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(Upper) West Side Stories : New York will soon be all over TV. But can the tube truly capture the city?

August 03, 1995|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Come September, America will be spending long evenings with New Yorkers, watching them career about spacious apartments on the Upper West Side and act out on the sidewalks along overcrowded streets.

YOU GOTTA PROBLEM WITH THAT?

After strip-mining every other setting, including rural America, the Midwest, Beverly Hills and Miami Beach, the networks this fall are offering a heavier than usual ratio of sitcoms and dramas that take place in New York City.

So, between the glitzy vistas featured on one prime-time show about the rich and glamorous to a more eclectic sitcom of two mail-room clerks, the so-called lives of New Yorkers, particularly Upper West Siders, should come to life.

But don't count on it. Since when has TV Land reflected real life?

Take the opening scene in the new CBS drama "Central Park West." The main character played by Mariel Hemingway shows her disconsolate husband, who didn't want to leave Seattle, the view from the terrace of their new penthouse and marvels that the rent is only $3,000 a month.

"This is a steal," she says.

America is supposed to gasp. New Yorkers know better.

"I sold that place for $2.5 million," says Carol Gat, the real estate agent who negotiated the deal for a doctor who is leasing to CBS. "$3,000 a month? In our dreams. It's more like $6,000."

Three thousand or $50,000, most of America will find either rent equally appalling--and enviable if the show's creators know what they're doing. Certainly, by coming to New York and selecting posh Central Park West, Darren Star, the man behind "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "Melrose Place," is seeking a high level of panache to match his fanciful track record. And so he turns New York into a glossy theme park.

But Jim Frawley, the show's director who grew up on Park Avenue, insists all New Yorkers, never mind Upper West Siders, will recognize their city by the landmarks.

"Even if someone is on a telephone at a booth, you can get Lincoln Center in the background," he says. "That's why filmmakers come to New York--for the shots of Rockefeller Center and the Empire State Building."

The creators of "Too Something" also plan to use romantic views of skyscrapers and subway cars. But only with the credits because they're shooting in an L.A. studio. So they'll rely on the story line for a New York sensibility.

"Avoiding the conventional at all costs," the press release says of the main characters in the new show, "these guys live in a world where logic and social conventions simply don't apply."

If that's not the West Side, then what is?

It is one of the few areas that rivals Berkeley for a liberal voting record. And it is one of the only places on Earth where you can get your legs waxed, your nails manicured, buy a cafe latte and a great novel, and hear people speaking English, Spanish, Chinese and Portuguese--all on the same block.

Of course, the guys from "Too Something," played by Eric Schaeffer and Donel Lardner Ward, live in a sprawling apartment with high ceilings and great molding and of course, it's rent-controlled. How else could two guys who work in an investment bank's mail room afford so much space?

Funny how all the up-and-comers in shows like "Friends" and "Mad About You" have big apartments when on the Upper West Side, for example, two-thirds of the apartments include three rooms or fewer. (And by definition, a "room" in New York is not like a room anywhere else. On the Upper West Side, it can mean a bathroom or a foyer the size of a Beverly Hills closet.)

But Efrem Seeger, co-creator of "Too Something" with Schaeffer and Ward, insists every oddball incident and weird detail in his show is drawn from reality.

"Everything comes out of a real situation that either Eric, Donny or I went through when we were all living on the Upper West Side and hanging out together at the Bagel Nosh and the American Diner on Broadway," says Seeger, 34.

In fact, there is this coincidence that many of the thirtysomething creators of these new New York shows at some point early in their careers lived often on the Upper West Side.

Brad Hall, creator of NBC's new "The Single Guy" about the romantic foibles of the last unmarried guy among an ensemble of married friends, worked in the city in theater and on "Saturday Night Live" throughout the 1980s. He and his wife, Julia Louis Dreyfus of "Seinfeld" fame, had an apartment near Riverside Park just like one of the fictional married couples in Hall's show.

"In some sense these shows allow for vicarious living through our characters," Hall says.

(By the way, back East we love the idea that the crush of new New York shows and rush by movie people to buy co-ops on Central Park West reflect how much everybody in L.A. is secretly miserable and longs to be in New York--great intellectual and cultural capital that it is. Now, this probably isn't true, but it's a nice conceit.)

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