Indiana: Land of Possibility
Matthew Macke | Thursday, February 2, 2017
2009 was a landmark year for the state of Indiana. April of that year marked the beginning of Amy Poehler’s comedy sitcom, “Parks and Recreation.” A few months later, ABC’s under-the-radar sitcom “The Middle” launched with solid ratings and a fair amount of critical acclaim. I don’t think we knew then that a veritable Wabash River of Indiana-based television shows (by which I mean a total of four) would come flowing out of Hollywood.
The next program claiming Hoosier roots was Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” in 2015. Creator Tina Fey and the other writers undoubtedly saw how favorably audience’s reacted to Indiana and felt the need to hitch their wagon to the gravy train that is the “Crossroads of America.” While “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is primarily set in New York City — and deals with such big city issues as hipster gentrification — the titular indestructible heroine, Kimmy, was held prisoner in a bunker in her home state of Indiana for 15 years. Most of the show revolves around her attempts to adapt to modern society as a former “Indiana mole woman.”
Most recently, in 2016, Netflix decided to once again milk the Indiana cash cow by setting the vintage sci-fi horror “Stranger Things” in the 19th state admitted to the Union. The show was originally going to be set in (and named) Montauk, but I can only assume that someone in Netflix’s financial department set them straight.
Setting the sarcasm aside for now, it’s hard to explain why Indiana has become such a destination for television shows. It’s clear that audiences, and thus producers, are turning away from the city-centric programs of the 1990s and 2000s (think “Seinfeld,” “Friends” and “Sex and the City”), but they haven’t gone so far as to clamber for something pastoral. Instead, shows seem to have tried to become more adaptable, rather than pinning themselves to one certain setting or lifestyle.
This is where Indiana comes in. Nobody outside of Indiana really knows anything about Indiana. Even lifelong Hoosiers like myself have a tough time pointing to anything our state is really known for. The Indy 500, I guess, but I’ve never been. (Neither have any of the TV Hoosiers as far as I can tell.) It’s completely unremarkable. Michigan and Illinois, in Detroit and Chicago respectively, both contain major metropolitan areas that have already left a cultural impression in the minds of everyday Americans. Wisconsin has a stereotypical accent, the same goes for the Dakotas. Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa don’t have enough people. Ohio is just generally terrible. In the Midwest, the idyllic home of the middle-class, that leaves only Missouri and Indiana. Here, Indiana likely owes its small screen triumph to bureaucratic laziness and luck. For a show like “Parks and Rec,” which revolves around small town government, it’s much more convenient to have the state’s largest city also be the capital — and if that capital’s name is as on-the-nose as Indianapolis, all the better. Nobody wants to explain that the capital of Missouri is Jefferson City, the most famous city is St. Louis and the largest is Kansas City. In Indiana, all three of those boxes are checked by Indianapolis. For “The Middle,” one of the creators is from the Hoosier state, so there was little debate where their blue-collar family sitcom would be based.
Essentially, Indy’s emergence as the setting du jour of Los Angeles writers is due entirely to its lack of personality. You think this story would be better if it was snowing? No problem. Need a home for a crazy reverend? Indiana makes sense. Want to place a painfully stubborn small town next to an obscenely bourgeois one? Indiana sounds like a place where that could happen. Practically any narrative situation can be set in Indiana. Indianapolis can be portrayed as a bustling metropolis or a friendly urban-area because most of the audience won’t know or care if that’s actually accurate. We even have a beach! In short, Indiana is a show writer’s dream.
As far as how Hoosiers feel about their place as plot Play-Doh, I doubt you’ll hear many complaints. For myself, I’m just happy to hear my home state getting some recognition, even if TV Indiana ends up being very different from real-life Indiana. Also, even though the main characters of every Indiana-based program are goofy in the extreme, they all still end up being heroes. Sometimes that means winning the city council vote you were fighting for, and sometimes that means using your telekinesis to destroy an interdimensional man-eater.
In Indiana, it’s all possible.