories.

Theory #1: Go West, Young Man

California has the earned reputation as the romanticized ideal at the far end of the myth of the American West (in which, according to scholar Richard Slotkin, America is seen as “a wide-open land of unlimited opportunity for the strong, ambitious, self-reliant individual to thrust his way to the top”) but the formative computer game of 1990s kids’ youths wasn’t called The California Trail: it was called The Oregon Trail. Oregon—and by geographic extension, Washington and Vancouver—was as wide-open and promising a frontier for pioneers and 19th-century mythmakers as was California, just with a topography shrouded in dense mossed forests and rain rather than blessed by sun and friendly, endless surf.

That is, the Pacific Northwest contains all the possibility of self-reinvention and the discovery of untold riches that California does, just framed by a mist and mystery that takes what in California becomes bustling creative, industrial, and technological output and instead twists it into a proliferation of supernatural poppycock.

Enter, the disorientingly surreal possibility barely contained in Twin Peaks’ borders. Enter, the surreally familiar possibility bursting from Gravity Falls’ seams.

“Everything in the Mystery Shack is some form of smoke and mirrors and general hokum,” Gravity Falls creator Alex Hirsch told The Oregonian in 2012. “It’s a boring day job and serves as a point of ironic contrast to the fact that the real magic and mystery is all outside in the woods.”

Theory #2: #KeepItWeird

Stuck between the Cascades and the Pacific, Oregon and Washington’s cultural capitals—Eugene, Salem, Portland, Tacoma, Seattle—have developed aggressively quirky personalities. Eugene is where hippies go to die. Portland is where young people go to retire (Portlandia is basically a documentary). Seattle is notoriously proud of its counterculture history, despite being a contemporary corporate mecca. If there was ever going to be a region of the country that demanded co-identification with the supernatural weirdos of the world, that would so readily accept a secret DOD-funded town housing the world’s maddest mad scientists, or a holistic detective agency run by a British weirdo in a bright yellow leather jacket, or a major city being overrun by non-feral zombies and taken over by a zombie-led black ops organization and policed by a zombie-staffed police force whose resident zombies eat murder victims’ brains and overdramatically take on the biggest parts of their personalities, costumes and accents and all, it would be the PNW.

New Seattle: the most believable thing currently happening on iZombie.

Theory #3: A Land of Opposites

While the PNW shows that have taken over genre television in the past decade mostly keep to the bigger foothills cities, there are enough that are set on the coast or in the wilderness that it’s clear that the inherent oppositeness of the region is a major factor in its genre-defining role. Mountains and ocean, high plains and dense forests, the rural and the metropolitan, the super progressive and the super conservative—all of these things exist in the Pacific Northwest (with both hopeful and infuriatingly shameful consequences), and the natural tensions those opposites create in reality are reflected in the supernatural tensions that speculative fic stories aim to illuminate.

While it had plenty of storytelling flaws, it was this tension that made NBC’s Grimm such a compelling series, taking those opposites native to the PNW region and framing them with all the violence, moral grayness, and conflicting identity issues inherent to fairy tales. Portland doesn’t actually have wesin “others” living among its human citizens in all those great (real!) Portland craftsman homes, but in a state so historically, shamefully, violently exclusive with such passionately progressive modern politics, it definitely could. The same goes for all the many time travel series that land (literally) in the PNW: For all the region feels like it’s on the socio-cultural vanguard, it has some real out-of-time conservatism.

Theory #4: Spook-Adjacent Dreariness

At the end of it all, though, is just the utter spookiness of seemingly eternal clouds and rain. That’s nothing to sneeze at! Seattle has upwards of 160 days of rain per year. Portland and Eugene (full disclosure: home of an alma mater) are nearly as dreary. This makes for an explosion of verdant vibrancy in the summers, but the rest of the year…

Well, let’s just say a pod of rat-chomping fish-girls coming ashore to steal Huskies’ sweatshirts off clotheslines and terrorize the local population doesn’t sound impossible.

While most of these series repping the PNW have been relegated to television history by now (including, most recently, The Crossing), Siren, iZombie, and Travelers are all still with us, and if the snowballing of the trend continues, they’ll just be joined by more down the road. And while I certainly wouldn’t want all speculative fiction to go the way of the Bigfoot, I definitely look forward to watching it continue to grow and #KeepItWeird with the evolving PNW identity.

Siren airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on Freeform. iZombie airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on The CW. Travelers is now streaming on Netflix.

Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.

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