Look Closer: Suburban Narratives and American Values in Film and Television

Look Closer: Suburban Narratives and American Values in Film and Television

Look Closer: Suburban Narratives and American Values in Film and Television

Look Closer: Suburban Narratives and American Values in Film and Television


In recent years, the media landscape in the United States has followed a pattern similar to that of the physical landscape by becoming increasingly suburbanized. Although it is a far cry from reality, the fantasy of a perfect suburban life still exists in the collective imagination of millions of Americans. This dream of suburban perfection is built around a variety of such ideologically conservative values and ideals as the importance of tradition, the centrality of the nuclear family, the desire for a community of like-minded neighbors, the need for clearly defined gender roles, and the belief that with hard work and determination, anyone can succeed.

Building on the relationships between suburban life and American identity, Look Closer examines and interprets recent narratives that challenge the suburban ideal to reveal how directors and producers are mobilizing the spaces of suburbia to tell new kinds of stories about America. David R. Coon argues that the myth of suburban perfection, popularized by postwar sitcoms and advertisements, continues to symbolize a range of intensely debated issues related to tradition, family, gender, race, and citizenship. Through close examinations of such films as American Beauty, The Truman Show, and Mr. & Mrs. Smith as well as such television series as Desperate Housewives, Weeds, and Big Love, the book demonstrates how suburbia is used to critique the ideologies that underpin the suburban American Dream.


In an early scene from the 1999 film American Beauty, the protagonist, Lester Burnham, offers a narration that plays over an aerial shot of a suburban neighborhood. the image reveals rows of large, single-family houses, neatly arranged on tree-lined streets. As the camera slowly moves closer to the street, Lester’s narration sets up the film’s story.

“My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighborhood. This is my street. This is my life. I’m forty-two years old. in less than a year, I’ll be dead.” As the image changes to a shot of Lester in his bed, waking to the sound of his alarm clock, his narration continues. “Of course, I don’t know that yet. and in a way, I’m dead already.” in the next few scenes, Lester reveals that, despite the pleasant image created by their elegant home and charming neighborhood, the members of the Burnham family are anything but happy.

The pilot episode of Desperate Housewives (2004–2012) echoes the opening of American Beauty, but exchanges the male narrator for a female. the first image is a crane shot of another typical suburban street. a school bus winds its way down the cul-de-sac as people walk, bike, and jog along the sidewalks. the camera moves down to ground level and along a white picket fence, before pushing into a shot of a woman exiting her front door to stand on her porch. As the woman looks out at her neighborhood, she provides a voiceover narration to set the scene.

“My name is Mary Alice Young. When you read this morning’s paper, you may come across an article about the unusual day that I had . . .

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