The Midwest has long been a popular setting and subject for television and film, and yet the region remains one of the most (if not the most) misunderstood areas of the country.
Fox’s newest series, Welcome to Flatch, inspired by the British comedy This Country, depicts life in the fictional Ohio hamlet of the series’ title, as recorded by a documentary crew sent to capture the small-town American experience. The mockumentary, which hails from executive producer and writer Jenny Bicks, filters its narrative through relevant issues facing rural America, like ongoing job loss and limited access to reliable medical care. By framing the series this way and finding humor in how the town’s residents react to these familiar issues, Flatch feels like it could be a real town. The show is frequently funny, well-meaning, and sincere in its approach to storytelling.
In many ways, Flatch—which launched on broadcast and streaming simultaneously (the first seven episodes are now available on Hulu)—feels like an Ohio-ized version of NBC’s popular Indiana-set comedy Parks and Recreation. This is to say it has heart, is populated by memorable personalities (Krystal Smith’s Big Mandy, in particular), and features residents unashamed of their odd little town. Even Cheryl (Aya Cash), the editor of the local paper who relocated from Minneapolis with her boyfriend (Seann William Scott’s Joe) only to be dumped shortly thereafter, finds herself coming to enjoy and appreciate Flatch. But this and many others are stories we’ve seen before. Which raises one very important question: Why is it that TV and film insist on constantly painting the same version of the Midwest over and over when it only represents a fraction of the truth?
As defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, the Midwest is made up of 12 states: Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas, North Dakota, and South Dakota. It’s a wide swath of country, stretching from as far east as the Ohio River and the foothills of Appalachia to the prairies of the Great Plains in the middle of the country. Unsurprisingly, this has led to confusion over which states actually belong to the region and what it means to be “Midwestern.” After all, it features some of the most populous cities in the country, from Chicago to Columbus to Indianapolis, but is also home to charming small towns, major agricultural centers, and the industrialized cities of the Great Lakes. The topography isn’t even the same from one side to the other. And yet, somehow, to many outsiders and the media, the Midwest is uniform: largely rural and white, Christian, and primarily made up of tiny towns, cornfields, and cows. It’s “flyover country,” an area between the “more desirable” coasts. The people who call it home are depicted as friendly, upstanding, and morally good citizens, but are also either desperate to leave or not educated enough to know that they should.
Welcome to Flatch—which stars several actors from the Midwest and is produced and directed by Michigander Paul Feig—thankfully depicts the people of Flatch (population approximately 1,500) as intelligent and funny, who love their hometown but don’t feel trapped by it or its location in Southwestern Ohio (Dayton and Cincinnati are both referenced as being nearby). The show’s leads, best friends and cousins Kelly (Holmes) and Shrub (Sam Straley), are young adults in a town where there’s not much to do, so they make and find their own fun, which is what drives a lot of the action and comedy. But theirs is but one Midwestern experience. And yet, this oversimplified version is the one that most often gets portrayed.
From a storytelling standpoint, it’s easy to understand the appeal of setting a show (or other work of fiction) in a small Midwestern town. The region is widely (if inaccurately) understood to be ordinary and wholesome, a cultural shorthand for the “normal” American existence. Meanwhile, small towns allow for natural communities to spring up and give the story a sense of place. It means everyone likely knows their neighbors (and also their business), which builds and/or strains relationships. There are often unique traditions, from annual festivals to events commemorating something mildly historical that happened nearby, all of which adds an element of eccentricity and, hopefully, comedy.
It’s a bit harder to do these things in a large or mid-sized city that from the outside looks like every other large or mid-sized city. And in truth, it’s likely more difficult to sell a show about the people of Toledo or Lansing or Ames than some quirky small town fueled by an idealized version of the U.S. that mostly doesn’t exist any longer. But by limiting (or perhaps subjecting) the Midwest to stereotypes (which are frequently negative, but not always) and mostly depicting it as a region of small towns and farms, dictated by white, Christian, conservative values, or as a place one must leave to be happy and successful, pop culture unintentionally does a disservice to the Midwest—which is often more complex, diverse, and culturally rich than it appears.
For instance, Ohio, where Welcome to Flatch is set, is frequently the butt of jokes and is often used as a catch-all for the Midwest when a character in a show or film is a transplant. This adds to a false perception of the state as being a place where nothing ever happens and everyone wants to leave. In reality, it’s the seventh most populous state in the nation, with a population of nearly 11.8 million people as of the 2020 census. More people live in cities than in rural areas. The capital city of Columbus is home to the third largest public university in the U.S., the second largest Somali and Somali American community in the nation, and the largest expatriate Bhutanese-Nepali population in the world (as of 2018). Meanwhile, Cleveland features the largest performing arts center in the U.S. outside of New York and one of the best hospitals in the nation. But none of this fits the familiar narrative of a white, uncultured, and rural Midwest.
Admittedly, it’s not fair to lay these issues at the feet of Welcome to Flatch, a fun show whose premise is to capture the humor and heart of small-town living (and does it well, with a cast that more closely represents the demographics of the region than other shows). But it’s the latest piece of fiction to take the “quintessential Midwest” approach to its story. Countless shows across several genres have been set in the Midwest over the years, from The Mary Tyler Moore Show (Minnesota), Roseanne (Illinois), and 3rd Rock From the Sun (Ohio) to That ‘70s Show (Wisconsin), Mayor of Kingstown (Michigan), and Stranger Things (Indiana). But few have managed or attempted to dig into what makes it different or special, most often choosing to depict what’s expected or mythologized rather than what is.
The Midwest differs greatly from region to region, state to state, and sometimes even mile to mile. By portraying everything within it as the same in order to conform to an idea or concept of the Midwest—which is what everyone who ever talks about “the Midwest,” “the Heartland,” or “Midwestern values” is doing—it robs the area of its complexity, even if there are elements of truth within the story.
Welcome to Flatch was made by people from or familiar with the Midwest, which is more than one can say for other series. And it’s a great feeling as an Ohioan to see the state portrayed positively rather than as a tired punchline, or something meant to evoke pity (it’s also cool to see the Columbus Crew get screen time in the form of Kelly’s rotating shirt collection). But Welcome to Flatch and other shows set in the Midwest still do the area a disservice, even unintentionally, by treating it as a collection of small towns vacillating between idyllic and picturesque, or depressed and disappearing. Here’s hoping that future shows diversify in their storytelling, and showcase more of what the Midwest—and its people—are really all about.
Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
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