Does American popular culture have a negative attitude towards apartments?
March 21, 2006 6:51 PM   Subscribe

I know many people who don't live in houses but in apartments - empty nesters, young couples with or without children. However, if you were to base your idea of Americans' residences solely on television shows, it would seem that absolutely everybody lives in a house.

Aside from occasional shows based in Chicago and New York, most sitcoms place their characters into houses, even groups who by and large also tend to dwell in apartments. For example, the senior citizens on the show Golden Girls and a young urban couple on King of Queens live in houses although they are also statistically likely to live in an apartment. Does this mean that Hollywood does not want to show people living in apartments? If not, do the shows simply happen to reflect the fact that apartment-living is really not a part of the American cultural landscape?
posted by gregb1007 to Home & Garden (39 answers total)
Sort-of-OT: Speaking as a foreigner, I had always thought, based on American TV, that everyone lived in apartments.

I suppose we must've been watching different shows.
posted by pompomtom at 6:58 PM on March 21, 2006

The two most popular sitcoms of the 1990's--Friends and Seinfeld--both took place largely in apartments--not just as living spaces but as the setting for the shows themselves.
posted by maxreax at 6:58 PM on March 21, 2006

Let's see. Elsewhere in Apartment land. From the top of my head here are some TV shows that are not New York or Chicago but in apartments:
Three's Company.
Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Cheers (all of the characters as far as I remember)

In other words, I don't agree with your premise.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:59 PM on March 21, 2006

When I was growing up, more sitcoms were in apartments (Good Times, One Day at a Time, Mary Tyler Moore, Rhoda) and I can think of some current ones (Friends, Will & Grace) but I think it shows the shift to suburban living as the sort of average American existence, or perhaps more likely the target audience for advertisers. Realistically, I think in the US we just have fewer sitcoms period and instead have more in the way of crime shows, hospital shows, reality shows and drama type shows. I know you're probably referring to them somewhat as well. When I was growing up, I also didn't know anyone who lived in apartment until pretty much junior high, so my experience may not be typical.
posted by jessamyn at 6:59 PM on March 21, 2006

I don't know that "most" sitcoms are set in houses (Friends, Seinfeld, and Sex and the City come to mind), but I suspect it's simply that sitcoms are, to a certain extent, supposed to be idyllic. "To own a house" is part of the cliched American dream — so yeah, sitcoms are set in houses, with married, heterosexual parents who have sons and daughters.
posted by cribcage at 7:01 PM on March 21, 2006

Apartment living in television shows (off the top of my head):

I Love Lucy
Love Monkey
Mary Tyler Moore
The Jeffersons
Will & Grace.
posted by ericb at 7:01 PM on March 21, 2006

dances with sneetches, I am in my mid 20s and I am referring to the contemporary sitcoms that I have to come to know as a late teen/adult, mid/late 90s up to now. So Mary Tyler Moore, Three's Company are not really relevant, but Frasier is... Frasier, Seinfeld, and Friends are the three contemporary sitcoms that seem to be an exception to the rule.
posted by gregb1007 at 7:03 PM on March 21, 2006

The other exception to the rule is Will and Grace, thanks ericb
posted by gregb1007 at 7:04 PM on March 21, 2006

Three sitcoms out of how many?

Also, consider that your judgement of how common it is to live in an apartment may be skewed. I think that the majority of Americans DO live in a house (although not the kind of house you often see on TV), but I'd bet that a disproportionate number of MeFites live in an apartment.
posted by crabintheocean at 7:06 PM on March 21, 2006

This 1999 census doc (.pdf-- plan accordingly) lists two-thirds of Americans as homeowners, and 87% of them living in detached, single-unit homes(57% of the total population). A third of the remaining renters live in single-unit housing, so it basically breaks down to 60/40 in favor of single-unit housing.
posted by cosmonaught at 7:08 PM on March 21, 2006

Living in a house in Queens (such as King of Queens) isn't as unusual as you'd think... I live in one, in a house that's been in my family since 1962 :D

T"he Tracy Morgan Show" (NYC) had the main cast living in an apartment, I think Alice from "Alice" lived in an apartment, and she wasn't in large urban area per se (compared to NY or LA). In the "L Word," four of the characters rent a house in West Hollywood, which doesn't exactly qualify for this post I don't think since we're all talking about apartments. Wasn't "It's Your Move" set in an apartment complex?

I think in "Scrubs" they rent pads, too, tho I don't watch that show.

