The TV Tourist

Why I love to vacation in the locations where my favorite shows are set.

Illustration: a woman walking into a TV.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by anyaberkut/Thinkstock, stevestein1982/Flickr CC.

Pam Beesly broke my heart. It wasn’t so much that she married someone else—namely Dunder Mifflin paper salesman Jim Halpert. It was that she first dropped out of art school in New York, schlepped back home to Scranton, and then got married. It was that she gave up on her dream. She’d wanted something more for herself and then she’d let that something more slip like a balloon right out of her grasp.

I was devastated, and my impulse was to chase her back to Scranton and shake her. “If there’s any dream that’s worth having,” I raved to her in my mind, “it’s the one about being an artist in New York. You don’t have to choose between having a family and having a career. Hang in there, Pam. You’re so close!” So, a couple of weeks ago, I booked a room at the Radisson Lackawanna, rented a semi-compact Ford, and trekked out to Scranton—just to try to put myself inside Pam Beesly’s head.

Obviously Pam isn’t real. And I was 10 years too late. The Office finished its run in 2013, and the plotline that saw Pam move home occurred even earlier in Season 5, which aired in 2008. Still, I was in the midst of streaming that season, and I had to resolve my shattered feelings somehow. Why not go spend the weekend in beautiful Scranton, Pennsylvania? While I knew that The Office hadn’t actually been filmed in Scranton, only set there, the series’ writers always made a great point of name-checking local landmarks and institutions. Scranton is the show’s spiritual home, not some soundstage in Van Nuys. Hence my pilgrimage.

That night, my husband Chris and I were drinking light beer at Poor Richard’s—a dive bar frequently mentioned on the show, which in real life is tucked inside a bowling alley—and I asked him, “Why do you think Pam dropped out of art school? She only had three months to go.” He answered, “You know you’re projecting, right?”

Well, yeah. Why not? Some people play golf or rock-climb. I get a little obsessed with my favorite shows, sometimes so obsessed I even commit some light trespassing. I’d say this is one of the pleasures of our era: The golden age of TV has given us a golden age of TV tourism. You can visit sets and settings that take you closer to this bit of popular art you love, so that later you can re-watch it in a fresh way, newly immersed. In the last few years, I’ve gone to Utah Mormon country because of Big Love, the Florida Keys because of Bloodline; Monterey, California, because of Big Little Lies; and Breckenridge, Colorado because of CNN’s High Profits.

Many thousands of other people do this too, says tourism-industry research and my own anecdotal experience. We hadn’t been sitting in Poor Richard’s for a minute before the bartender took the Dundie from its perch behind the bar and brought it over to us. He’d clocked us on sight. “People come from all over the world,” he said, not sounding incredibly pleased about that fact. Then another couple walked in the door, the woman exclaiming, “Oh my God, it’s really here!” It was the same all over town. The front desk guy at the Radisson handed over a brochure for self-guided Office walking tours—a kind of low-rent Camino. Lyft drivers guessed the reason for our visit on their first tries, and so did the wait staff at Cooper’s, a seafood restaurant also mentioned on the show. It was no one’s first rodeo.

This phenomenon is a lot older than The Office. Back in the ’80s, Miami Vice apparently increased tourism to Miami, so much that it reshaped the city itself. Even 2006’s Borat—hardly an endorsement of the country, more like a vicious satire—drew tourists to Kazakhstan. More recently, Dubrovnik has been so inundated with Game of Thrones tourists that local authorities are taking steps to prevent its UNESCO sites from being overrun; you can actually trace Croatia’s overall economic growth to the show. It’s as though all TV has become a kind of native advertising for its setting, like children’s cartoons are for toys.

In his 1962 book The Image, historian Daniel Boorstin lamented that people were visiting Rome because of Roman Holiday. “Throughout history by going to far places and seeing strange sights men have prodded their imagination,” he wrote. But now, “people go to see what they already know is there. The only thing to record, the only possible source of surprise, is their own reaction.” He’s not wrong—in fact, he now seems to be predicting Instagram about five decades early—but I think he overlooks the pleasures of fandom, which boiled down are really the pleasures of absorption. Only very good TV shows can pull off the trick of holding your attention, fully consuming you in their imagined reality. And today, with an unprecedented glut of shows within streaming reach at all times, there have never been more opportunities for TV tourism. For me, every new series has come to feel almost like a travel brochure.

It’s true that these trips sometimes begin as the more passive experience Boorstin described. For instance, I didn’t even particularly like Big Little Lies—it certainly did not inspire in me a desire to engage in hypercompetitive parenting in some place where everyone is richer than I am. Nearly every character is tense and unhappy, and you wouldn’t really want to live their lives. But what Big Little Lies did make me want to do is cruise around Monterey, take the 17-Mile Drive and head south through Big Sur. I watched the show, took the drive, then later re-watched the show to relive that drive. And the second time around, I was captivated—somehow a far more sympathetic viewer. No wonder these characters stay in this place that’s helping to make them all miserable, I thought. Monterey is magic.

At other times, such trips can be a portal into real-life adventure. Like many people, I loved the first season of Netflix’s Bloodline, a lush drama all about Florida, family and felonies; I booked a trip to the Keys while I was watching the final episodes of that season. And after a few days with the sun seemingly stuck directly overhead, so merciless that I could hardly force myself to leave the shade, as I was surrounded by soused revelers, I began to feel like I understood Bloodline even more. (Alcohol informs too many of the characters’ decisions to count.) Our last morning there, I snuck onto the grounds of the Moorings—a gorgeous hotel that doubled as the Rayburn family’s house and business in the show—in Islamorada. In my defense: just for a minute. Though I only stayed long enough to snap a couple of pictures, it amazed me to see how that impossibly powder-y beach, that miraculous blue-green water and that oddly flat horizon stretched before me just like they do in the show’s hazy flashbacks. Then I sprinted back to our rented Corolla. Chris wouldn’t trespass with me, but had always wanted to drive a getaway car, he said. The engine was idling. I got in and he gunned it.

Visiting a filming location gives me an added layer of appreciation for the show itself—its mood, its characters’ motivations, its carefully cultivated atmosphere. When I return to these series, it feels like my viewing experience is suddenly in 360 degrees. These trips, however ridiculous they might seem, are a chance to stroke that fabric between the real and the imagined—to add new pixelation to my relationship with the world of a show, even as I’m just sitting in a bowling alley on a Sunday in Scranton. No wonder Pam couldn’t leave it all behind.