On Television, Finally, Los Angeles Is No Longer Just a Backdrop

Bosch star Titus Welliver, left, with the character's creator, Michael Connelly, on location off Mulholland Drive in Encino
Bosch star Titus Welliver, left, with the character's creator, Michael Connelly, on location off Mulholland Drive in Encino
Photo by Ryan Orange

The heat is thick and the air still in a vacant lot off Mulholland Drive in Encino. Under the midday August sun, a cluster of Los Angeles Police Department cars forms a circle around an abandoned Bentley, where a soft-eyed, city-hardened detective discovers the corpse of a San Fernando Valley mobster.

In a scrap of shade cast by a corrugated metal building, Michael Connelly, the man who created this fictional world, observes from behind silver-dollar–sized dark glasses. It's one of many such scenes shot on location around Los Angeles for Bosch, a serialized crime procedural based on Connelly's best-selling novels. Translated into 39 languages, the novels feature Harry Bosch, an uncompromising detective from LAPD's Hollywood Division.

The crime scene isn't far from reality. In 1989, as a police reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Connelly wrote about the unsolved murder of Vic Weiss, a money launderer for the Mafia, found dead in the trunk of his Rolls-Royce in North Hollywood, in those days a worn-out stretch of car repair shops and stucco apartment complexes in the Valley flatlands.

As the shoot breaks for lunch, Connelly climbs into an air-conditioned van with two LAPD homicide detectives who consult for the show.

"A lot of people are going to drive by and think there's a crime scene with nobody out there!" LAPD Det. Mitzi Roberts says with a laugh, as the cast and crew are shuttled down to base camp.

That's the whole idea. In Bosch, accuracy is paramount — not just in its depiction of police work but in its portrayal of Los Angeles. As Connelly, who has skyrocketed from beat reporter to celebrity author and is executive producer of the series, explains, "The books are built so that Bosch and the city are one and the same, and we want to carry that over to the show. Harry Bosch doesn't exist, but the city does, so we're taking this fictional character and anchoring him in real places. That's the best way to make him feel real to the viewers. You want them surreptitiously nodding as they watch this and thinking, 'Yeah, that's real, that's accurate.'"

Bosch, an Amazon Original series, is leading a new wave of scripted television that centers on authentic depictions of Los Angeles. Comedies and dramas are no longer recycling shots of palms on Canon Drive or babes on Santa Monica beaches but taking us deep into neighborhoods unfamiliar to many viewers — Eagle Rock, El Sereno, East L.A., Echo Park, Panorama City and Northridge in the Valley — and redefining the city as a character. Or, really, a collection of many characters. Because anyone who lives in L.A. knows there is no single, monolithic notion of the city. It's a conglomeration of small towns, a patchwork of diverse identities and lifestyles, 114 neighborhoods stretching between the escape of the desert and the promise of the Pacific.

Bosch executive producer Henrik Bastin, far left, and co-executive producer Pieter Jan Brugge, with hat
Bosch executive producer Henrik Bastin, far left, and co-executive producer Pieter Jan Brugge, with hat
Photo by Ryan Orange

A generic and limited carousel of establishing shots has always been used as a default for Los Angeles television shows, says Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University. Think nameless, sun-baked suburbs; idyllic beaches and palm-lined avenues; gritty urban settings.

According to CalArts professor Thom Andersen's 2002 cult documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, which chronicles L.A.'s representations in film, L.A. is the most photographed city in the world. That makes sense. The light is perfect, it hardly ever rains, and this town is chock-full of skilled actors, screenwriters, directors and technical crew members ready to work.

Upscale Westside neighborhoods — the setting for everything from The Beverly Hillbillies to Beverly Hills, 90210 to Entourage — are the long-established iconic images of L.A. But it may be best known through its procedurals: Dragnet, L.A. Law, CHiPs and NCIS: Los Angeles, shows that said very little about L.A. or its people.

At the turn of the century, Los Angeles was openly ridiculed as a sprawling suburb surrounding a lifeless downtown. Now, prohibitively expensive rents in San Francisco are fueling an exodus of artists and tech innovators to the Southland; L.A.'s cultural institutions are on par with New York's; and neighborhoods are revitalizing their green spaces and becoming more walkable. Television and movies used to tell us that people came here to escape their troubles or chase their dreams. But more and more, people are coming to live. It's a point of origin, a place where stories begin. And writers, producers and directors are increasingly telling those stories — nuanced, pained, euphoric love stories of the city, not just picture postcards.

