Above: West Virginia documentary viewed by “Criminal Minds” script writers
Has a TV show or movie ever used your hometown as a setting? Did it seem the writers never even bothered to look up your town on Wikipedia?
So. The April 2 episode of “Criminal Minds,” called “Blood Relations,” supposedly took place in the city across the Ohio River from my hometown. The writers of the show called this town “Wheeling, W.Va.,” and called the time period “now,” but it seemed to have been set in a CBS backlot last used for “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Here’s the TV Guide synopsis:
Two murder victims are found in a West Virginia backwoods community. The investigation reveals that the homicides may be linked to a long-simmering feud between two families.
OK, two West Virginia cliches so far. Let’s continue:
- We hear lots of funny cornpone southern accents.
- The families started feuding over moonshine, but recently graduated to meth (a cliche two-fer).
- A main criminal goes by the name “Mountain Man.”
- The names of the characters include Cissy, Magdalena, Malachi, and Miles (cue banjo).
- And, of course… incest!
All in all, a fun trip through Almost Heaven.
As this USA Today critic said:
Because of course, in Hollywood, when you think of West Virginia or Kentucky or the entire Appalachians, all your tiny mind can think of is the Hatfields and McCoys.
But there’s a much deeper level of writer incompetence: Wheeling is not a southern city.
This “backwoods community” is a blue-collar, Rust Belt, predominantly Catholic (but see comment), gritty northern town of 28,000. It’s “southern” in the way Columbus, Ohio, and Indianapolis are southern — Wheeling is due east from those cities, right on Interstate 70. Also, having a major interstate cut through your city is a clue that it’s not necessary “backwoods.”
Wheeling is even north of the Mason-Dixon line. Thus, Wheeling residents don’t talk southern. They sound similar to Pittsburgh residents, because Wheeling is barely an hour from that steel city. The closest southern accent is two hundred miles to the south.
No criminal hiding in the woods would call himself “Mountain Man.” Wheeling is not in the mountains. It’s in a river valley among the foothills of the Appalachians. The mountains, like the accents, are hours away.
And the people there are given annoyingly normal Midwestern names. (“Cissy”? Really? You have got to be kidding me.)
If you Hollywood writers want to beat this city with cliches, listen to Billy Joel’s “Allentown.” Although that city is on the other side of Pennsylvania, Joel’s song reflects the culture and challenges of Wheeling a lot better than the banjos of deepest Appalachia. Union thugs, cigar-chomping steel barons, factory whistles, hard hats, greasy-spoon cafes filled with geezers wearing trucker caps — those are the cliches that we who know Wheeling would at least recognize, even if they are of course just cliches.
Those who defend such creative liberties because it’s just a TV show have a shallow understanding of fiction. The purpose of placing a story into a different setting is to add authenticity, not to subtract from it. A little research on the part of the writers of “Criminal Minds” would have helped write a stronger (maybe even less cliched) story, based on the actual interesting little city that is Wheeling. Placing a horrific fictional crime in our city would have been rather thrilling, and would have gained thousands of fans for the show.
So, TV writers, as Mark Twain said, “Write what you know.” And if you don’t know, find someone who does. We out here in the backwoods would thank ye kindly.
UPDATE: Related post from years gone by: “The X-Files: I Want To Believe the Rocky Mountains Can Stand in for West Virginia.”
UPDATE 2: If the show didn’t want to bother with researching the city that its fake team was going to fake visit, then why not invent a fake town? I recommend Hooten Holler, down south in Podunk County, just past Petticoat Junction.
Photo courtesy Wikipedia