The medium of television was born in New York City in the late 1940s and 1950s. Many early pioneering television programs were filmed in New York, often in front of live audiences. Breaking new ground, programs such as the Philco Television Playhouse and Playhouse 90 featured original dramas by heavyweight writers, including Paddy Chayefsky, Gore Vidal, and Rod Serling; directors such as Sidney Lumet and Arthur Penn; and actors including Robert Redford, Jack Klugman, and Rod Steiger.
One of the first television shows to be filmed on location in New York, Naked City was a tough black-and-white series that ran from 1958 to 1963. I can still hear its trademark closing lines: “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.”
Comedy was a big part of the early days of television, and the talent level was impressive. Best among the programs was Your Show of Shows (1950–54), which showcased the talents of Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, and Mel Brooks, among others, who would improvise and devise sketches in a 90-minute show each week; the show was an inspiration for another New York–based comedy sketch series, Saturday Night Live.
The sitcom was also hatched during this period in New York. The best, by far, was the story of the timeless travails of a city bus driver named Ralph Kramden; his wife, Alice; and their friends Ed and Trixie Norton—all who lived in Brooklyn. The ensemble team of Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, Audrey Meadows, and Joyce Randolph, and a very limited set, formed what is now history in The Honeymooners (1955–56).
In the 1960s, most television production moved to the West Coast, but a few mainstays remained, such as the Ed Sullivan Show and the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, which migrated west in 1972.
While most sitcoms and dramas were produced in Los Angeles, there were a couple of notable exceptions that used New York as their home base, including classic shows The Odd Couple (1970–75) and The Cosby Show (1984–92).
In the 1990s and up to the present, New York has seen a resurgence of film and television production, including Law and Order (the original, sadly, cancelled in 2010), and its spinoffs, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, the HBO series Girls, 30 Rock, The Daily Show, and the award-winning Mad Men. The 'tween hit Gossip Girl both took place and is produced in New York City. The Good Wife was set in Chicago but filmed in New York. Other popular shows made in NYC include Damages, Rescue Me, Sesame Street (shot in Queens), Boardwalk Empire, and White Collar.
Live Not from New York (but about New York)
Some of the best television shows about New York were never filmed in New York, with the exception of some stock footage. Here is my list of the best New York television not filmed in New York.
- Seinfeld (1990–98): You couldn’t get it any more accurate than this show. It was as if they bottled the New York attitude in so many ways and made sure it was let loose on the set. The show has even spawned location tours in the city led by the real-life Kramer. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. He’s real, and he’s spectacular.
- All in the Family (1971–79): Archie Bunker, brilliantly played by Carroll O’Connor, was the quintessential white, blue-collar New York bigot, who lived with his “dingbat” wife, Edith, and daughter and son-in-law (“Meathead”) in a small house in Astoria.
- NYPD Blue (1993–2005): As long as the show didn’t spend too much time outdoors (the California light was a big giveaway) and stayed inside the precinct house, this gritty cop drama, especially in its first few years, was a good, tough look at city detectives, and occasionally, their rear ends.
- Taxi (1978–83): The cross section of taxi drivers, at the time, showed the diversity of the city. Now, however, though still entertaining, it is very dated: You won’t see a Checker cab on the street anymore, and you are most likely to be driven by drivers from countries ranging from the West Indies to West Africa to Pakistan. But the haunting theme and opening shots of a taxi driving over the Queensboro Bridge remain classics.
- Welcome Back Kotter (1975–79): Oh, to return to the innocent days of Brooklyn public schools when your only worries were “delinquent” Sweathogs such as Vinnie Barbarino, Arnold Horshack, a Puerto Rican Jew named Juan Epstein, and Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington—big afros and all—taught by a wisecracking teacher named Kotter. John Travolta, of course, is famous for playing another Brooklynite: Saturday Night Fever’s Tony Manero.
- Friends (1994–2004): In their favorite hangout, “Central Perk,” Ross, Rachel, Joey, Chandler, Phoebe, and Monica were NYC yuppies . . . on a soundstage in Hollywood. Could those apartments be any more huge? Though a real NY apartment just might have a view of an Ugly Naked Guy.
- The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015-2019). The show follows the adventures of a title character as she escapes from a cult to live in New York City. Which is weirder? That's one issue this show explores.
- Girls (2014-2107): Created by Lena Dunham, the show followed the misadventures of four young women in Brooklyn. It made stars of Adam Driver and Ms. Dunham, and showed a Brooklyn lifestyle that felt uncomfortably close
- Gossip Girl (2007-2012). Richer girls were the focus here, along with the boys who do the naughty things only the superwealthy can get away with. The show was set primarily on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
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