"We're up in the hills of Echo Park," Connelly says in a soft, gravelly voice, while sitting in a director's chair in a spot of shade. He's talking about the first five minutes of the Bosch pilot, when Connelly introduces viewers to his version of Los Angeles. The voice of Vin Scully crackles through the car radio as detective Harry Bosch (Titus Welliver) and Jerry Edgar (Jamie Hector) stake out a house on a hill near Dodger Stadium. "A guy comes out of a house with iron bars on the windows and doors, and then the camera turns and reveals a staggering, beautiful view of the city," Connelly says. "That is very iconic L.A. You can find these secret places. I wanted the story to start there."

The action follows Bosch as he chases the suspect on foot down the steps beside downtown's Angels Flight funicular railway and onto the Gold Line light rail to Mariachi Plaza, a space in Boyle Heights where professional mariachis gather seeking work. It's a real path that a viewer could retrace, not disconnected locales edited together, says Connelly, who is moving back to L.A. after living in Florida for years.

Welliver says that shoe-leather investigative work is a hallmark of his character. "He has a sign on his desk that says, 'Get off your ass and go knock on doors.' He's a native Angeleno. He knows the city so well, every aspect of it," the actor explains.

Bosch leads Amy Aquino and Titus Welliver have a great, platonic relationship on the show.
Bosch leads Amy Aquino and Titus Welliver have a great, platonic relationship on the show.
Photo by Ryan Orange

Authenticity of location is particularly important in an era when viewers stream content on-demand. "With the advent of streaming, where the consumer is king, it is important that you deliver a product that is rooted in reality," says Bosch co–executive producer Pieter Jan Brugge, who also executive-produced Michael Mann's L.A-set Heat.

"For so long, you watched TV when it was on and it went out into the ether. People make TV now with the idea that we're paying attention," Thompson says.

Says Connelly: "We're making our statement in the first 30, 40 seconds of the show, that we're going to take you to an L.A. you don't often see."

Of course, some of the most successful shows still aren't driven by authenticity of the location or people. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Nielsen Media ranks network shows The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family as the top two most-watched broadcast series in 2014. Both take place in L.A., but the location seems incidental.

On the other hand, season two of True Detective, set in a city based on troubled Vernon, delivers a dark vision of freeways, sprawl and Chinatown-esque corruption, and for three seasons Ray Donovan has served up a violent, lush portrayal of the underworld of Hollywood's elite, taking us into gritty North Hollywood and swanky Calabasas. Both are distinctly L.A. shows — but they're preoccupied with the city's glitz and degradation.

Tom Nunan, the former president of UPN and NBC Studios who produced the Oscar-winning film Crash as well as its Starz TV spinoff, says the key factors in selling a new series are the reputation of the showrunner, the star and the location. "As a creator or showrunner, you have to convince the buyer that you know that place — and have a good reason for it to be there.

"There is no great advantage to setting a show in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago right now, because it could be perceived as too local, aggressively American or parochial," Nunan adds. He also notes, however, that the most successful shows aren't developed by abiding to a matrix of market research but come out of a showrunner or creator's unique vision. And increasingly, a showrunner's vision for a series is closely linked to a distinct location.

Shows like Transparent and Maron draw from the personal experiences of their creators, telling stories from the heart of Los Angeles' neighborhoods. IFC's Maron, now in its third season, takes us into Marc Maron's Highland Park, using the Curb Your Enthusiasm model — a fictional show about the actual life of the main character. In Transparent, an Amazon Original series that just finished filming its second season, the characters live in West Hollywood, Silver Lake and Mid-Wilshire and hang out in Griffith Park and Marina del Rey. But they keep getting tugged back to their longtime Pacific Palisades home.

Actor-filmmaker Jay Duplass, who plays Josh in Transparent, says that creator Jill Soloway and he "are both just trying to stay true to the way things really are and just trying to tell great stories."

Duplass and his brother, Mark Duplass, are indie filmmakers known for their slice-of-life narratives, including 2005 Sundance darling The Puffy Chair. For them, the choice of Eagle Rock as the setting for their new HBO comedy, Togetherness, was about writing what they know. "Transparent and Togetherness are incredibly similar shows in tone," Jay Duplass says.

