We gotta get out of this place….

Townie <to̵unē>.  Slang term.  Used in the Greater Boston area to denote anyone who is a lifelong resident of a specific town, city, or neighborhood.

Although it has other, occasionally derogatory definitions (due to its use in different geographical areas), the term Townie, in our case, refers to three New England girls-turning-into-women, and their efforts to either fight their way out of their small town life, or to find a contented place in it.  (And, either way, coming out smelling like a rose instead of a fish.)

Townies: Shannon, Carrie, and Denise

Townies was a situation comedy on ABC in 1996.  Set in the real-life coastal town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, it featured the story of three best friends working at an eatery and dreaming of escaping their small town life. The series detailed their hopes, their possibilities, and their desires to become more than just stuck in what they considered dead-end jobs in a dead-end town.  Of course, they’d also found each other… so being a Townie sometimes had virtues, too.

Carrie Donovan (Molly Ringwald) was the realistic one, trying to figure out the future and yet not wanting to commit to anything quite yet.  Her biggest problem?  Keeping the peace between everyone she loves.  Her best friends include the free-spirited Shannon Canotis (Jenna Elfman), with big ideas and even bigger schemes, although sometimes the stars in her eyes blinded her from reality.  The third of the trio was Denise Garabaldi Callahan (Lauren Graham), who’d decided some personal dreams might be more important and, as the series opens, is approaching her wedding day with the normal nerves, hopes, and fears of anyone taking that kind of step.  (Okay, with a few more than the normal nerves, but that’s Denise…)  With the help of Carrie and Shannon, she may find a way through it… if they don’t trip her up with their well-meaning assistance.

“Remember the good old days, when you could just kill your parents and take their land?”
–Carrie Donovan

The problem with growing, as a person, is sometimes those who are “helping” you grow.  In a situation comedy, this usually means family.  Mike and Kathy Donovan (Dion Anderson and Lee Garlington, respectively) are life-long residents of Gloucester, and don’t see why anyone else would ever want something different.  They’re waiting, sometimes impatiently, for their little girl Carrie to see the light and settle down, but Carrie’s desire for “something more” doesn’t always sit well with them, despite their love for her.  Carrie also has a life-long friend in Kurt (Ron Livingston), who harbors romantic (rather than platonic) feelings for her, and would also love to see her settle down… with him.  But Carrie’s having none of it right now….

The girls, with Ryan (L.) and Kurt (R.)

Breezy Shannon runs through men as fast as she runs through ideas to escape her small-town life, and is successful with neither.  Rumor around town was, she’d slept with all of the eligible males there at least once, and was working her way through the list again!  While her thoughts on getting out of Gloucester are never-ending, she’s a little short on the reality of “how” or even “why” sometimes.  Despite her daring ways, the security and safety of the group are always something she can count on.  Her extremes are counter-balanced by Denise, who already has a child and new marriage to unemployed husband Ryan (Billy Burr), the father of the baby.  Ryan is a bit of a couch potato, and slightly neurotic Denise is now trying to make life work in Gloucester, although a modest dream or two for her family does occasionally escape from her as well.

Carrie:  “What’s so bad about Gloucester. anyway?”

Shannon:  “Eh, the economy sucks, there’s nothing to do, and everything I own smells like fish.”

The waitress staff at The Pelican Inn

The girls’ world, for now, revolves around The Pelican Inn, the diner/hotel where they work.  A seafood place (of course), it’s run with a bit of attitude by the owner, Marge (Conchata Farrell), dispensing sarcastic advice when she isn’t looking after her inept grown son Jesse (Joseph Reitman).  Marge is another person who ended up staying here for life, and knows both what the girls believe might be possible, and what reality might hold for any of them.  She also has high hopes for her Jesse, but is pretty sure that his lack of common sense will likely get in the way of any possibilities for him, whether it’s relating to his future, or his romantic chances with any of her help.

And life goes on in this harbor town full of big dreams and little realities.  Romantic entanglements, family issues, and maybes and might-have-beens; all are explored by these three women, trying to figure out exactly how to succeed in life.  The real question is whether that success, be it large or small, will mean carving out a life as a perpetual Townie, or becoming something far different somewhere else (and perhaps leaving their former lives, and friends, behind).

Molly moves on to Secret Life

For actors, “big dreams” means having a successful career.   On Townies, Molly Ringwald turned her adult sights to the small screen following heralded movie roles in her teen-age years.  Her dream was to be known as a grown-up actress after a phenomenal run in ’80’s coming-of-age movies like Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, and The Breakfast ClubTownies was a step in that direction, but its early demise meant trying other venues, with a series of thriller movies and noted roles in independent films.  She’s recently returned to TV success, ironically playing a mom coping with The Secret Life of the American Teenager.

