The setting for Hollywood’s newest gangland drama – TNT’s series “Animal Kingdom,” about a crime family headed by Ellen Barkin – might seem surprising: Oceanside, in northern San Diego County.
It shouldn’t: Oceanside is exactly what Hollywood looks for in California these days, and not just because a gangsters-by-the-sea story makes it easy to mix TV’s favorite forms of titillation: bikinis and Berettas.
Oceanside is a city of 175,000 on the northernmost edge of greater San Diego at a moment when producers are seeking stories from California’s edges.
“Animal Kingdom,” which premiered Tuesday night, follows shows like ABC’s “American Crime,” which set its first season in Modesto; the CW’s musical comedy “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” set in the far-flung Los Angeles suburb of West Covina; and FX’s “Sons of Anarchy,” a biker show based in an unnamed city like Stockton. All these shows build on one of this era’s most popular series – CBS’ “The Mentalist,” a mystical police procedural that killed and captured criminals across the Sacramento Valley.
While the Golden State’s smaller cities and exurbs have long been on screen, they didn’t get to play themselves until recently. Instead, they were stand-ins for other states, countries and even planets. So the fact that Oceanside and other cities now play themselves represents a California milestone.
In choosing these settings, Hollywood is catching up to reality. Our big coastal cities are overexposed and too wealthy to relate to most Americans. Our smaller cities remain unknown and mysterious; Bernie Sanders acknowledged being unfamiliar with the cities he encountered in the San Joaquin Valley. In such places, Hollywood can capitalize on the current cultural obsession with grit.
Oceanside offers the pretty and the gritty: beautiful beaches and a sweet downtown along with gangs, rough bars and Camp Pendleton next door. (It also doesn’t hurt Hollywood that the state’s tax breaks provide extra incentives to TV shows shot outside L.A. County.)
California’s fringe cities are also useful to Hollywood because, by definition, they connect different places, thus multiplying the narrative possibilities. So pitch your scripts from the edge now, Californians. Off the top of my head, I can imagine a paranoid police procedural in post-terror San Bernardino; a bitter class comedy about middle-aged East Bay workers riding BART to San Francisco; and a soap about aspiring artists from small Calexico who cross the Mexican border to pursue dreams in more cosmopolitan Mexicali.
Hollywood types are not known for their sensitivity regarding communities they portray, and some of these shows have left hard feelings in their wake. “American Crime” drew criticism from the Stanislaus County sheriff, who called it a “sensationalistic, inaccurate media portrayal of fictitious crime in our community that exploits victims of crime and our community.”
But Oceanside is embracing its close-up, despite a pilot that includes a heroin overdose, a shooting, vehicle thefts, a jewelry robbery and a surfers’ brawl. The series’ producers, who include John Wells, famous for “ER” and “The West Wing,” have courted city officials, who have been welcoming. Earlier this spring, more than 1,000 Oceansiders hoping to be chosen as extras stood in line for hours; producers have said that hundreds of locals will appear in the show.
The pilot is great at capturing Oceanside’s mix of glossy and rundown, and how claustrophobic even a beach city can feel when you’re young and poor (and especially when your grandmother is a crime boss).
The one false note is that all the leading characters appear to be white in a city in which non-Hispanic whites are not the majority. “Animal Kingdom” could nod to the real, diverse Oceanside by adding Mexican American and Samoan American leads.
Is it too much to hope for Hollywood to become a little edgier as it migrates to California’s edges?
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.