Revisiting Regionalism: Place-ing the Prime Time Past

Curator's Note

Through the 1970s, academic considerations of TV typically defined the medium negatively, theorizing it according to what it was not. Specifically, theories of TV that emerged from art, architecture, film, theater, and literary studies in this period conceptualized TV as not art, not public, not “masculine” or spectatorial, not interactive, not literate, and not market-transcendent. The Rockford Files (NBC, 1974-1980, Universal TV/Cherokee Productions) is one of several series airing contemporaneously with such writing that explicitly challenged these understandings of TV’s “essential” properties. It suggested a broader televisual field of place-specific, city-set series that actively engaged and reimagined the urban landscape of 1970s America.


How might the contemporary era encourage viewers to "time travel" through the streets of America’s urban centers, given past series’ new life on DVD? What new ways of theorizing television (with an emphasis on the "mobile" in "mobile privatization") might open up if we consider how even the most popular of national network television is not necessarily synonymous with "placelessness," "non-space," or the "death" of public life in postwar America?

The opening titles sequence of Rockford—designed by Jack Cole with musical scoring by Pete Carpenter and Mike Post—features Jim Rockford navigating Los Angeles’s freeways (explicitly identifying the 10 freeway, the 101 Hollywood/North, and the 134 to Pasadena), and the city’s surface streets in his Pontiac Firebird (featuring Jim traveling eastbound on Hollywood Boulevard at night, and in Chinatown). Interspersed are shots of Rockford in action as a private investigator and in quieter, everyday, domestic routines.

I submit the opening titles of The Rockford Files to ask: What of the “better view” of mobility and the city offered on television—a view that, as Ernest Pascucci once suggested, might encourage or enable subjective relations otherwise unavailable to the viewer?


I've actually been thinking a good deal about the role of opening credits, especially in 1970s television, in situating the program and the audience within a particular place. I don't remember all that much about One Day at a Time, but I do remember the signs for Indianapolis shown from the point of view of the Romano family in their car in the opening credits--and the image of Alice and her son heading west in Alice, Mary Richards flinging her hat in downtown Minneapolis, the roommates in Three's Company walking along the beach in Santa Monica. Yet once the credits end, the shows seem to dwell in domestic spaces (or workplaces that double within the narrative as domestic spaces), settings not particularly tied to region or place. I'm wondering to what degree there is a disjuncture between the emphasis of location in the credits and the actual narratives that follow.

Excellent example, Vicky. The particularly great thing about The Rockford Files is that the promise of these titles - the spectacle of Los Angeles as an urban terrain - is actually played out in every episode. Not only in the sense of copious location shooting alone, but in movement: Jim Rockford as a social agent who moved among many different places, many of them (e.g., his trailer in a Malibu beach parking lot) specifically named and indicated. On top of that, he was a social chameleon, adapting personae to facilitate entry to these spaces, in the best hard-boiled private eye tradition (though he's closer to soft-boiled, of course, which is not an epithet!). 1970s television (including its theorization, as you point out) is a seemingly endless source of material that challenges any easy attempts to define the era. There were several other shows of the time that were similarly "emplaced," (The Bob Newhart Show, Rhoda, Phyliss, The New Dick Van Dyke Show, Petrocelli, Columbo, The Rookies, etc.) particularly in their title sequences. This is in contrast to the earlier standard of "spaces" (e.g., Hooterville, Bewitched's vaguely NY suburb) and the later standard of upper middle-class ubiquity (e.g., the New York of both The Cosby Show and Friends, David E. Kelley's Boston, etc.). I think you're also right to wonder about TV time travel to specific places. How might we theorize this historical televisual geography? How do we contextualize representations and realities? And why so much of this in the 1970s?

Thanks for the comments, Derek and Allison! I've been fascinated by the fact that, in returning to "essential principles" that founded much of TV studies (for scholarly and teaching purposes, of late), the TV that aired contemporaneous to that theory's writing so often directly contradicted the theory itself (e.g., in revisiting Rockford on DVD, I returned to Gene Youngblood's "Art, Entertainment, Entropy," for example). As you and some others may know, my own scholarly investment is in the cultural geography of TV and/or TV and regional identity as it is imagined for a presumptively "national" audience. Rockford and many of the other works, now available to a new generation of TV historians and scholars seem radically invested in "place" identity in ways that take up Amanda Lotz's recent call that we revisit the key arguments of television studies. DVD circulation of 1970s prime time series allows us to do this in a new way (by the way, to the great examples Derek and Allison mention I would add, from my own autobiography, The White Shadow, Magnum, p.i., etc.). These series on DVD also allow us to excavate and archive now-absent architecture, streets, and neighborhoods. Per Allison's comment, I would add: This is where I think of Rockford to be distinctive -- as Derek notes, the program always navigated both public and domestic space with a character who also adopted multiple geographic personae (taking up Garner's native Oklahoman-ness, often), as the Firebird served as the mediating figure between Paradise Cove/home/the cookie jar and greater Southern California, in all of its diversity.