Togetherness is a comedy about the men and women the brothers hang out with in Eagle Rock, an area where, in real life, homes selling for an average $580,000 are snapped up in 15 days, according to Redfin. "They're middle-aged or approaching middle age, but they still haven't found their thing, and that's very common, I think," Jay Duplass says. "I've been living in Eagle Rock for seven and a half years now. It's the place hipsters go to die or have children."

He drives over the hill every day and leaves Hollywood behind. Eagle Rock is home to Occidental College and feels more like a college town, where you can walk to cafes and see people you know. Over breakfast at Camilo's Bistro on Colorado Boulevard, as he orders huevos rancheros over medium, he says, "This is a little bistro for old ladies and me."

He says he could never find a place like it in Silver Lake or Los Feliz — what some have dubbed, along with Echo Park, the Tri-Hipster Area — with a quiet booth and breakfast for $10, where you don't have to edit conversations to avoid drawing attention from stargazers.

The character Brett in Togetherness, played by Mark Duplass, is a lot like Jay. He spends long, depressing hours in a dark sound-editing room. One day, he wakes up at dawn to go into the hills to capture the sound of a coyote, an eerie yap that some liken to a human in distress. But his director coldly rebuffs him and tells him to use a generic wolf howl. Jay Duplass says they included that scene because most people in L.A. have heard a coyote at some point and thought, "What the fuck was that?"

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In the Togetherness pilot, some viewers might be surprised to see that a family day at the beach is a rare occurrence and a chore for many Angelenos. Rather than an idyllic romp, the characters haul their gear from the car to the beach in slow motion, like soldiers heading into battle, weighed down with children and blankets and boogie boards and chairs. Bookended by the long drive in traffic across town, beachgoers get only a few minutes in the surf between smearing on sunscreen and changing diapers.

"There is truth behind their lives," Jay Duplass says. "People feel that."

East Los High producer Katie Elmore Mota, above, at Plaza de la Raza in Lincoln Park, Lincoln Heights
East Los High producer Katie Elmore Mota, above, at Plaza de la Raza in Lincoln Park, Lincoln Heights
Photo by Jessica Langlois

A few years ago, Katie Elmore Mota and her husband, Mauricio Mota, saw an underserved market in scripted television: English-speaking Latino teens. So they hired Latino producers Carlos Portugal and Kathleen Bedoya to create East Los High, a fast-paced, pop music–infused, 20-minute melodrama that delivers hard-hitting educational messages. The show was picked up as a Hulu Original series and just launched its third season.

"Audiences in our on-demand environment are very engaged viewers. They are not passively flipping through channels but actively choosing which programs they'll watch," Jessica Scott, of Hulu's content development team, says via email. "We loved East Los High because it felt unlike any TV show out there, and the setting is an important part of that."

Elmore Mota, the show's executive producer, sitting beside a small stage and dance studio at Plaza de la Raza, a community center bordered by a small lake and skatepark in Lincoln Heights on the Eastside, says, "We were talking about telling a Latino teen experience, and East L.A. has one of the highest percentages of Latinos in the area. And it's hardly ever shown in the mainstream media."

The park is prominent in the series, which is shot on location primarily in East L.A., Boyle Heights and downtown, with South L.A., North Hollywood, Norwalk and Glendale also appearing. Plaza de la Raza is where rehearsals and competitions for the fictional high school dance team, the Bomb Squad, are shot.

Co–executive producer Carlos Reza says that, until recently, he rarely saw East L.A. in television and movies. When he's gathering B-roll for East Los High, he describes it as "a whole other character of the show. ... I got a guy getting his hair cut, a woman selling flowers close to Valentine's Day, older musicians outside restaurants waiting to go inside and play for tips, a guy washing his car, bus stops."

Elmore Mota explains, "We look for a beauty in the everyday. Sometimes we're told on television it has to be these extravagant, huge builds to be beautiful or desirable." But, she says, "There's so much to what already exists. You don't get that richness and texture in a studio — you don't get the years of wear and tear."

East Los High’s Vivian Lamolli, left, and Alexandra Rodriguez flank singer Lex Lu, a guest star on the show.
East Los High’s Vivian Lamolli, left, and Alexandra Rodriguez flank singer Lex Lu, a guest star on the show.

