Abbe and I have been making our way through the first season of Homeland. A little late, but we came around. We just finished the season and we both liked it a lot, even though she was mad at me for making us stay up to watch the final three episodes last night.
This image is of Farragut Square, which is featured in one of Homeland’s final episodes. Except that it’s not Farragut Square, which doesn’t have a pond, a fountain, tables with umbrellas, or gently sloped terrain. Also note the absence of food trucks in the photo, which means these people would have no place to get their kabobs.
Obviously, Homeland isn’t filmed here. Neither is The Americans or Hannibal, two other “local” shows that Abbe and I love. But The Americans at least does some location filming, and tries to get the details right. Hannibal mostly shoots interiors in the city, and saves the exteriors for outside the city–although we’re always fascinated by Will’s enormous property in “Wolf Trap, Virginia” (just outside the Beltway, and very suburban unless you happen to be the Wolf Trap Performing Arts Center). Both shows also depict Washington as a place where it snows 7-8 months a year. But mostly they work as “local” shows because they either do their homework (like The Americans), or they’re so stylized that they don’t really care about local authenticity anyway (Hannibal).
Homeland clearly wants to be realistic in a lot of ways. I’m sure the show runners get input from different experts on the political and military aspects of the show. But when it comes to the city itself, the show is consistently off-base. And while it’s probably not worth the expense and the hassle of recreating the real “Farragut Square” on the show’s North Carolina set, the question is why the creators decided to set the scene in “Farragut Square” in the first place.
It’s a real place, so maybe that makes it “sound” real. It’s an odd name, too. If you’re watching the show and you’ve never spent much time in DC, you probably assume it’s real. And if you live in the area but you’ve never actually spent time in Northwest, you probably recognize the name and you might not notice anything weird about the scene. (Except that it just still doesn’t look like anywhere in the city. If you’ve lived here at all, if you’ve ever come off a metro stop inside the city, you know that the vibe is just all wrong.)
Writers have to deal with these questions of authenticity all the time. Not just about facts–does Farragut Square have a fountain?–but about almost every aspect of a story. Because you realize pretty quickly that if you’re writing anything that isn’t pure fantasy, you have to know (or learn) an awful lot to make it ring true. And you also realize how little you actually know about anything, in depth. (Or maybe that’s just me. I always thought I was well-read, pretty intelligent, but when I write, I’m amazed at all the holes in my general knowledge of everything in the universe. Or maybe in my specific knowledge of everything in the universe, but it’s in the details where things matter.) Almost everything takes some research to get it right. And so you have to weigh how important to the story any little detail is, either how central to the plot or how much it contributes to the world you’re building. Maybe it isn’t significant, but it adds just enough of the real world to give the story dimension.
And maybe it only matters for such a tiny part of the viewing/reading audience that it doesn’t seem worth the effort. I think that’s probably the case with Homeland. They play off what most people think they already know, not only about DC but about cities in general. So we have a sniper twenty floors up in a residential skyscraper on Homeland, which makes sense, unless the city happens to have a building height restriction. (Even wilder was the scene when the sniper looks out the window at night and sees other high-rises lit up around him. I turned to Abbe and asked why he was looking out at Chicago.)
So how much does it matter? Maybe not that much, if most people won’t mind any of these things. But as a writer, shouldn’t you write for the toughest, most knowledgeable audience?
And maybe it does matter, after all. Some shows just look generic, and others look real, even if we don’t always know the location ourselves. Authenticity comes through.