As I've written before, in the view of much of Hollywood, Midwesterners are Hobbits, more or less.
Seriously, think about most shows set in Chicago or elsewhere in the Heartland: The people are usually simple and kind, loyal but a little gullible, hard-working and fun but not particularly bright. And boy, do they love to eat. I mean, there's a whole show based on the concept that people who loathe themselves in L.A. are considered, yes, hot in Cleveland.
We're used to coastal types thinking we've got all the brainpower and allure of hairy-footed Middle Earth denizens, but as a longtime Windy City resident, I can attest that that doesn't make the annual deluge of lazy Chicago-set shows any easier to take.
There's nothing wrong with taking advantage of a show's setting to deepen and enrich our understanding of the characters' world -- Tony Soprano absolutely belonged in New Jersey and sunny Miami is a nice contrast to Michael Westen's grimly determined personality on "Burn Notice." But unlike the late "Chicago Code," most shows set in my neck of the woods don't take the time to get to know the setting they're taking advantage of. Fewer still portray the great non-coastal wilderness with any complexity or subversive creativity.
So what does all this have to do with "The Mob Doctor" (premieres Mon., Sept. 17, 9 p.m. ET on Fox) and "Chicago Fire" (premieres Wed., Oct. 10, 10 p.m. ET on NBC)? Well, they're new shows set in my hometown that make the two basic mistakes that afflict the majority of programs set in the heartland.
Mistake 1: Using the setting to attempt to connote qualities that aren't backed up by the writing.
Like most characters in Chicago-set dramas, Dr. Grace Devlin (Jordana Spiro) is supposed to have a practical, Midwestern brand of common sense. The problem is, some key decisions she makes in the pilot don't make a lot of sense, and it's almost impossible to invest in the long-term decision she makes at the end of the pilot, given that we don't see a compelling reason for her to make the choice she does. The show asks viewers to believe in Devlin's inherent altruism and intelligence without making her seem either noble or smart. She's "feisty" -- apparently that's the deal with Chicago ladies from working-class neighborhoods -- but here that feistiness often plays out in scenarios that make Devlin seem unwisely brash and thoughtless. Feisty is one thing, rude is another. But all of that is of a piece with the show's generally lazy approach to storytelling: A couple of supporting characters are cardboard villains, and a subplot about a minor's surgical procedure doesn't make a ton of sense if you know the first thing about medical privacy laws. The show is all the more dispiriting when you see the actors that have been assembled for its supporting cast, which includes Željko Ivanek and Zach Gilford. Get these actors on better shows, stat.
Mistake 2: Underestimating the intelligence of viewers from flyover country.
"Chicago Fire" also tries to make the setting do more work than it reasonably can, i.e., give its characters an attractive, steadfast earnestness that the writing does little to support. But what you really need to know about this saga of firefighters and paramedics is that it has no spark, no fire, it's utterly damp, it's on life support, it needs CPR, [insert your own tired pun here]. Seriously, "The Mob Doctor" looks like "Crime & Punishment" by comparison. It's surprising that the Dick Wolf TV factory would churn out a product so utterly without interest (seriously, all the actors look as though they are dying to clock out and go home). Generally speaking, Wolf's various "Law & Orders" were at least competent and most of these actors (Eamonn Walker, Jesse Spencer, Monica Raymund) have been fine in other shows. This just doesn't work on any level and creates very little suspense, even in life-or-death situations. So what would prompt TV executives to put this kind of worn-out material on the air? I have a sneaking suspicion they're motivated by the conviction that this kind of dreck is good enough for the dim Hobbits of Middle America. Well, we'll see about that.
There are more sins regularly committed by shows set in Chicago -- the fun range of ethnic stereotypes, the shaky grasp on geography, the wobbly accents, etc. -- but that's all I have time for today. Fellow Hobbits, feel free to share your own Midwest-on-TV gripes in the comment area.
(Or celebrate shows like "Parks and Recreation," which returns Thursday (yay!). That comedy actually puts heart in the Heartland and deftly satirizes the silly, weird and excessive things about Midwestern culture with loving wit and intelligence.)
"The Mob Doctor" premieres Mon., Sept. 17, 9 p.m. ET on Fox; "Chicago Fire" premieres Wed., Oct. 10, 10 p.m. ET on NBC.