Homicide detective Jim Longworth was up to his ears in hurricanes, mosquitoes and gators, a constant reminder that he'd traded fast-paced Chicago for a town called Pahokee and other swampy environs. His new stomping ground in rural Florida was only a few hours but a world away from trendy South Beach.
As the crime-solving hero of "The Glades," A&E's most-watched show in its first season, Longworth (played by Matt Passmore) waded through muck in sugar cane fields, investigated a community filled with psychics and dug for buried treasure. No wonder he needed the locals to interpret for him.
"It's not 'Burn Notice' or ' Miami Vice' — it's a show about the other Florida, the one we haven't seen," said Tana Nugent Jamieson, senior vice president, drama programming, at A&E. "And it has an eerie quality to it that stems from those out-of-the-way places."
"The Glades," which will return for a second season next year, is one of a number of TV series that have purposely strayed from glamorous settings like Manhattan and Los Angeles. Though those go-to locales are still prevalent in new network shows such as NBC's "Law & Order: Los Angeles," CBS' "Blue Bloods" and ABC's "The Whole Truth," there's a growing number that are mining small-town America and off-the-beaten-path cities for their inspiration.
ABC's "Detroit 1-8-7" films in the Motor City, the first network show to do so, and CBS' sitcom "Mike & Molly" revels in its Midwestern working-class neighborhoods. Cable channels are rife with out-of-the-way settings, including FX's noir-ish "Terriers" in San Diego; TNT's recently renewed "Memphis Beat"; TV Land's first scripted sitcom, "Hot in Cleveland"; and Showtime's "The Big C," set in Minneapolis.
The suburbs and little-used locales may not boast the sex appeal of L.A. or Miami, but producers say they offer tax incentives that keep costs down and give a sense of authenticity that urban centers can't match.
They can also bring the funny, as in Greg Garcia's redneck version of Any Town, U.S.A., made famous in his NBC sitcom, "My Name Is Earl." His new Fox series, "Raising Hope," has a similar scruffy feel, populated by tough-talking, blue-collar characters.
"A show like ' Entourage' is lifestyle porn, and I understand why people get into that world," Garcia said of the Hollywood-centric HBO comedy. "But I like places that feel more real to me. I like quirky."
He wrote the "Raising Hope" pilot while he was in western Michigan and envisioned those small towns as the setting for the story of a young father and his family who unexpectedly find themselves rearing an infant. He doesn't name "Raising Hope's" hometown, but viewers will surely understand that it's not an urban, sophisticated backdrop.
"Nobody will mistake the family's house for Frasier's apartment in Seattle," he said.
Nor would they think they're in a cosmopolitan spot when they're watching "Hot in Cleveland," a comedy about L.A. expats starring Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves, Wendie Malick and Betty White that returns for Season 2 early next year.
"We love celebrating Middle America because, as these characters find out, it's a grounded place that has its priorities in check," said Keith Cox, executive vice president, programming and development, at TV Land. "It's completely different from what they know and they struggle to fit in."
Sometimes producers choose a location specifically for its grit and grime. Jason Richman, creator of "Detroit 1-8-7," said the Rust Belt city is so intrinsic to the cop drama that the show couldn't have been shot anywhere else. Good thing the tax breaks are fat in Michigan, though there's little infrastructure in place for a TV production. (The crew retrofitted an old Chrysler building to stand in for police headquarters.)
"Our stories are very Detroit-specific and the characters are all woven from the fabric of this place," Richman said. "The audience might not know the city, but I think they'll be able to relate to it."
Producers had to reassure nervous city officials that they wouldn't add to the violence-and-unemployment-wracked Detroit's woes by kicking it while it's down. They've made it a practice to reach out to the community, and information they're gleaning is being written into the scripts, Richman said.
Clifton Campbell, creator and executive producer of "The Glades," was concerned enough with his unsexy setting that he wrote an entire script for the show, instead of an outline, to convey the flavor of obscure parts of south Florida. It helped sell the series, he said, especially when his hero, Longworth, was working for the little-known Florida Department of Law Enforcement, not a showy federal agency like the FBI.
Though it's set in fictional Palm Glades, the drama films in Broward County, Fla., home to sun, sand and palm trees, along with inland locations that are 180 degrees from the traditional tropical backdrop.
"There's all this sublime beauty in the Everglades and you can feel the heat kicking up off the ground," said Campbell, who's a native of small-town Florida. "But there's also a murkiness to it. It's an environment that's just so ripe for weird, unique stories."