Starbuck rented her pad in Caprica :D
posted by missed at 7:22 PM on March 21, 2006

missed, thanks for mentioning these other shows. I think my knowledge of sitcoms is not exhaustive, so there may actually be contemporary shows with apartments that I am simply not aware of.
posted by gregb1007 at 7:25 PM on March 21, 2006

"House" is a medical drama, but the characters whose homes we've seen have apartments. Do I get to pull out the tricksy word "ironic"?

I think it's just a reflection of where the sitcoms are set, and the types of characters involved. Hip, young professionals in cities? They'll probably have apartments. Nuclear family in suburbia? They'll probably have a house.
posted by booksandlibretti at 7:25 PM on March 21, 2006

Oh, duh: "House" takes place in Princeton, New Jersey. So it's not a major city, but the apartment choice makes sense -- these are characters whose lives revolve around their job, who spend most of their time at the hospital.
posted by booksandlibretti at 7:27 PM on March 21, 2006

Cuddy has a house.
posted by polyglot at 7:44 PM on March 21, 2006

Another thing - almost all TV is aspirational, mainstream sitcoms doubly so. Most families with kids don't dream of living in an apartment, they want their own space, a yard etc. Lots of younger people and singles do aspire to a fancy apartment, but there are probably many more house-aspiring than apartment-aspiring people watching sitcoms (not that they watch more TV, there are just more of them).
posted by crabintheocean at 7:46 PM on March 21, 2006

What about families with children - are they ever depicted as living in apartments? Maybe that's the division -- it's acceptable for single people to live in apartments, or even married childless people (older, just starting out), but if you have children, you're assumed to live in a house.
posted by amtho at 7:57 PM on March 21, 2006

FWIW, the Golden Girls didn't live in a house. They lived in a patio home, which is more like a townhouse or ground floor condo. The wall between their place and the next was obviously just a few feet outside the sliding glass door and they used to mention the guy on the other side.

Also, I don't watch King of Queens very much, but do they actually own a whole house? I thought it was half a row house.
posted by acoutu at 8:07 PM on March 21, 2006

amtho, actually i don't know of a single instance in a sitcom where a family is depicted as living in an apartment. Although, there is probably a small percentage of familes who do live in apartments, probably 7% countrywide, but if you focus only on major metropolitan areas where many people live, that percentage is significantly higher. However, most sitcoms from these urban areas seem to feature only houses... I can think of a few exceptions though: Everybody Hates Chris, a relatively new sitcom. There could be two or three more that I don't know about.
posted by gregb1007 at 8:12 PM on March 21, 2006

gregb1007 - I think that's because most famlies with kids who live in an apartment don't want to live in an apartment, and would rather watch TV characters living how they'd like to live.
posted by crabintheocean at 8:32 PM on March 21, 2006

I don't think American TV or movies have much interest in realistic portrayals of American life. How many people in TV and movies are either in the upper middle class or higher or live as if they are (even though they are obviously not that well off)? Now how many Americans are actually in those income brackets?

The average Hollywood comedy or drama has the main characters in a home that is impossible for 90% of Americans, and often quite beyond the means of the actual character in question.

You're seeing some expression of that. Apartments, if they are in a sitcom, will be of the "very nice condo" variety.
posted by teece at 9:01 PM on March 21, 2006

Sitcoms with characters living in apartments are the ones where the characters have a small enough household to make an apartment practical.

Familes with children are a reliable subject for sitcoms.

Once you're looking for a more-than-two-bedroom home, you're usually looking at houses, not apartments. (More economical/more housing stock.)

Anyway, most urban areas have more houses than apartments except in the most dense part of the downtown area.

Familes living in apartments: Diff'rent Strokes. Also, while not a sitcom, Veronica Mars. (Yes, single parenthood seems to be a theme. One could argue than any of the sitcoms with single women who have babies would also count, including Murphy Brown and Friends.)

I get this question less and less.
posted by desuetude at 9:15 PM on March 21, 2006

gregb1007: "amtho, actually i don't know of a single instance in a sitcom where a family is depicted as living in an apartment. "

Different Strokes. A large-ass apartment, but still.
posted by signal at 9:19 PM on March 21, 2006

actually i don't know of a single instance in a sitcom where a family is depicted as living in an apartment....I can think of a few exceptions though: Everybody Hates Chris

227. Good Times. The Jeffersons. (See if you can spot the common denominator.)

Living Single, though not a family, is also a fairly contemporary example.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 9:20 PM on March 21, 2006

Another one: What I like about you. Or did you mean the Dad-Mom-Boy-Girl-Dog-Cat definition of family?
posted by signal at 9:21 PM on March 21, 2006

Your whole premise is simply wrong (much like the question about why everyone goes to starbucks even though no one likes it). Sitcoms seem strange when they're NOT out of an apartment. Cheers, cosby, seinfeld, friends, frazier, will and grace, on and on and on... This isn't an exception to the rule as you claim.