Interesting snippet, Vicky; first time I've seen even a snippet of "Rockford" as far as I can recall. I'm struck in part by the answering machine at the opening, emphasizing both Rockford's absence from the personalized office space depicted and his belonging to the tech-savvy cohort that strikes me as characteristic of LA culture. That said, the remainder of the segment also seems oddly to downplay much of what I think of as stereotypical LA: if not for the signs indicating Hollywood and Bel Air, I'd have guessed that the series was set in the midwest, or perhaps the mid-Atlantic coast. (Contrast this with opening credits of the geography and people of the Miami depicted in "Miami Vice" or "Burn Notice," or the Boston of "Cheers," for instance; the former emphasize distinctive outdoor spaces, bikini- and pastel-jacket clad bodies, and sunny climes with both alternately long shots and tight close-ups, while the latter emphasizes the sort of nostalgia that almost suffuses Boston.) I wonder to what extent that was a choice shaped by industrial pressures at the time, both to capitalize on the cachet of Hollywood and to de-emphasize the more distinctive aspects of the city and the culture to appeal to different viewers as well. I wonder if that ability to navigate the "multiple geographic personae" you mention is underscored by the more subtle, rather than more overt, manner in which LA is depicted. The urban terrain Derek mentions seems to me indistinct, more "not-LA" than "LA," except for those explicit geographical markers.

Thank you, Doug, for your terrific insights. Indeed, the producers have expressly noted that they were interested in presenting a vision of L.A., in the series, that was much more "native" than well-worn from other media/representations. According to writer-producer Juanita Bartlett, the series wanted to feature a range of "the Southern California lifestyle without ever resorting to stereotypes." She states, "We tried to show that there's a lot more to Los Angeles than sun worshippers and movie stars and the like . . . They're certainly part of the makeup of L.A., but there's also a richness to the populace that goes beyond that. There is a variety." [see: Ed Robertson's "Thirty Years of the Rockford Files," (NY: ASJA Press, 2005): 307]. Additionally, the show's musical theme was consciously "emplaced" in ways that definitely bring in a "midwestern"-transplant feel, according to the composer, Mike Post. Of course, L.A. is populated by a lot of transplanted Midwesterners, including Garner. Post and his collaborator, Pete Carpenter, purposefully used the rock/folk fusion score to evoke the Rockford character's "country" wisdom and humor. The program often included location shoots and storylines that featured Southern California's horse country, ranching and long-haul trucker culture which was, elsewise in popular media of the period, often associated with "Heartland" locales (see: shameless self-promotion of "Heartland TV" [NYU press, 2008])

Hi, Vicky: Nice "placement" of issues by which to frame this clip, so familiar to many who watched TV at the time. As I played the clip, I was immediately struck by the opening sound of that analog phone, which appears before the image track. It generated a series of frames of reference, eerily both Pavlovian and Proustian, bringing back the 70s and the flavor of televisual aesthetics of the period. (How many shows had that identical sound effect whenever a telephone rang?) So I kept noticing the phones throughout the sequence, and how they might condition the sense of movement and place you are asking about. Perhaps especially from the perspective of our mobile phone era, I find a heightened attention to what we might call class experience. I always felt that Rockford Files was gesturing to not only a variety of locales within LA, but also to levels/varieties of lifestyle and street-smarts. The phone booth, the pay phone in a congested waiting area, etc. might evoke as much about the character's "social" mobility as do his car and mobile home. Or is this essentally a 21st century reading?

As per the signification of place, including the narrative usage and establishment of place, I have become fascinated by how television has used locations (Alaska, Maine, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Tennessee, Boston), but rarely does that location matter at that much. Or put differently, these cities simply become backdrops, used as tropes, but the shows really aren't ABOUT these places in any meaningful way. To make the point, think of how much The Wire is so intensely about Baltimore, but the show never needs to announce that with a bunch of overt physical signage in the intro. The Streets of San Francisco, Cheers, WKRP in Cincinnati, the Dukes of Hazzard, even Miami Vice--as a viewer, I never really feel like these shows are about a real place that I should give a crap about (I'm supposed to care about the characters, not the place that shapes them and gives them meaning, if you will). I never leave thinking, Wow, so that is what Maine is like (which you really do feel with North Dakota in Fargo or south Texas in Lone Star). With The Wire, I feel that TV has finally used location in a meaningful way--it has helped me understand a place, not just the characters as independent from that place. Maybe The Sopranos did that with New Jersey, but I never watched the show (alas). But hopefully you get the point. The other observation I would make is about the need for movement. So much of 70s TV seemed to offer that in their intro--The Streets of San Francisco, CHiPS, Starsky and Hutch, The Dukes of Hazzard, The Beverly Hillbillies, and so on. Does TV still use this trope today (I don't watch enough TV to know)?

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