On the Westside, residents often are hostile toward camera crews. On the Eastside, most have embraced East Los High, Reza says, and are proud to show the world how they live. But some are worried that the soap opera–like series is stereotyping Latino culture. The first season, 24 episodes created on a shoestring budget, really packs it in — teen pregnancy, abortion, rape, drug dealing, drive-by shootings, HIV, cancer, sex corruption in the Catholic Church, stripping, estrangement from parents and living in shelters.

Reza points out that these things are really happening. "It's not like we're glorifying it. We didn't want to sell something that wasn't real," he says, adding, "The big message in the first season was safe sex. [Because] people don't talk about that here."

Elmore Mota says the second and third seasons, each 12 episodes, are less heavy-handed: They address living as an undocumented immigrant and not being able to get health care; police profiling; and domestic abuse.

The writers and producers work closely with teenagers from Roosevelt and Garfield high schools and local organizations to get things right. She adds: "Every season we ask, 'What have we not taken on that's a part of your life but we should? What's most pervasive right now?'"

The look and texture are unmistakably L.A. The characters can see the skyscrapers of downtown from their high school, their porches or apartment balconies. Bridges link the Eastside to the rest of L.A. across the graffiti-riddled L.A. River and broad freeways. "The bridges show that we're detached from downtown, Hollywood and other cities," Reza says.

In season one, Maya Martinez (Alicia Sixtos), heartbroken, homeless and broke, goes to Hollywood to make fast money as a stripper and gets heavily into drinking and drugs. Jacob Aguilar (Gabriel Chavarria), who's in love with her, comes after her. He begs her to return to East L.A., which, for Maya, is a place where the owner of a taqueria gives you a job even though you stole from him, because he remembers what it was like to struggle, and where an aunt you've never met takes you in and calls you her daughter. East L.A. becomes a warm place, a safe haven, a place of redemption.

"We wanted to show the everyday lives of families trying to get by. East L.A. is families, communities," Elmore Mota says.

She credits their ability to create a realistic all-Latino world to the fact that the writers' room is all people of color — and largely women.

A writing staff of mostly minority women is extremely uncommon in Hollywood.

"Hollywood is notorious for doing what's been done, because it feels safer," Elmore Mota says. "It depends on who is controlling the money. ... We still have a very small fraction of the population controlling those decisions, and in turn we have a limited view of what is happening across L.A."

East Los High isn't the only show now jumping into realistic representations of Los Angeles' eastern neighborhoods.

Dave Erickson, showrunner for spinoff Fear the Walking Dead, says he and Robert Kirkman, creator of the original graphic novels, wanted an urban backdrop, a contrast to the rural Southern setting of the original AMC series, The Walking Dead.

They settled on El Sereno, just a few blocks from where the fictional kids in East Los High live and hang out. "The characters needed to reflect the diversity of the city," he says. They are all working-class, mostly white, Latino and even a Maori from New Zealand.

Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis) and Madison Clark (Kim Dickens) work as a high school teacher and guidance counselor, and Travis' ex-wife, Liza Ortiz (Elizabeth Rodriguez), is getting her nursing degree. Between them they have three sulking, rebellious kids and are trying to make their extended family work.

"We're trying to do a slow burn, very much family drama first," Erickson says. Indeed. The relentless Southland sun burns into many of the shots, threatening to swallow up the characters as they confront their pre-zombie problems — addiction, visitation rights, step-parenting. "The more we can do to land a sense of reality, place, texture and feel, the better it will be when zombies show up." On a San Diego Comic-Con panel, Erickson said that the segmented geography of L.A. adds to the tension in the narrative. The family hunkers down, and there is a heightened sense of isolation as chaos spreads.

When Carlos Reza saw the previews, he recognized his old high school, Woodrow Wilson, which he had never seen on TV. Before the plague, two teens sit on a stadium light platform above the football field, looking out on the hazy white sky over downtown, talking about leaving L.A. "Our mandate was to find neighborhoods and buildings that had not been seen," Erickson says. "Competition is so fierce right now. ... If a city is a character in a show, it needs to not be just words."

Accurately portraying Los Angeles as a character is no simple task. It takes time and creative space that writers and producers from film — such as Pieter Jan Brugge and the Duplass brothers — have been able to find in serialized comedy and drama.

