Not In My San Diego: How ‘NTSF:SD:SUV::’ Has Perfectly Captured My Hometown
Like a lot of San Diegans, I’m originally from somewhere else. My family moved here when I was but a slip of a lad, however, and I’ve definitely lived here longer than anywhere else. When I first moved here at the age of 12, I hated it intensely, bristling at the intense cultural differences between suburban Los Angeles and suburban San Diego in the way only a seventh grader can. But that hatred blossomed into a weird love/hate relationship that can only be justified by the glowing eye of my television set.
Other than Simon & Simon, there haven’t been many successful TV shows set here in America’s 8th largest city. I don’t count Veronica Mars because even though it was largely filmed here, it was set in some fictional California berg (as far as I know, I mean, I never actually watched it)(though I did linger around the set if and when I could because, well, y’know). FX’s Terriers got shellacked before it ever had a chance. I’m not even going to mention That ‘80s Show or Cavemen, except I already did.
Meanwhile, you’ve got what amounts to our East Coast counterpart in Miami racking up all kindsa hit shows like The Golden Girls, Burn Notice, Miami Vice, and of course CSI: Miami. I mean, hey, we’ve got beautiful beaches, women in bikinis, 300-plus days of sunshine. What gives, viewing America?
And this bush-league status of San Diego, California, is exactly the point of my little diatribe here. Sure, the film Anchorman put us on the map quite a bit, but you can only hear that “whale’s vagina” gag so many times. But as it stands, America’s Finest City is pretty much a metropolitan punchline, and as it stands, I couldn’t be more pleased with that situation.
Today, we finally have a show that makes great use of San Diego’s inherent line of punch. Besides being a much-blessed parody of the infamously over-the-top seriousness of prime-time crime drama, Adult Swim’s NTSF:SD:SUV:: also slips in enough detail about its locale to be legitimate. There are some obvious changes here and there, but the spirit remains more than loyal. Take, for instance, the setting of USSD, a stand-in for San Diego State University, my alma mater. In the pilot episode of NTSF, Piper goes undercover as a college student to investigate the bizarre drinking-related deaths happening on campus. Though the school on the show is called USSD, the establishing shots are very familiar to any Aztecs out there, and if you look quickly enough, you can even catch sight of actual SDSU banners. The drinking deaths are not utterly in the realm of fiction either: SDSU has been ranked as a top-ten party school by no less a qualified publication than Playboy magazine. Then there was the big drug-bust on campus in 2008 by the DEA, resulting in almost 100 arrests and a whole lotta drugs and money being confiscated (Put that in your pipe and smoke it, UCSD, up in your nice La Jolla neighborhood)(ah, just a little intramural rivalry there)(but seriously, fuck those guys).
Then there’s the Gaslamp Quarter. Back when I was in high school, I used to take the trolley to downtown San Diego and hang around the record shop or whatever. But even in my desire to earn some sorta urban street-cred, I never went below Market Street, not with my pretty face. But around that time, the city began pumping a lot of revitalization dollars into the 16 blocks from Broadway down to the convention center, and then once the San Diego Padres got their new fancy-pants stadium (despite getting swept by the Yankees in the ’98 World Series), it was a whole new Gaslamp: 90% less scary homeless dudes, 90% more insufferable douchebags. And as the second episode of this most recent season of NTSF depicts, a veritable army of pedicabs.
I spent this last summer as a pizza boy in the Gaslamp, and I can tell you from experience that, even more than the club-hopping nimrods and the overpriced novelty bar-‘n’-grills, the pedicab army is a blight on the face of the city. I mean, I’m sure they’re nice people and all, just out there trying to make a buck. But man, as if traffic in the Gaslamp wasn’t bad enough. Since the nightlife in the area has only continued to fluctuate, so too has the number of times I’ve almost mowed one of these knuckleheads over, with their boomboxes and perfectly toned calves.
