In The Middle West: Its Meaning in American Culture (1989), cultural geographer James Shortridge describes the Midwest’s popular identity in American culture as a space commonly believed to have “importance as a repository for traditional values. . . . It was America’s collective ‘hometown,’ a place with good air, picturesque farm buildings, and unpretentious ‘simple’ people” (67-68).
“Airport,” a 1997 episode of NewsRadio, initially appears to affirm this reductive image of the Midwest. The episode finds New York radio personality Bill McNeal (Phil Hartman) and WNYX station manager Dave Nelson (Dave Foley) stranded in the St. Louis airport due to a snowstorm. During the cold open, Bill dramatically complains about being “marooned in the vast, cultureless wasteland between New York and Palm Springs,” and he adds that “it’s just that four solid days of relentless Midwestern friendliness, it just seems so . . . unnatural.”
As “Airport” progresses, however, the episode quickly eschews the tired fish-out-of-water narrative trading on lazy stereotypes – such as the hardnosed, abrasive New Yorker and the affable Midwestern yokel, respectively – in favor of a far more subversive and surprisingly complex engagement with regional identity. In short, the episode configures “region” as an identification category reliant upon performed external behavior. Hence, Bill’s suspicions regarding the Midwest’s “unnatural” status ultimately are warranted, as “Midwestern friendliness” is revealed to be nothing more than a performed façade that obscures violent tendencies and deep-seated resentment towards coastal inhabitants.
For his part, Bill also performs “fake friendliness” in an attempt to exploit the superficially naïve Midwesterners occupying the airport terminal. Bill’s performance, though, culminates with the local deviants giving him the “Show-Me State Hello,” a violent initiation ritual through which the visitor from New York is granted recognition as an honorary Midwesterner. With this brutal display of regulated Midwestern sociality, the episode further undermines the region’s longstanding image as an anachronistic stockpile of kind, simple folk.
This episode of NewsRadio thus posits that regional identity is dependent upon insidious forms of performativity. To be Midwestern, the episode suggests, is to embrace performing stereotypical traits that mask underlying resistance to essentialized regional imagery. Rather than being a staid and uneventful space, NewsRadio presents the Midwest as a site of disorder in which, as Bill suspects, “every toothy grin hides an extra row of teeth.”