Consider this a tale of two cities. Both cities are Modesto, mind you, but one feels like home and the other feels like anywhere.
This week Modesto was featured as the setting for not one but two major TV shows. The first was the HBO series “Looking” on Sunday. The show’s San Francisco-based characters took a road trip to Modesto to attend a family funeral. The second was Thursday’s premiere of the new ABC drama “American Crime, ” about the aftermath of a violent crime.
I’ve already written at length on the merits of “American Crime” and on the decision by its Oscar-winning creator, John Ridley, to place the action in our Central Valley community. But what struck me after watching both episodes this week was how different the portrayals felt.
Both productions sent camera crews to Modesto to shoot some of our landmarks. Both shows flashed the Modesto arch on screen. Both mentioned us numerous times throughout.
But only “Looking,” the half-hour drama about a group of largely gay male friends living in the Bay Area, felt like it captured a small slice of the city’s true flavor. Much credit has to be given to the “Looking” crew for doing its research. Production representatives contacted Modesto Convention and Visitors Bureau CEO and Executive Director Jennifer Mullen in August about shooting in the city. They scouted locations and asked questions.
Two of the central characters on “Looking,” best friends Dom and Doris, are from Modesto. Now in its second season, the series took the characters (played by Murray Bartlett and Lauren Weedman, respectively) back to their hometown for a family funeral. They are joined on the road trip by their friend Patrick (played by series star Jonathan Groff).
The three actors and some 55 crew members were in Modesto for two days in late October to film. And, let me tell you, it shows. Granted, not everything on screen that is supposed to be Modesto is Modesto. But there is enough to make it feel more authentic than any other show I’ve seen set here.
There is mention of the Frito Lay factory and Tastee Freez and Brave Bull. We see the characters frolic in the Clarion Inn outdoor pool with big rigs whizzing by on Highway 99 in the background. They drive under the arch and pass the Gallo Center for the Arts. They also stopped by the A&J fruit stand on north McHenry Avenue for some snacks. Heck, there’s even talk of the “politics of agricultural water in the Central Valley.”
Sure, a doughnut shop, country club and graveyard purported to be in Modesto aren’t really here. But there are enough references to the real thing that we can suspend disbelief and just pretend. The production made the effort to bring its actors here, stay here, eat here and spend time here.
Compare that to “American Crime” where a much, much smaller crew – and none of the actors – came to Modesto to shoot what amounted to glorified B-roll of the city. Modesto is Modesto by name only. There’s a fictional airport with a “San Joaquin Air” sign. There’s a fictional “Valley Hospital of Modesto.” The series emphasizes the most generic parts of Modesto, admittedly by design.
For major metropolitan areas like New York and Los Angeles and Chicago, seeing themselves on screen is no doubt old hat. Though, for the most part, it’s still really Vancouver or some soundstage somewhere. So for us, getting a glimpse of ourselves on screen means more. So we want it to feel right.
I’d say neither show makes us look particularly bad or particularly good. “American Crime” is about, well, a terrible crime. And the characters in “Looking” talk about how they hated it growing up and couldn’t wait to leave. But ask any teenager today how they feel about Modesto and that sentiment rings pretty authentic, too. Still, “Looking” took the time to show us as more than just some podunk place people can’t wait to flee. We’re also a place where some happy, open-minded folks choose to stay and thrive.
If I had to point to one of them and say, “There, that’s us,” I’d say “Looking” came closer. Was it perfect? Nah, no series can be. We’re so much more than 30 minutes or 60 minutes could ever show. But at least they tried. And, hey, the show officially declared the Brave Bull the “best gay bar ever,” so there’s something to hang our hats on, after all.
Elsewhere around the Scene:
The Gallo Center for the Arts has added some high-profile shows to its season.
The downtown Modesto venue has booked three events featuring major Latino artists. They are Norteño singing star Robert Tapia on April 8; Norteño band Los Tucanes de Tijuana on April 25; and comedians Teo Gonzales and La Chupitos on May 23. The center also has booked a return appearance by parody master “Weird Al” Yankovic on Sept. 16.
Tickets for Tapia and Los Tucanes de Tijuana will range from $49 to $99 and are on sale now. Tickets for Gonzales and La Chupitos will be $39-$89 and go on sale March 27. Tickets for Yankovic are $39-$75 and go on sale March 6. Call (209) 338-2100 or visit www.galloarts.org.
And finally, early-bird tickets to the Symbiosis Gathering are on sale now.
The music, art and culture festival returns to the Woodward Reservoir near Oakdale Sept. 17-20. Symbiosis started selling early-bird tickets earlier this week for $225 per person. Tickets will jump to their normal price of $280 starting March 10. The Burning Man-like festival – known for its large-scale art installation, music and more – was last at Woodward regional park in 2013 and drew about 8,000 people. Festival tickets can be purchased at http://symbiosisgathering.com.