November 2, 1997 in Features

The Apple Of Boise’s Eye New York As Seen On TV Has Viewers In Boise And Other Small Markets Hooked

Bruce Weber The New York Times
 

It’s probably safe to say that in Murphy, population 65, a dusty remote town in Owyhee County, in the desert about 40 miles south of here, there isn’t a great deal to do at night.

Still, Chief Deputy Sheriff Dick Freund finds time for only a few hours of television a week. He’s discerning; everything he watches takes place a world away - New York City.

“‘Seinfeld,’ ‘Mad About You,’ ‘Law and Order,’ ‘NYPD Blue’ - those are the only shows I watch,” said Freund, who, at 49, has never been to New York and doesn’t want to go.

“I guess what I see on TV, I take as valid,” he said, adding the shows only confirmed his feeling that the city was full of cold, uncaring people and not a few nuts.

So what’s the appeal? He likes the main characters, he said; they’re like guides. Through them, “you can relate to the city,” he said. “But you don’t have to be there to experience it.”

Freund’s television habits are not unusual in this region, where The Boise Weekly, an alternative newspaper, recently posed this question to people on the street: “What does the H. stand for in the name of Boise Mayor H. Brent Coles?” One citizen responded, “The Not Really Happening Brent Coles,” adding, ‘Maybe he should watch ‘Seinfeld.’ ”

Indeed, “Seinfeld,” the NBC comedy about the unadorned, not to say existential, vicissitudes of passing time in New York City, which is frequently the most popular show on television, is particularly happening in Boise, where its ratings almost always top the national average.

It seems almost comically counterintuitive that the residents of Boise - a highly conservative, uncluttered, outdoors-oriented city of 165,000 that is as remote as any similarly sized place in the country - would feel a closeness to the likes of Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer. But by the evidence of two days’ worth of random conversations here, everyone, it seems, knows them well enough to have an opinion.

“If they let a guy like Kramer walk around the streets without shooting him, they’re nuts,” said Jim Rigdon, an unemployed builder who, on a recent afternoon, was drinking orange juice in front of the Buckin’ Bagel, a restaurant on Main Street that offers “New York-style” breakfast. It was hard to tell if he was being hyperbolic; Rigdon is a dry fellow. He doesn’t even like the show - “I think it stinks” - though apparently he watches it.

Like many people interviewed, Rigdon, who has never seen New York, spoke of the world of “Seinfeld” as a somewhat alien one. Granted, Kramer is a bit unusual no matter where you live. But it appears that New York itself is part of the appeal.

Similarly high ratings, relative to the rest of the nation, hold true here for NBC’s other New York-based comedies, “Mad About You” and “Friends,” and its crime drama, “Law and Order.”

And those shows rank unusually high in several other small-market cities, including Columbia, Mo.; Des Moines, Iowa; Portland, Maine; and Minot, S.D. In Boise, the other networks’ New York shows - like “Spin City” and “NYPD Blue” on ABC, and the new CBS police drama “Brooklyn South” - have made an impression, too. People speak of them knowledgeably and, more often than not, fondly.

“I like ‘NYPD Blue,’ and that new one, ‘Brooklyn South’ - I don’t know if it will last, but I liked that first episode I saw, when the cop was shot,” said Jim Warren, 73, who owns the Circle DJ Ranch where he farms sugar beets in Eagle, just north of here.

Warren, who was last in New York City in 1949, said it was the persuasive realism of the shows that appealed to him. “I’ve always thought a lot of New York,” he said. “I remember 42nd Street used to be kind of trashy. They ever clean that up?”

New York, of course, has always had an island-off-the-coast-of-America relationship with the rest of the country. But never have so many images of it been pumped forth into the nation on television. At the same time, with the onset of the information age, America itself has grown to be much more like New York - more cosmopolitan and sophisticated, that is - than it ever has been.

