Certified in San Diego

There was something about the freedom of Ocean Beach

"Hey, I've stumbled down that street."
  • "Hey, I've stumbled down that street."

“We live in cities you’ll never see onscreen,” sang Lorde on “Team,” trying to make obscurity sound cool but fooling nobody. If it were really cool you wouldn’t have to make a cool song about it for everybody to hear. How else are places going to get certified?

“Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.” — Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

Sideways should have certified San Diego for me back in 2004. A movie about a depressed, overzealous winehead and wannabe novelist? Who must turn to love in order to face his artistic failure? Who lives in San Diego but runs off to wine country for vacation? Maybe it hit too close to home. Or maybe it just didn’t spend enough time in town. I came closer in 2011 with Citizen Kane, after I was tipped to the fact that the opening “newsreel’s” shots of Kane’s palatial Xanadu were actually snapped in Balboa Park.

But I think what really did it for me was Terriers, a 2010 PI drama on FX. My first real party after landing here was a friend’s bachelor send-off in his O.B. apartment way down at the end of Newport. Too much Wild Turkey in a place with too little furniture. And there, right in the show’s opening credits, was that long, palm-lined walk to the water.

It didn’t last; not much San Diego TV does. Pitch put Ginny Baker on the Padres as the first woman in Major League Baseball. Feminism meets the meritocracy; what’s not to love? Critics agreed, but it lasted for just ten episodes on FOX. Mr. Sunshine counted on Matthew Perry’s Friends fame to put butts in seats at his also-ran San Diego sports arena, but ABC killed it after nine. David Milch re-invented swearing on his show Deadwood; imagine the string of expletives that erupted after HBO axed his followup, the Imperial Beach surfer saga John from Cincinnati.

But for one season, Terriers caught for me the feel of living here. When I asked him about it, co-creator Ted Griffin put it this way: “I want to say this appropriately, because it’s a compliment. San Diego is happily bereft of L.A. or San Francisco’s ambition to be either all that beautiful or all that intellectual. It seems like a great place to go and say, ‘Fuck it.’ There’s a quote from John Landgraf, the head of FX, which goes something like, ‘You’re only really truly free in America if you’re very rich or very poor.’ There was something about the freedom of Ocean Beach, because all you had to do was subsist. And I think that was something that, from kind of being around it, started to inform our characters more and more.” Certified.

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