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Cover Story: State of Shock

Claws
‘Claws’ on TNT (Image credit: Turner Entertainment Networks)

As the election approaches, all eyes shift to Florida to see what sort of weirdness the state comes up with as the nation decides on its president. But anyone who watches TV these days has seen plenty of weirdness out of Florida already. The state leads the nation in bizarre people and peculiar events, making it a logical place to set an offbeat series. 

Like Claws. The TNT dramedy depicts women working in a nail salon in Manatee County, Florida, that is a front for sketchy mobsters looking to launder cash. The salon’s clients, including a woman who sells deer meat out of her trunk, are unique to say the least. 

Claws creator Eliot Laurence said he always had Florida in mind for the setting. “There’s insanity everywhere, but there’s something about the Floridian version,”
he said. Claws is set in Florida due to “my love of weirdness and my attraction to the state of Florida being the weirdest place,”
he added. 

Is that a fair assessment of the Sunshine State? Most definitely, said Craig Pittman, author of Oh, Florida! How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country. “Oh my gosh, we’re the weirdest state by far,” said Pittman, who hosts the podcast Welcome to Florida. “More happens in Florida day by day, and the weird stuff just happens to be weirder.”

Florida Girls

Florida Girls on Pop TV (Image credit: Pop TV)

Wide Range of Sunny Settings 

Shows that have trafficked in Florida’s weirdness include Claws, Showtime’s On Becoming a God in Central Florida, Pop TV’s Florida Girls and MTV’s unscripted Floribama Shore and Siesta Key. Shows have long been set in Florida, including, of course, Miami Vice, along with FX’s Nip/Tuck, the Ryan Murphy drama about plastic surgeons in Miami; USA Network’s Burn Notice, about a cast-off CIA agent solving crimes in Miami; A&E drama The Glades, about a detective in the Everglades; Netflix’s Bloodline, about a family in the Florida Keys with dark secrets; HBO’s Ballers, about a former NFL player managing current players; and Showtime’s Dexter, about a Miami forensics tech who kills the murderers who law enforcement could not catch. (Showtime just last week announced it is rebooting Dexter.) 

The state offers a wide variety of settings, including beaches, cities and rural areas. “What sets Florida apart from other states and countries is that within our state, you can find just about any location type,” said John Lux, executive director of trade association Film Florida. “With warm temperatures year round, countless number of diverse neighborhoods and locations, Florida has long been considered the perfect location for ‘Anywhere USA.’ ”

Alas, the state does not offer an incentive program for producers to shoot in Florida. Lux said that ended in 2016. That means several shows based in Florida shoot elsewhere. Claws, for one, films in New Orleans, as did On Becoming a God in Central Florida. “Florida is just cost-prohibitive,” said Laurence, who said the production does set up in Florida to shoot for short spells each season. “We get a lot of great stuff in a week or two.”

Some Florida residents believe viewers don’t see their true state when that happens. Eric Deggans, National Public Radio’s TV critic and a St. Petersburg resident, said there’s a unique tone to the water and the sand that may not come through on television. “Viewers are shown much less-impressive places and told, that’s Florida,” he said. “You rarely see TV shows and films that capture what is subtle and what is compelling about Florida.”

One and Done 

A couple of well-received Florida rookies have, like a luckless Florida man, met an untimely demise. Pop TV’s Florida Girls, a Laura Chinn comedy about four women in a trailer park trying to better their lives, was well-reviewed in season one, and Pop signed up for season two, only to cancel the show months later. On Becoming a God, about a woman, played by Kirsten Dunst, who works at a water park in an “Orlando-adjacent” locale and is making her way up a pyramid scheme, was set to shoot season two. Showtime said earlier this month that reuniting the cast and crew amidst the pandemic had become “untenable” and the show would not continue. 

On Becoming a God in Central Florida

Showtime's On Becoming a God in Central Florida (Image credit: Showtime)

The allure of Florida weirdness is hardly limited to scripted shows. MTV’s Floribama Shore, about pals Jeremiah, Codi, Kortni, Aimee and others partying, hooking up and fighting on the Gulf Coast, has had three seasons. So has MTV’s Siesta Key, about young adults figuring out friendships, relationships and careers in the islands off Sarasota. 

“Our show is about a group of friends who come together every year to leave the real world behind for a few weeks, get a house near the beach, and
have some fun,” said Jackie French, executive producer of Floribama Shore, which has had two seasons in Panama City Beach and one in St. Pete Beach. “And for as long as I can remember, Florida has been about exactly that — escapism.”

