Television used to treat the Midwest as just another part of the country. Mary Richards lived in Minneapolis. The Cunninghams lived in Milwaukee. Ann Romano and her daughters lived in Indianapolis. WKRP was in . . . well, you know. Based on the fall TV season, however, the networks are looking at we Midwesterners through an entirely different lens.
ABC RECENTLY premiered “Married to the Kellys,” in which Breckin Meyer plays a novelist who leaves New York with his wife to live in Kansas City near her family. Fox is answering with the upcoming “A Minute with Stan Hooper,” in which Norm Macdonald and Penelope Ann Miller play another couple retreating from New York to Wisconsin, this time so that the husband, a jaded television commentator, can get to know the real America.
Watching these two shows, one thing becomes perfectly clear: the networks have concluded that we in the Midwest are, in a word, adorable.
As wrong as it feels to be ungrateful for such a kindhearted view of our way of life, there’s something that those of you who live elsewhere should probably know. Here goes: We are not, in fact, quite this cute.
First, our relationship with agriculture isn’t universally as intimate as it’s often made to appear. It’s true that we’re closer to the origination points for corn and cheese than coast-dwellers are, but most of us, going by raw numbers, don’t shuck corn on our porches regularly, in the style of the Kellys. And when we do, most of us get it from the supermarket, so it’s not really that different from some of the mundane activities in which you yourself may participate.
Of course, we’ve seen enough television that takes place in New York and Los Angeles to know that in those parts of the country, all eating occurs at restaurants with very rude but very entertaining waiters, so we’re not even sure if you cook for yourselves very much.
Speaking of food, our grocery stores have generally given in to encroaching modernity and installed fully-functioning frozen food sections, much like yours. We agree that homemade is best, but we won’t recoil in horror at the sight of a frozen cheesecake the way Mrs. Kelly does. After all, if we always made our own graham-cracker crusts, there would be no time to shuck the corn. (But we kid.)
GOLLY GEE, A DVD
Time management is also complicated by the fact that we have many of the same electronic entertainments that you have. Not only do we have network television, but we have cable. And satellite dishes. We have MTV and, in many cases, MTV2.
A lot of us even have DVD players and VCRs and all manner of fancy gadgetry, so we don’t quite have the warm, apple-cheeked innocence about popular culture that you may be envisioning. If a major television star were to move into our neighborhood — as does the title character on “Hooper” — we would probably recognize him, where Mr. Hooper’s neighbors do not.
After all, if we were that unlikely to recognize famous people, they’d be getting hitched in Minnesota instead of going to the trouble of constructing secure compounds in New England for the sole purpose of evading the paparazzi.
Even if we were to fail to recognize a television personality, it would probably be because we missed his show while watching “Alias” or “The Sopranos” or one of the same things you like to watch. As devoted as we are to our local communities, we are not likely to miss highly-rated shows because we — like the “Hooper” neighbors — are hunkered down watching the farm report.
Perhaps the hardest news to break is that our sense of humor is misunderstood. It’s a little complicated, but we’re actually more sarcastic than you may suspect.
You see, when Packer fans wear those cheeseheads — or, for that matter, when Viking fans wear those hats with the horns and the long yellow braids — it is with a certain sense of irony. We don’t really think that busts made out of cheese, statues carved from cheese, or girls’ likenesses carved in butter are cool. We do think they’re funny, but then, we don’t have those uproariously impolite waiters to make us chuckle, so we take what we can get.
And in the case of those off-the-interstate cheese houses, you should know that those are there for the tourists. I don’t mean to give away state secrets or anything, but really, we don’t buy that stuff. You’re not going to walk into a typical suburban home in Minnesota and find a Gouda bust of a Viking.
The good news, of course, is that unlike one of the townsfolk on “Hooper,” we’re also not going to give you something like that as a present. When we feel generous, we tend to stick to non-perishable items, or at least to perishable ones that don’t resemble anything in particular. It’s just another way that we’re a lot like you.
NO CHEESE, PLEASE
We’re also busier than you’d think. Mrs. Kelly apparently has a lot of free time, during which she has created a family “doghouse” display where a little dog represents each member of the family, and where she indicates whether each person is “in the doghouse” or not.
Admittedly, we like to think the pace moves a little more slowly when you get off I-95, but it’s fairly unlikely that many of us would undertake a project like that. The phenomenon of two-income families has gotten a foothold even here in the heartland, and we just don’t have as much time for craft projects and crippling familial guilt as we wish we did. It’s all about priorities, really.
The next piece of bad news is that we don’t like our families any better than you do. Don’t get me wrong — we like them a lot of the time, but once we’re adults, we don’t necessarily want to spend all our free time with them the way Mrs. Kelly’s kids do. If our moms did make one of those “doghouse” displays in the kitchen, most of us also wouldn’t think it was really cool the way her kids do.
As a matter of fact, we sometimes even like to get away from our families for a little while. This is part of what accounts for the popularity of hunting and fishing and other outdoor activities, year after year, down through the generations. There’s nothing like a duck blind when you don’t want to talk to your relatives.
Sometimes, we don’t smile. We smile when it’s called for, but there are times when we don’t. The entire cast of “Married to the Kellys” looks like it just polished off a carton of Crest Whitestrips and a tanker of tequila. “Hooper” is the same way. Both shows really milk the heck out of all this unmotivated grinning, and it’s a little misleading.
Sure, there’s a certain feeling of good cheer that comes with spending four or five months a year buried in snow up to your chest, but we have a certain stoicism of which we’re equally proud. Nothing makes us that ridiculously happy. Not even the farm report.
MY FUNNY FAMILY
We also may not be able to produce the sheer quantity of quirky relatives you expect if you visit. Almost everyone in the Kelly family is strange and unbalanced in that warm, funny, middle-America sort of way. They’ve got Uncle Dave who takes special walks just to pass gas, brother Lewis who keeps spiders in his room, and sister Susan who goes crazy-competitive playing Taboo.
In reality, we have a lot of ordinary relatives. Sure, we might have the occasional convicted felon kicking around at the family reunion, and who doesn’t have at least one ugly divorce among the cousins?
A lot of the time, though, when we get together, we’re just eating chicken and dinner rolls and talking about this one’s new car and that one’s new job and whether the other one is ever going to shut up about his vacation. There’s just not as much relentless whimsy as there is in the Kellys’ house. It’s probably a good thing, because if there were, I think we’d all be really tired.
It’s not that we’re not grateful for the attention, and it’s always thrilling to hear someone say “Wisconsin” or “Kansas” on TV in a context not related to sports. We just don’t want to leave the wrong impression with those of you who don’t get a chance to visit and have to rely on the networks for your information.
And if you were thinking of getting us a cheese sculpture or a VCR for Christmas, we have two words for you: gift certificate.Linda Holmes is a freelance writer living in Bloomington, Minn.