This Is Series Business
Why don’t more TV shows filmed in Texas actually reflect our state?
It’s no easy feat to catalog all the clichés, racist stereotypes, and inane plot twists that constitute The Good Guys, the Dallas-shot action-comedy series that premiered last month on Fox. The show begins with an embarrassingly shopworn premise—two mismatched cops, a ne’er-do-well veteran (Bradley Whitford) and his by-the-books younger partner (Colin Hanks), who are perpetually running afoul of their disapproving boss (Diana Maria Riva)—and only gets worse from there. In the pilot, the bad guys include such carefully nuanced portrayals as a bumbling African American house burglar, a Hispanic drug runner, and a gaggle of Peruvian assassins working for a cocaine kingpin. In between bursts of cartoonish, poorly choreographed gun violence, the characters offer up “witty” observations such as “There are no small crimes, there are only small cops.” (Never has a laugh track been so sorely missed.) The show’s idea of quirky local color includes having Whitford’s character inexplicably live in a trailer on the grounds of Dallas’s Fair Park. Is such a thing even legal? Sanitary? Perhaps all will be explained in a future episode that features our heroes busting a human trafficking ring operated by the fried-food purveyors at the State Fair.
Considering the past six months or so of hype, this is not exactly what some of us were hoping for. The Good Guys rolled into Dallas in January, a few months after The Deep End, a legal drama that premiered on ABC in January, also set up shop in the city. Both productions were greeted with a flurry of cheerleading from the local media and the Texas Film Commission: Here was proof that the film incentives package, first passed by the Legislature in 2007, was tax money well spent. The Good Guys, in fact, originally took place in Los Angeles, but creator Matt Nix (USA Network’s Burn Notice) revised the script after deciding to shoot in Texas. Opponents say that incentives packages—which have proliferated in the past decade as states like New Mexico, Louisiana, and Michigan have worked aggressively to lure Hollywood productions their way—merely pad the salaries of entertainment industry fat cats at the considerable expense of taxpayers living outside California. But who could argue with more local jobs, a more febrile local film and television scene, and a little bit of Hollywood glamour? (Was that Titanic star Billy Zane hanging around the new AT&T Performing Arts Center?)
Except just a few months later, neither series has given Texans much to celebrate. The hopelessly rote The Deep End (think Grey’s Anatomy in a law firm) drew withering reviews and dismal ratings; after months of cancellation rumors, ABC officially dropped the ax in May. Unless I’m underestimating the appeal of Tom Hanks’ son Colin—a performer who gives new meaning to the word “milquetoast”—The Good Guys will be lucky to make it to the end of its thirteen-episode season. Two additional Dallas-shot shows, Lonestar (starring Jon Voight as a Texas oilman) and Chase (a Jerry Bruckheimer production about a team of U.S. marshals), have just been green-lit for next season, so there’s still hope on the horizon. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to feel as if this is a case of the tail wagging the dog. The Texas Film Commission, together with the Dallas Film Commission, may have succeeded in creating a transitory burst of excitement and jobs, which is no small task in a lousy economy. Yet in terms of nurturing Texas viewers’ imaginations—and serving up entertainment that expands our understanding of the city of Dallas—these shows are proving worthless.
Part of the problem, I suspect, is an age-old one: Most people involved in the film incentives—the entertainment industry workers who lobbied for the package, the legislators who passed the bill, the members of the Dallas media who wrote enthusiastic advance articles over shows like The Good Guys—are placing more value on commerce over art and celebrity over sincerity. The subject of incentives didn’t even enter the public consciousness until the mid-2000’s, when the producers of a planned big-budget, big-screen reboot of the classic TV series Dallas announced that they were thinking of moving the production to Florida or Louisiana because it was too expensive to shoot in Texas. The fuss over that movie, which never did get made, seemed strange: Much of the original series was filmed at MGM Studios, in Los Angeles. Then the producers of Prison Break, which had been shooting in Dallas since 2006, expressed hope that they would be financially rewarded for staying in Texas for a third season, and that’s when the conversation really went haywire: What exactly was Prison Break—a dopey show that only got dopier during its time in Texas and rendered the city completely anonymous on-screen—doing in Dallas in the first place? Indeed, artistic ambition has little to do with the Texas incentives package, which potentially disqualifies those films and TV shows that “include inappropriate content or content that portrays Texas or Texans in a negative fashion.” In other words, a hard-hitting public-service documentary about, say, political corruption in the state could theoretically be denied funding, whereas a pointless effort like The Deep End, which uses Dallas as a stand-in for Los Angeles, is welcomed with open arms.
None of this is to suggest that Texas-based film and television crews and actors shouldn’t be given as many opportunities to work locally as possible. But is it so naive to yearn for shows that shoot here with actual purpose? Love or hate NBC’s Austin-based Friday Night Lights, there’s no denying the show offers up a vivid portrait of small-town Texas life, from the slightly run-down Applebee’s where the teenage characters congregate to the impossibly lush football field where much of the action unfolds. Compare that with the pilot of The Good Guys, a portion of which takes place at a pawn shop in Deep Ellum. Granted, this area isn’t the most trafficked part of Dallas, but in The Good Guys it is depicted as sterile and lifeless, a neighborhood with all the personality of a studio backlot. (Seriously, how cheap are the producers that they can’t afford to pay a few extras to wander around in the background?)
Texas deserves better—namely, an amendment to the incentives package that asks the Hollywood fat cats to articulate how they intend to enhance the cultural identity of our state with their movies and TV shows. The Good Guys had the grand misfortune of premiering in the wake of David Simon’s and Eric Overmyer’s new HBO series, Treme, a gorgeously supple evocation of post-Katrina New Orleans. Rich with local sights and sounds (the first episode opens with a vibrant, unforgettable parade) and written by New Orleans authors such as Tom Piazza and Lolis Eric Elie, Treme establishes a perhaps unfairly high standard that something as mainstream-oriented as The Good Guys could never hope to match. Then again, what’s so wrong with having high standards? Yes, Treme exists only because its creators were drawn to the unique history and artistic legacy of New Orleans; financial incentives had nothing to do with it. But if Texas allows itself to become known as a land of cheap hotel rooms, low-cost locations, and tax rebates galore for a gaggle of artless network dramas and comedies, then we’ll never have much hope of refining our own artistic legacy.
Or to put it another way: What comes first, the civic pride or the art that makes us proud to live here?