NYC on the Small Screen: Why Its Best Portrayal Has Nary a Cosmo, Pink Stiletto or "Central Perk" In Sight

It’s no secret that America’s attitude toward New York City is somewhat schizophrenic. Nor is it particularly perceptive to note that pop culture has long reflected our mixed feelings about the metropolis. On one hand there’s the Big Apple: a fizzy, fashionable  escape from suburbia. On the other there’s dark and dangerous Gotham: the city as a source of schadenfreude for small-town residents eager to see immoral urbanites suffer for their sins -- preferably with lots of explosions.

In moments of relative calm -- like, say, the pleasant, prosperous 1990s, when the TV version of New York was filled with "Friends" who rarely saw the need to, you know, go to work -- the whole love-hate dynamic can be sort of muted. (See also: Sex and the City, Seinfeld.) But real-world meltdowns always seem to revive our glam-or-grit ambivalence toward the city. During the Depression, public enemies like James Cagney rubbed elbows with screwball sophisticates like Cary Grant; the 1970s welcomed the "Mean Streets" of Martin Scorsese to Woody Allen’s urbane "Manhattan." In times of trouble, it seems, we search for a place to fantasize about and a place to pity. And then cast New York in both roles.

Which brings us to our current crisis. The ongoing evisceration of New York’s iconic industries -- finance and media -- has provided hordes of jobless bankers and journalists with plenty of time to blog about the possibility of economic apocalypse. Sales of imported ham, ironic sunglasses and designer doorknobs have plummeted. Even Del Posto, Mario Batali’s flagship restaurant, has lowered the price of its nine-course “grand tasting” menu from $175 to $125. But amid such agony, popular culture has broken with tradition and given us a New York that’s all glamor, no grit. The bitchy Upper East Siders of “Gossip Girl.” The leggy mannequins of “The City.” The preposterous waterfront housing of “The Real World: Brooklyn.”

Until, perhaps, now. This Sunday marks the premiere of the second season of a show -- the only show, in fact--that realistically represents how the other half of recession-era New York lives. Its name: “Flight of the Conchords.”

At this point, readers familiar with "FotC" are probably spitting out their Starbucks. We here at Pop Vox headquarters understand the skepticism. After all, the first season of this HBO series followed an impossibly naïve New Zealand musical duo, Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, as they mumbled deadpan zingers and burst into surreal songs about mermaids, robots, David Bowie and a racist dragon named Albi. More like the Kiwi Tenacious D, said critics, than cinéma vérité.

But we contend that "FotC" was merely ahead of its time -- and underappreciated as a result. Consider the evidence. Most New York  shows situate their subjects in spacious apartments on spotless, tree-lined streets. Bret and Jemaine share a single bedroom in a dingy walk-up on the outskirts of Chinatown -- an arrangement familiar to anyone who’s actually dared to navigate New York’s deadly real-estate market. To film their first music video, the Conchords use a camera phone -- the  most advanced technology available to artists on their limited budget. Soon, the cash-strapped roommates apply to be human billboards (only Bret gets the job). They consider eating food they find on the street. They hang out at a pawn shop. They wear the same sweatshirts -- most of which feature embossed images of animals -- for days on end. They get mugged. And they rarely attract more than a single, sociopathic fan, Mel, to their gigs.

"FotC," in other words, is a funny show about a not-so-funny subject: failure -- albeit of a peculiarly “New York 2009” variety. During Season One, which aired in 2007, this wasn’t a particularly resonant theme; New York was still on the upswing. But now that thousands of out-of-work yuppies are turning to New York magazine for tips on how to “Live Well and Spend Less,” the show’s aura of modest (if relentless) defeat is pretty much impossible to ignore. Take the Season Two premiere. Murray, the Conchords’ clueless manager, is booted from his marbled penthouse office after lawyers accuse his top act, the Crazy Dogggz, of plagiarism. He moves into his car. The Conchords themselves -- “slightly poorer” and still with “no gigs” -- refuse to write a toothpaste jingle (“we don’t use our music to sell products”), but instantly reverse course when told they’ll be “sh**ting money” if they do.

As usual, the deal falls through -- and the band soldiers on. Which may ultimately be the most realistic part of "FotC." The current economic climate will probably ensure that members of New York’s aspirational class wind up more like Bret and Jemaine than, say, Whitney Port -- that is, unappreciated, unproductive and professionally unfulfilled. But really, winding up like Bret and Jemaine isn’t all that bad. They’re reasonably hip, reasonably happy -- and not living in Milwaukee. Given the city’s post-Giuliani gentrification, that may be as gritty as New York gets.

Or as the Conchords themselves sang in Season One’s “Inner City Pressure,” a crushing lament about contemporary urban life inspired by (who else?) the Pet Shop Boys:

You don’t measure up to the expectation / When you’re unemployed, there’s no vacation / No one cares, no one sympathizes / You just stay home and play synthesizers.”

It’s funny because it’s true.

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