Why We Love TV Comedies Set in Small TownsPhoto Courtesy of Peacock Comedy Features Rutherford Falls
Rutherford Falls was sadly cancelled last September after its stellar second season, just one of the many series that have been undervalued by networks that continually put profit margins over poignant storytelling. The show, which focuses on the two history nerds Reagan (Jana Schmieding) and Nathan (Ed Helms) as they preserve the past in their respective workplaces and find meaning in the present, proves charming because of the colorful cast of characters that bring the titular town to life. Even the opening credits—panning from an illustrated version of the casino to the lacrosse field to the heritage museum—foster a sense of place, adding in-jokes in nearly every frame.
The Peacock sitcom isn’t alone in utilizing the small town setting. In recent years, Schitt’s Creek garnered nine Emmys and two Golden Globe wins for its loving yet hilarious depiction of the poorly-named hamlet and its residents. Series like Parks and Recreation, Gilmore Girls, Letterkenny, and Northern Exposure all mine the comedy of what it’s like to live in a place where everyone has their noses in each others’ business. And just last year, Welcome to Flatch, based on the UK series This Country, returned for a second season, showcasing life in a fictional Ohio town (and fingers crossed it’ll return for a third).
So why do we love the small town comedy so much? From a writer’s perspective, it’s a tidy set-up. You have a cast of quirky characters and your own neatly defined world to play with, which is much more manageable than, say, the potential sprawl of a series set in New York City. Everyone knows each other already, which gets around lengthy and awkward exposition, but also provides opportunity. Small communities are perfectly crafted for a the classic fish-out-of-water story—for example, the wealthy, cosmopolitan Rose family relocating to Schitt’s Creek after losing their fortune, or Ben and Chris moving to Pawnee in Parks and Rec, only to find themselves more out of their depths than they expected.
There is also, of course, the romanticization of small towns that comes with American pop culture (I know Schitt’s Creek and Letterkenny are Canadian, but bear with me and cue some John Cougar Mellencamp). American idealization of close-knit communities dates back to Thomas Jefferson’s love of the agrarian lifestyle. And while he sucks, we still see small towns—whether centered around farming or not—held up as some sort of “real America” by politicians. These places are condescendingly considered purer and more wholesome than other parts of the country (a notion which 30 Rock lambasted in the Season 4 episode “Stone Mountain,” as a foulmouthed ventriloquist proves that “country folk” can be just as vitriolic as those from the city).
But the affinity for small town comedies comes from a more basic instinct: connection. The sense of community we see in places like Stars Hollow, Schitt’s Creek, Rutherford Falls, Cicely, Letterkenny, Pawnee, and other fictional towns may be lacking in our own lives. I’m not just talking about living in a big city (which I personally love). Even if you reside in a less populated area, the ties that bind have frayed. Much of this is thanks to demands of capitalism. Mark Fisher examined the destabilizing effects of post-Fordist work in Capitalist Realism:
As the organization of work is decentralized, with lateral networks replacing pyramidal hierarchies, a premium is put on ‘flexibility.’…The values that family life depends upon—obligation, trustworthiness, commitment—are precisely those which are held to be obsolete in the new capitalism.
The stresses of capitalism-caused instability on families can be extrapolated to communities, as the necessity of working in a gig economy prevents long-lasting ties from being forged. You may work in another town, or from home, or be forced to change jobs regularly. America—more specifically, late capitalism-era America—has sold us on the promise of individualism, making us forget our obligations to each other as human beings. These comedies, though, focus on characters who feel responsible for one another. Reagan of Rutherford Falls feels the need to educate her fellow members of the Minishonka Nation on their history. Lorelei Gilmore supports her Independence Inn co-workers and is deeply embedded in the goings-on of Stars Hollow. Leslie Knope strives to make sure that everyone in Pawnee loves where they live. The Roses’ seasons-long character arcs from self-absorbed elites to slightly less self-absorbed community members demonstrate the meaning found in personal connection.
TV has long been synonymous with escapism, and these comedies are no different. They’re fantasies, versions of our lives that are difficult or outright unattainable in 2022. How do we create community when the system thwarts stability and interpersonal connection at every turn? We’re too busy making ends meet to see our friends, or don’t have enough money to go for a meal together, or don’t live close enough to our friends in the first place. Funnily enough, the answer itself is connection through collective action. Small town comedies may seem on the surface like a representation of old-fashioned, conservative ideals, but they can also be an opportunity for anti-capitalist radicalization.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast and Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.