TV shows can’t fool me with their inaccurate train portrayals

I have an idea. I have a TV show that takes place in New York City. I need to film a scene on the subway. So I use the closest subway… Los Angeles Metro.


Oh, and I’ll place “NYC Subway” signs on the walls (replete with graffiti).


No one will see the red stripes all over the place indicating this is the Red Line.

When you live in those cities, or you’re just enough of a railfan to see the difference, it becomes annoying and makes you despise the TV show you like.

On this particular show, they show footage actually taken in New York City to show the subway entrance. Some stock footage I guess.

That show was “Don’t Trust the B**** in Apt. 23“. The other filmed product that got it all wrong was “The Bourne Legacy”. It partially takes place in some bastardization of Chicago. In this movie, which stars Jeremy Renner instead of Matt Damon, the director depicted the Chicago ‘L’ while showing footage of a New York City elevated train. How could one tell? Nowhere in Chicago are there two parallel tracks, with one above the other. Nor are the elevated tracks that high above the street, nor do they use curved elevated columns. This happens about 50 minutes in. Immediately before this fake scene is shown, you’ll see aerial footage of the real Chicago ‘L’. This lasts for 4 seconds.


Real Chicago ‘L’.


Stand-in Chicago ‘L’. 

I don’t want to call this “disingenuous” (but I think it is) and TV show producers aren’t required to film exactly where they portray; these “stand ins” are probably for budgetary reasons. I don’t think it harms a city’s brand or image. I just get annoyed: the show becomes less believable. Maybe I know too much about cities.

Film crews get tax breaks in lots of cities and states in the United States and Canada. If I were the city’s film office manager, or the city’s lobbyist or brand manager, I’d want it to be portrayed accurately.

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About Steven Vance

Enthusiast for urbanism, bicycling as transportation, and open data. Building a bicycle culture in Chicago.
  • Shaun Jacobsen

    This has bugged me too, there’s an episode of shameless that is clearly in LA but the entire show takes place in Chicago. The street signs give away the location. I’m thinking that most people don’t notice these things, but it’s the burden of the good observer!

  • John

    It doesn’t really bug me, but I think it’s kind of fun to notice the little things that tip one off to the truth. I was watching Castle the other day, set in NYC, and saw a Los Angeles Metro bus on the street. It gives me a kind of fun, “Ah ha! Caught you!” feeling.

  • Adam H.

    Almost every show that supposedly takes place in Chicago is filmed in LA. One of my favorite shows, The League, shows stock footage of Chicago, but I have seen street signs that don’t match Chicago’s and even palm trees! In one episode, a man in a wheelchair ends up rolling down a series of hills in a downtown area, and it made me wonder where in the Loop these supposed hills are.

    Another show placed the Chicago Theatre in the middle of the Main Branch.

  • Adam Herstein

    I’ve found that most shows that supposedly take place in Chicago are really filmed in LA. One of my favorite shows, The League, uses stock footage of Chicago, but I have noticed incorrect street signs, and even palm trees! In one episode, a man in a wheelchair rolls down a series of hills in a downtown area, and left me wondering where in the Loop these hills were.

    Another show placed the Chicago Theatre in the middle of the Main Branch.

  • Jass

    Fringe is terrible at this. They do have one (ancient) MBTA bus they use repeatedly, but the train scenes are horrendous (filmed in suburban Toronto).

  • BlueFairlane

    Trying to pass off the New York subway as the Chicago El isn’t going to be what destroys the believability of a movie about genetically altered superspies with amnesia for me. I’m similar to you, in that I’ve been a lot of places and am good at geography, but this very rarely bothers me. Usually, I get a kick out of saying, “Been there.”

    I can think of two examples that hit particularly close to home for me. The biggest is probably the movie “Elizabethtown,” which was supposedly set in the town where I lived when I was a teenager. They filmed exactly one 30-second scene in the real Elizabethtown, though. Most of it, they filmed in Versailles, a much smaller town about 70 miles away. The other example is the TV show “Justified,” which is set in Kentucky but filmed in Pennsylvania and Los Angeles. The first episode features a murder on “Tates Creek Bridge” in Lexington. But while there’s a Tates Creek Road, there’s no such thing as Tates Creek Bridge. The bridge they used is actually just outside Pittsburgh, a good 300 miles away.

    Now, while I might have preferred these things be filmed in the actual locations, I can see why they weren’t, and in the end it doesn’t bother me. Why? Because they get the character of the place right. I can see Kentucky in “Justified” in the people and the attitude, and that makes me buy the somewhat off geography. The only time something like this has ever bothered me at all was the movie version of “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” because Chicago itself was a huge character in the book, and they couldn’t sell it with Toronto.

    • Steven Vance

      As far as communicating the character, I guess each scene I showed does that.
      For “Apt. 23″ they are trying to show that the girl uses the subway and her classmates harass her there. It really doesn’t matter which subway is used.
      For “Bourne” they are trying to show that he’s hiding in a big (bad) city and what better way to demonstrate that than with noisy trains.