Seeing Home Through the Lens of Pop Culture

Last year, I started watching, and greatly enjoying, Gracepoint, the US remake of Broadchurch. Usually I don’t much fancy remakes, as the original is often much better, and it just seems kind of pointless to water a show down to make it fit into the US television box. However, in this case, I found myself making an exception, for two reasons. The first is that the show is rather good (which makes me want to track down Broadchurch to watch as well). The second is that the show is clearly set in a fictionalised version of, well, here. Characters go to Albion to eat dinner, maps show Caspar Creek, even the town of Gracepoint, when viewed on a map, looks suspiciously like Mendocino in its web of streets.

Which is very jarring for me, because I rarely get a chance to view my home through the lens of pop culture — sure, Jandy Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere is also set in a place much like this one, but she was careful to avoid straying too close to reality. Gracepoint is no holds barred, and while it was filmed in BC and thus doesn’t look precisely right, many aspects of the landscape are still spot on — they remind me a great deal of Elk and Point Arena, with high cliffs, pastures running right down to the edge, lines of trees retreating into the background. It’s a strange mashup of everything I know and sometimes it makes me ferociously dizzy as I attempt to accustom myself to it.

The show, for those not familiar, revolves around the death of a young boy, which turns into a mystery that consumes the town. It captures perfectly that moment when small town secrets explode, when something cracks the facade of a community to force people to realise that everything is not what it seems and that, in fact, horrible things happen everywhere, not just in cities. Everyone in the town of Gracepoint is carrying something, some sort of baggage, some kind of loaded past, and everyone is eager to hide it, especially from the new detective who swans into town to confidently solve the murder, which proves to be a tough nut to crack.

I’ve said before that the series reminds me in many ways of Twin Peaks, and not just because both are set in the Pacific Northwest. Many of the thematic elements are very similar, especially that of a mystery that unfolds slowly over the course of the series rather than being resolved in a single episode, and the unpacking of the secret and sometimes sordid lives of the characters. While Gracepoint lacks the Lynchian absurdity and dark humour of Twin Peaks, the series makes up for it in other ways, turning in something that is more haunting, eerie, and at times very ephemeral for viewers; it plays more on the sinister and shadowed, making us wonder about and mistrust everyone in the same way Twin Peaks did, but through different dramatic tricks.

I would watch the show for that alone, because I love procedurals, but I love mysteries that really play with the genre even more. But also, I find myself drawn to Gracepoint because it is so unabashedly weird to view my town, and my community, through the lens of pop culture. I’m not sure where the connections to the Coast lie on the production team, but someone, and possibly multiple someones, clearly has more than a passing familiarity with the area. I’m not sure anyone is from here (it’s hard to tell, when it’s obvious that they intended to create a fictionalised version, rather than reproducing the community in every detail), but members of the writing and production team have obviously been here, and, moreover, they’ve taken note of recent news and how it’s affected the community; I am reminded at times in particular of the Aaron Vargas case, and how that played out locally as well as how it was handled by regional media, and the divide between local and outsider that has been very well replicated on Gracepoint. 

It’s rarely, obviously, for me to see my community in pop culture. It’s small, it’s isolated, it wouldn’t feel accessible for most viewers. There’s a reason pop culture focuses on places like New York and Los Angeles, or turns to totally fictional places when it wants more rural or semi-rural communities, like Stars Hollow (not being from Connecticut, I can’t speak to how much Stars Hollow replicates small towns in the region). I imagine that people from places frequently featured in pop culture must experience the same sense of unease paired with confusion paired with occasional irritation (I get irked when pop culture set in San Francisco gets pretty basic stuff wrong, for example, let alone when people write things supposedly set here that betray a pretty clear lack of research). It’s a strange experience to be put in that role as a viewer.

I’m honestly not entirely sure how I feel about it. I doubt the little tips in Gracepoint are going to be noticeable except to a handful of people who live here or are very familiar with the region, like those who have since moved away. It’s not like Gracepoint is going to drive a stampede of tourism here or anything, not least because the series wasn’t actually filmed here and clearly isn’t meant to be a precise match (believe me, if I’d known David Tennant was in town, I would have been all over that). But it does create this kind of strange liminal space between reality, fiction, and perhaps even fantasy — Gracepoint bills itself as ‘the last small town in America,’ and I wonder about that, you know?