Ridiculously specific ways Hollywood gets NY politics wrong

Kal Penn plays a disgraced former city councilman who was the youngest ever elected in NBC's "Sunnyside."
Kal Penn plays a disgraced former city councilman who was the youngest ever elected in NBC's "Sunnyside."
Colleen Hayes/NBC
Kal Penn plays a disgraced former city councilman who was the youngest ever elected in NBC's "Sunnyside."

Ridiculously specific ways Hollywood gets NY politics wrong

Since when do paparazzi care about state Senate candidates?
October 6, 2019

If you live in New York, you’re used to seeing your city portrayed inaccurately on the big and small screen alike. People never seem to use the subway, they can always find parking right away and every major landmark is just one short but dramatic sprint away from wherever the protagonist is. And don’t even get us started on the massive Manhattan apartments every character with questionable employment is able to afford.

The list is endless, but here are a few that’ll especially rub political junkies the wrong way.

The Staten Island City Council

FX recently aired its first season of the TV adaptation of the cult-classic comedy “What We Do in the Shadows” – this time following vampires living in a stately Staten Island mansion who are trying to take over the country for vampirekind. They decided to start small with local government, so they attended a meeting of the Staten Island City Council. Apparently, in this universe, Staten Island has its own government independent of the New York City Council – which, honestly, would be pretty on brand for the borough. Congrats Jimmy Oddo, looks like you’ve been promoted to Staten Island mayor!

What’s Pat Kiernan doing up?

It’s always a fun little Easter egg to see NY1 as the news network of choice in movies that take place in New York City. But for some reason, no matter the time of day or night, Pat Kiernan is always the anchor. Kiernan has been a morning anchor since 1997, delivering the news from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. on weekdays. It’s just a little odd to see him interviewing people while the heroes eat dinner, like in 2014’s “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.” Kiernan wakes up at 3 a.m. every day – he should be asleep!

That’s no subway car!

Sure, the PATH trains may look a little slicker, with their TV screens and well-maintained interiors, but come on, don’t pretend that’s what our subways look like. Marvel’s Netflix heroes consistently use the Port Authority-run, predominantly New Jersey-based trains to get around the city. Then again, if Daredevil got on the real subway, with its constant delays and malfunctioning infrastructure, he’d never get to Hell’s Kitchen in time to fight crime. Maybe Marvel should try to be more like “Mr. Robot” – which films in actual stations and cars, and is generally pretty accurate about the lines.

All this over a state Senate race?

In “Maid in Manhattan,” Jennifer Lopez plays a maid from the Bronx who falls for Ralph Fiennes, a Republican state Senate candidate. We appreciate that local politics plays such an important role in a J-Lo movie, even if it gets a lot of things wrong. First of all, since when are state legislative candidates running from paparazzi, with their private lives splashed all over the front pages of the tabloids? (That usually comes later, when they’re charged with corruption.) Then to have a Republican elected to represent Manhattan? Please. Fun fact: Democratic Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz made his big-screen debut in this film as a Republican congressman.

The sheriff of Sleepy Hollow

The now-canceled Fox show “Sleepy Hollow” followed Ichabod Crane, a Revolutionary War soldier thrust into the modern day, and Abbie Mills, a lieutenant in the Sleepy Hollow Sheriff’s Department, in their quest to stop the headless horseman. It’s outlandish, we know. Except … Sleepy Hollow doesn’t have a sheriff’s department! And although the show refers to the Sleepy Hollow as a town, it is actually a village in the town of Mount Pleasant. While the village does have a local police department, it has no sheriff – which was a countywide elected position in Westchester County until the 1970s.

Kal Penn: impossibly longest-serving New York City “councilor”?

Pitched as a more accurate portrayal of the city than the overly white, Manhattan-centric shows of the past, “Sunnyside,” which centers on a diverse group of immigrants in Queens, misses the mark when it comes to local politics. Star Kal Penn plays a disgraced former city councilman who had once been a young rising star. A note to the writers: They’re not called “councilors.” Also, Penn’s character was elected in 2004, a year when there was no City Council election, yet he was still in office in 2019 when he was forcibly removed by the council. The longest he could have actually served was 12 years, but on the show he still has hopes of being reelected. Term limits anyone?

How would cars even get in the Staten Island Ferry?

“Spider-Man: Homecoming,” the first wall crawler flick to give the outer boroughs their due, ruined the effect with shots of cars parked on the lower deck of the Staten Island Ferry. The ferry hasn’t allowed cars since 9/11. The only purpose they seemed to serve was dramatically falling into the harbor when the ferry was cut in half.

Central Park’s Santa-hating rangers

In the modern Christmas classic “Elf,” Central Park is policed by a group of horse-riding bad boys called the Central Park Rangers, who have a vendetta against Santa for putting them on the naughty list. But Central Park has no Canadian-style Mountie police force, let alone one trying to kill the hopes and dreams of children all over the world. In reality, the park is patrolled by just one mounted NYPD officer, in addition to other officers.

Honorable mention: Realistic real estate

Yes, sometimes shows do get something right about the nitty-gritty of New York City, like “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” Although it is centers around the work of detectives in a fictional precinct, it manages to get multiple subplots about rent control right. In one episode, a landlord poisoned an elderly tenant so he could decontrol her apartment. Not that we’re insinuating that landlords go around killing people over rent, but it is true that the death of a longtime tenant is often the only way a rent-controlled apartment can become a market-rate one. In another episode, Detective Jake Peralta is left scrambling because his building is going co-op and he’s trying to scrounge up the money to buy his apartment. He had inherited his grandmother’s rent-controlled place – which could legally happen, since he had been living there well before her death. But converting an entire building into a co-op is another legitimate way a rent-controlled apartment can be decontrolled.

Rebecca C. Lewis
is a staff reporter at City & State.
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