Boise, for example, with its wide-open spaces, the Sawtooth Mountains and the Payette River nearby, affording spectacular opportunities for backpacking, mountain biking, rafting and kayaking, is a place where the rugged outdoors dominates life.

But it is also the county seat and the state capital, and it is a high-tech city, where Micron Computers and Hewlett Packard together employ 15,000 people. The headquarters of several large corporations are here, including Albertson’s, the grocery chain.

Downtown, though not exactly mobbed, is nonetheless busy at night, with contemporary bars, coffee houses and outdoor cafes crowded together on Idaho and Eighth Streets. On a recent Friday evening, the Boise State University homecoming parade, almost impossibly wholesome, didn’t hold up much traffic on Main Street. But later on, the same stretch was much busier, becoming something of a drunken carnival. Police lights twirled on every corner. There is a strained youthful vigor to the area, a palpable sense that the cow town has evolved into regional capital.

The transition to New West has left Boise with a bit of a split personality: a family-values town that turns up its nose at out-of-the-closet “Ellen” but finds hilarity in the “Seinfeld” episodes about masturbation and flatulence. It’s the kind of place that has begun to breed young adults who aspire to hip and complain of boredom.

“I don’t have any friends like the characters on ‘Friends,’ ” said Janell Tillotson, 29, a cashier in a coffee shop, “but it’s not that I wouldn’t like to.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, a question many Boiseans could not answer was whether they were attracted to the New York shows because the life depicted felt familiar or because it felt strange.

“The apartment living aspect of it is something I just can’t relate to,” said Scott Montgomery, 44, a software engineer at Hewlett Packard. “I need wide open spaces. But all that goofy stuff about dating, what do you do on a first date, all that stuff with Jerry and Elaine, who used to be intimate and now they’re not, but they talk about what it was like when they were intimate. I’ve been single so long, I can really relate to that aspect of it.”

Boise has also been visited by the kinds of urban problems it never had before. During the last 20 months, there have been several violent incidents involving the police, resulting in seven deaths, including the first fatal shooting of a police officer in Boise in a century. Several Boiseans interviewed said the incidents made shows like “NYPD Blue” and “Law and Order” feel closer to home. One of those was Mayor Coles.

“Until we had these shootings, I just thought that was another world,” he said. Coles was surprised to hear of Boise’s love affair with New York television.

“We’re also the cracker-eating capital of the world,” he said. “Did you know that? I guess we’re just chomping on Ritz and watching these shows.”

More seriously, he theorized that Boiseans, who are overwhelmingly white, might be attracted to the melting pot they see on television. “We have a large Basque community here,” he said. But asked for the racial breakdown of the city, he smiled ruefully.

“You’re looking at it,” he said. “But you watch these shows, and there’s diversity of thought, of life style, of race.”

The mayor does, incidentally, watch “Seinfeld” on occasion, but on this night he was in his office with three of his five children, watching Michael J. Fox as the deputy mayor of New York in “Spin City,” a show he prefers. When the bubbleheaded mayor, played by Barry Bostwick, grants a favor he knows he should not have granted and says to himself, “I’ve got to learn how to say no,” Mayor Coles hooted.

“Now that’s realistic,” he said. “That’s exactly what a mayor does.”

Still, most of the show concerned the sex life of Fox’s character, and the constant innuendo wasn’t lost on Coles’ 10-year-old son, C.J.

“There are some things in it I wish weren’t,” the mayor said with a shrug. Which begs the question of what IS in these shows that makes them worthwhile, that makes it possible to accept a world that appears to be at cross purposes with local predilections.

One answer to that comes from Deputy Sheriff Freund, in Murphy. The police shows, he said, depict human tragedy and how people deal with it. In them, he said, “people still take time to help one another.”

And the comedies? “Well, what I get from ‘Seinfeld,’ ” he said, “is people who are friends, and who stay friends no matter what. It’s that bonding thing, and you don’t see that too much.”

These shows, he concluded, “have some redeeming social value.”

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