Why So Weird?

What makes Florida so peculiar? Residents have an array of suggestions. One is the extraordinary population growth, which saw Florida climb into third place, ahead of New York and behind California and Texas. The state population was just under 16 million in 2000, according to the Florida Legislature Office of Economic and Demographic Research. Today, it’s 21.5 million. 

“It’s people right up against each other who have nothing to do with each other,” Laurence said. 

Pittman said Florida comes in at No. 49 in the U.S. in terms of mental health spending. He called Florida “a frontier state” with a cowboy mentality. Add to the mix tons of tourists drawn to Walt Disney World and the beaches who are largely left alone by the police, and it may come as no surprise that people end up chasing each other with chainsaws. “Let the tourists do what they want and look the other way,” Pittman said of the ethos. “Everybody’s happy.”

Siesta Key

Siesta Key on MTV (Image credit: MTV)

The state is home to its fair share of nudists and Wiccans and mobsters and drug dealers. “A lot about Florida is deeply weird and unconventional,” Deggans said. “A lot of people are drawn to the state for exactly that reason, to let their freak flag fly.”

In 2013, The New Yorker cited a new genre of crime fiction, which it called “Florida
glare,” with authors such as Carl Hiaasen spinning stories about the local depravity. “South Florida wackos — all heavily armed, all loquacious, all barely aware of one another’s existence — blunder through petty crime, discover themselves engaged in actual murder, and then move in unconscious unison toward the black comedy of a violent climax,” wrote Adam Gopnik.

And who can forget the Florida Man meme, which saw users google Florida Man and their birthday to uncover yet
another oddball crime. (This reporter’s birthday offered up “Florida man charged with battery for giving girlfriend ‘Wet Willy.’ ”)

Pittman said it all fits the state profile. “Every day, you open a paper here, and it’s, ‘Wow, a guy punched a swan,’ ” he said. 

More Sober Shows 

Not every show set in Florida celebrates the state’s weirdness. OWN’s David Makes Man is a heartfelt drama about a Black teen living in an undesirable project in Homestead, Florida, outside of Miami, and making his way each day to an elite magnet school. Season two starts production in Orlando next week. 

Line producer Wayne Morris said Florida provides “a unique tableau that really is a character in the show,” including the glittering city beyond David’s project, the public bus he takes to school and the overwhelming humidity that makes the show’s many sticky situations even stickier. “The location is uniquely Florida, and you can’t recreate that shooting somewhere else.”

Michael C. Hall in Dexter

Michael C. Hall will return to Showtime as Dexter. (Image credit: Showtime)

Astronaut drama The Right Stuff, a series based on the Tom Wolfe book of the same name, premiered on Disney Plus Oct. 9. Every exterior shot in the first season was shot in Florida, from Cape Canaveral to Cocoa Beach. “Florida plays a huge role in The Right Stuff — you could even say it’s a character,” executive producer Jennifer Davisson said. “It was very important to us to get the authenticity and spirit of Florida as a location in this particular time in history.”

The producers of David Makes Man and The Right Stuff didn’t give much thought to shooting in a state with more attractive incentives. “It was really important to the creative team that we were as authentic as possible,” Davisson said. “We were telling the story of a specific place and a specific movement in time, so we were determined to shoot in as many real locations as we could.” 

Some producers said there might be more demand for Florida’s rich scenery amidst these stuck-at-home times. Daniel Blau Rogge, executive producer of Siesta Key, mentioned the “stunning visual aesthetic” offered up on the show. “The beautiful scenery is exactly what viewers need right now, as we live through unprecedented times that limit our ability to travel,” he said. 

Other States’ Starring Roles

Florida is hardly the only location that emerges as a character in a show that’s set there. NBC has Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D. and Chicago Med, which return Nov. 11 and offer a peek at life for first responders in the Windy City. ABC premieres Big Sky Nov. 17, with Montana playing a key role in that crime drama. “The visuals of this show and the vistas of the show and C.J. Box’s novels [Big Sky is adapted from a Box novel] are so landscape-dependent that they are going to be breathtaking to watch,” said cast member John Carroll Lynch. 

But few, if any, states offer the sun, fun and zany drama of Florida. The unexpected cancellation of Florida Girls and On Becoming a God on the cusp of their sophomore seasons was disheartening for fans of Florida-set shows, but there will surely be others. 

Would Claws creator Laurence set another show in the Sunshine State? Absolutely. 

“I’m endlessly fascinated by the place,” he said. “I have great affection for Florida.”