It’s not difficult to assume that stories like this came out of the writers and performers attending the San Diego Comic-Con, especially with the huge presence Cartoon Network and Adult Swim have enjoyed there over the last few years. And then, even though this season’s Comic-Con episode was obviously shot elsewhere aside from the establishing shots, it’s these little touches that not only go along way with their audience here in town, but also kinda subliminally impart the seriousness of craft on display to the rest of the viewing public. Even if people watching elsewhere in the country can’t pick out that, say, that one establishing shot of Ocean Beach is more likely Venice Beach, the fact that the producers bothered to photoshop an Ocean Beach sign into the shot will translate.
So obviously, NTSF takes its silliness very seriously, and that just makes it a good comedy show all around. But again, there is a certain kind of masochistic pleasure in seeing my beloved city get annihilated by nuclear weapons just because Sam doesn’t want to marry his girlfriend. And this is where my lifelong relation to this jerkwater berg comes into play.
Dennis Hopper went to Helix High School out in La Mesa. That’s translated into local lore as “Dennis Hopper is from San Diego!” When Benicio del Toro was up for an Academy Award, the local paper did a big spread on him in the Sunday arts section on the basis that he’d gone to school here, which turns out was actually about a semester at UCSD before he dropped out to become an actor. San Diego desperately clings to these sorts of “local boys made good,” like co-dependent cheerleader girlfriends, ignoring actual home-grown cultural heroes like Cameron Crowe and Lester Bangs, and even Carl Weathers (though he was mostly just here for college football). Back in the early to mid-‘90s, local bands like Rocket from the Crypt and Lucy’s Fur Coat began getting some national and even international coverage, and local journalists began foaming at the mouth about how we were gonna be “the next Seattle.” Not “the first San Diego,” heaven forfend.
The city (especially its notoriously conservative news media) indulges in this low self-esteem, which I have theorized for years comes from living almost directly in the shadow of Los Angeles, California, the entertainment capital of the world. It’s like L.A. is our cooler, hipper older brother who went off and got all kindsa successful friends with neat cars while we’re stuck still living at home with Mom and Dad. We’re so close in so many ways: geographically, climatically, historically. But when it comes to art and culture, when it comes to the world stage, San Diego rates not much more than a goofy ‘80s private eye show that itself has become the punchline of another Adult Swim show recently.
That to me is the biggest joke out of NTSF. When creator Paul Scheer was sitting down to decide where his send-up of 24 and CSI and that sort of fare would be set, he could have easily landed on New York or L.A., where those shows normally take place. Or why not even Chicago or Miami? Because it wouldn’t be as funny. San Diego isn’t a place where things happen; it’s a place where Joan Embery raises monkeys and Shamu jumps through a big hoop. San Diego has wisely positioned itself as a tourist haven, but now nobody thinks of it as a real town.
And frankly, that’s how I like it. It occurs to me as I write these words that perhaps I’m projecting my own low self-esteem onto my hometown. And that’s entirely possible, despite what I think are plenty of objective reasons for this vibe San Diego puts off to me. But I also like living in a place, being from a place, that doesn’t come with a reputation. There is a thriving underground art and music scene here, and I’ve seen more than one decent comedian come outta this town (don’t mention Dat Phan)(I said, don’t!). But for the most part nobody expects much out of us down here, and as a burgeoning young(ish) writer, I find this a much lower pressure environment. I could move to L.A. or New York and battle it out in that pool of piranha, but that sounds like a super drag. True to my San Diegan roots, I much prefer to just kick back, write at my own pace, and then get drunk with my useless friends.
I’d like to take this space here to apologize to my fellow San Diegans for pissing all over their lawns. But I hope I’ve made it clear that what makes me hate this place is also what makes me love it. Though as a young punk, I may have found the beautiful people and gorgeous weather oppressive, I now embrace San Diego’s low-key atmosphere and in fact can’t imagine being able to cut it in a more quickly paced city, like Duluth, Minnesota, say. And if NTSF:SD:SUV:: can see the comedic value in this city, even if only as a setting, then that just makes me love this stupid town that much more.
I could say “Stay classy, San Diego!” here, but I won’t.
Jimmy Callaway lives in San Diego, CA. For more shenanigans, visit his bloggy, Attention, Children.