"Los Angeles is an elusive city. I don't think anyone can get at the whole city and know it like the back of your hand," Connelly says.

Jamie Hector, left, plays Detective Jerry Edgar, Bosch's partner. Actor Michael Raymond-James, right, was visiting the set.
Jamie Hector, left, plays Detective Jerry Edgar, Bosch's partner. Actor Michael Raymond-James, right, was visiting the set.
Photo by Ryan Orange

It's a new day of shooting for season two of Bosch, and the crew has gathered at a run-down house in working-class Sun Valley. Brugge and Connelly leave the shoot for a few hours to scout locations for Mexican restaurants around the ranch-house suburbs of North Hills, Northridge and Chatsworth with production designer Chester Kaczenski and locations manager Paul Schreiber. Connelly covered the San Fernando Valley for six years at the L.A. Times, and he says he is excited that most of this season will be set there, delving predominantly into the porn industry.

Bosch shoots on location seven days a week and on set one day a week, often with two or three locations a day. Schreiber says shooting on location is more expensive and logistically complicated, but it's what the narrative demands.

"I don't mean to sound arrogant, but I didn't really need Hollywood," Connelly says as he looks around the back rooms of a taqueria in Chatsworth. "My books were selling. I'm not going to give Harry to just anyone." His 27 novels have sold 60 million copies, to be exact, with a new Harry Bosch novel coming in November. That's why, when Joe Lewis, then head of original programming at Amazon Studios, took Connelly to lunch to discuss bringing the show to Amazon as one of its first dramatic series, Connelly held very strong cards. "I had in the contract, in writing, that every L.A. shot had to be shot in L.A.," Connelly says.

(Lewis, now head of comedy at Amazon Studios, said via email that he had lots of "site-specific thoughts" on Bosch and other Amazon Original programming. But the Amazon PR team declined an interview, about a week and a half before The New York Times reported on harsh treatment of employees at Amazon under Jeff Bezos, who has denied the claims.)

Bosch executive producer Henrik Bastin first approached Connelly in 2011 about making a series from his books. Over the din of chatter in the catering trailer at the shoot's Valley base camp, Bastin says, "I got to know L.A. through reading Michael's books when I was in Sweden. I would come here for a week to work, and all I saw was the inside of a car and the freeway. But I started reading these books, and I got that completely different side of L.A., the texture and taste of it."

Readers all over the world follow Connelly's tales on Google Maps, clicking on Street View to see the real locations of scenes from his novels. In the series, the contract with the viewers is just as key. Connelly's social media team monitors fans' discussions about the authenticity of every element of Harry Bosch's apartment — from his vintage record player to the jar of bullet shells he keeps on his kitchen counter.

Viewers will freeze on a shot of Bosch's home — a small but glamorous, glass-walled house on rickety stilts with a grand view of Los Angeles — to try to determine its exact location. In the books, it's off Woodrow Wilson Drive in the Hollywood Hills, with a view overlooking Cahuenga Pass and the 101. But in the series, the house looks over the city. "So you can believe that people are going to talk about whether or not" a restaurant in the series is made up, Connelly says.

Harry Bosch spends a lot of time contemplating the city by night from his house in the hills. "He's an eagle on the perch of his domain," Welliver says. "He's an isolated man."

"I think we're all kind of like that," Connelly says. "We may not all have back decks up in the hills, but we're often in a car by ourselves, and that breeds that kind of contemplation and isolation."

And that's not necessarily a bad thing. In Los Angeles Plays Itself, Andersen asks, "What if we watch with our voluntary attention, instead of letting the movies direct us?" Maybe, in television, we finally are. Los Angeles believes the world is always watching it, because, in many ways, it is. And so, we watch ourselves. We climb up into canyons and gaze out over the sprawl. We look out across neighborhoods from bridges and freeways, connected but independent. We fight traffic for hours to gaze out at the Pacific, at the edge of the continent.

We arrive here or we begin here. We talk about how Los Angeles is a place, and what it means to live here, to make it, to survive. We search and search for a way to define this city, but it is a chameleon, this place, always splintering and changing, just as we are. Maybe that's the desperate, constant beauty of it all, the reason we keep watching, the reason we stay.

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