Those who pointed this out earlier are the real best answers.
posted by justgary at 10:08 PM on March 21, 2006

One reason there is weirdness about TV shows and housing is the simple fact that spaces need to be bigger than normal for ease of shooting.
posted by Goofyy at 11:18 PM on March 21, 2006

justgary, you do have a point that in my premise is possibly based on a misperception. I am glad that people have pointed out some shows with apartments that I wasn't familiar with. However, the sitcoms with apartments that I have learned about from other posters mostly come from the 80s or an earlier time period. It does seem that as time goes by, their number is steadily decreasing.
posted by gregb1007 at 2:27 AM on March 22, 2006

Does this mean that Hollywood does not want to show people living in apartments?

Yes, but for a deeply dull reason: it's really hard to shoot in a small space. Most sets have three walls and no ceiling to accomodate crew, equipment and lighting, and the smaller the set is, the harder it is to hide missing architecture and all that necessary equipment. When the story calls for it, characters live in apartments, but they're unrealistically large apartments (like the ones on Friends and Seinfeld.)

Also, if you can get away with a house location, it's greatly preferable because the occasional necessary exteriors are easier to set up- just slap down some astroturf, slap up an exterior wall- and nobody wonders why the interior of a house is X amount of bigness. Exteriors for apartments are a pain- you can have a patio/balcony (small!) or a hallway (smaller!)

Another quirk of filmmaking architecture? Everybody has a walk-in closet. It's a cheap way to add a "new" location for a series.
posted by headspace at 5:41 AM on March 22, 2006

their number is steadily decreasing

Sitcoms are steadily decreasing.
posted by desuetude at 6:18 AM on March 22, 2006

My opinion being from the US is that American do look down upon apartment living. Having a big house and space is important and sort of a substitute for class. In cities like NY, however, where house's arent an option, location is the substitute for the size of your living space.
posted by BigBrownBear at 7:21 AM on March 22, 2006

Ooh, another one: Mad About You.
posted by signal at 7:34 AM on March 22, 2006

What about families with children - are they ever depicted as living in apartments?

What about Uncle Bill, Cissy, Buffy, Jody, Mr. French, & Mrs. Beasley?
posted by ericb at 7:43 AM on March 22, 2006

The Cosby Show family lived in a townhouse in Brooklyn.
posted by acoutu at 3:58 PM on March 22, 2006

Just saw Out of Practice for the first time last night: Apartment. Followed by Courting Alex: Apartment. I really question the premise that more sitcoms -- however few there actually are on network television anymore -- are set in houses than apartments. Most of them I haven't watched; so few people do anymore that they're at the pits in the ratings.

Remember also: (a) Many US sitcoms are based on concepts imported from the UK; and (b) An increasing number of sitcoms are essentially based in the workplace, and the characters' homes aren't important anymore. Think of The Office.

You might consider expanding the question to include characters in dramas, in which case you'll have a larger selection to consider, and you'll also find cases where some characters live in houses and others in apartments and even in nursing homes. Example: Grey's Anatomy, a top drama show now.
posted by Robert Angelo at 8:27 AM on March 23, 2006

headspace writes "Exteriors for apartments are a pain- you can have a patio/balcony (small!) or a hallway (smaller!) "

Mad About You was fun in that the fire escape appeared and disappeared from the outside of there apartment depending on the needs of the plot.

I haven't watched it but the promos put "Everybody Hates Chris" in an apartment.

Off topic but "My Name is Earl" is only the second show I can remember that has main characters living in a trailer. Bonus question: Who is the first?
posted by Mitheral at 9:05 AM on March 23, 2006

Off topic but "My Name is Earl" is only the second show I can remember that has main characters living in a trailer. Bonus question: Who is the first?

On Alice, Flo lived in an Airstream trailer.
posted by Robert Angelo at 9:19 AM on March 23, 2006

I was thinking Jim Rockford of the Rockford Files. Great location too.
posted by Mitheral at 10:13 AM on March 23, 2006

Gray's Anatomy has two main characters living in a trailer. Becky and Mark lived in a trailer for a while on Roseanne.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 7:29 PM on March 24, 2006

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