“My first series was a comedy, and I think that’s where I realized I could do comedy. People responded to my comedy, and from that role, I got the development deal with 20th Century Fox, and out of that came Dharma & Greg.”
–Jenna Elfman

Dharma & Greg

The immediate success of Townies was seen in the career of Jenna Elfman.  It didn’t help her current show any, but the development deal she speaks of above was literally signed on the last day of filming for Townies.  The series (and the three lead ladies) had garnered some excellent reviews, with Elfman’s outrageous Shannon seen as a break-out character.  Although the show hadn’t attracted enough viewers to continue, most in the industry believed it was through no fault of its main actors, especially Elfman.  She was immediately cast as Dharma Finkelstein Montgomery, the “flower power” hippie child of the next season’s Dharma & Greg.  The combination of the off-kilter Dharma and Thomas Gibson’s more straight-laced Greg was a critical and viewer hit that ran for the following five years.

Gilmore Girls

Having to wait a bit longer for her own success, Lauren Graham found her way out a few years later as Lorelai Gilmore in the 2000-2007 series Gilmore Girls.  Finally achieving widespread notice, Graham’s Lorelai really isn’t all that different from what her Denise on Townies might have become many years later, a neurotic mom still trying to figure out life, but this time with a kid who can teach some of the lessons instead of relying on two best friends who don’t happen to be related to her.

There’s actually a really good series in Townies, if you look at characterization instead of pure laughs.  Each of the leads does a great job encapsulating the trials and triumphs found in day-to-day living, and in the push-and-pull between going after what you want and keeping what you have.  The episodes also have a great soundtrack, using the music of Alanis Morissette, among others, accentuating the occasional angst of that type of conflict.  Pure laugh lines, well, that was another story, but when you’re up against what Towines was up against, maybe there was just too much truth and not enough laughter.

Shining lights of Townies

The reason Townies didn’t click with viewers wasn’t the featured trio, as is obvious from their terrific careers.  While many critics loved the performances of the leads, the supporting characters weren’t very well defined, especially early on.  In a year where the four networks aired a total of SIXTEEN comedies on Wednesday nights (including Townies), a show really had to shine right away if it was going to keep an audience, especially one looking for comedy.  Townies was like its heroines, still trying to find out exactly who it was and where it was headed.  ABC wasn’t patient with the series, expecting an immediate hit with a “name” actress like Molly Ringwald, and the network was disappointed with its performance despite critical raves.  Although fifteen episodes were produced, only ten aired before the series was gone and ABC moved on.  But the girls of Townies were still in Gloucester, still smelling fish everywhere, and still supporting each other with big dreams and bigger hearts.

“Hey, I’m not stuck here.  There’s a difference between ‘staying’ and ‘sticking’.”
–Carrie Donovan

MOLLY RINGWALD (Carrie Donovan) got her television start in a supporting role on The Facts of Life.  After her tremendous teen movie run, she later starred in Stephen King’s The Stand miniseries and numerous French films (coinciding with a move to France for many years).  A Broadway run followed in the ’90’s, with roles in Cabaret, tick, tick… BOOM, and Enchanted April.  Currently appearing on The Secret Life of the American Teenager, she’s also a published author with a book called Getting the Pretty Back.

JENNA ELFMAN (Shannon Canotis) was originally known as a dancer, appearing in early music videos by Depeche Mode and Chris Isaak.  After discovering her comedic chops in Townies, Dharma & Greg brought her to popular notice.  Subsequent series Courting Alex and Accidentally on Purpose have followed.  Elfman is also active in many political and charitable causes, ranging from criminal rehabilitation to digging freshwater wells in Ethiopia.

LAUREN GRAHAM (Denise Garabaldi Callahan) was a consistent TV guest star for many years, both before and after Townies.  She appeared in multiple episodes of Newsradio, Caroline and the City, and the original Law and Order.  After her long-running star turn in Gilmore Girls (for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe), she signed one of the largest talent contracts ever for television.  This led to her replacing an unfortunately ill Maura Tierney on NBC’s Parenthood, which was recently renewed for a third season.

DION ANDERSON (Mike Donovan) is an actor of rough, yet distinctive countenance, useful for numerous appearances as a judge in series like The Practice, Family Law, and Murder One.  Although many other authority figures (like Sheriffs and police detectives) followed, his first love is the stage, specializing in Shakespearean roles with numerous theatre groups across the country.  He’s starred in productions of Julius Caesar, Henry VIII, and Merry Wives of Windsor, plus lead roles in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Rainmaker.

LEE GARLINGTON (Kathy Donovan) has appeared in more series than could be listed here, and is almost the television definition of “working actress”.  Never a star, she has still been seen consistently in well over 150 roles throughout a thirty-year career.  TV guest spots included The Golden Girls, Friends, Quantum Leap, Everwood, and The West Wing.  She’s currently a regular part of AMC’s thriller The Killing.

RON LIVINGSTON (Kurt) got out of Gloucester as well, achieving notice for his lead role in the comedy movie Office Space.  He’s headlined the TV series Defying Gravity, Standoff, and was a featured player in HBO’s groundbreaking series Band of Brothers.  Other movie roles included parts in The Time Traveler’s Wife and Dinner for Schmucks.

BILLY BURR (Ryan Callahan) is originally from the Boston area.  He did finally escape, but it was as a stand-up comedian rather than an actor.  He’s been featured on HBO, Comedy Central, and the Opie and Anthony Radio Show, as well as co-hosting his own program on XM radio, Uninformed.  He also presents a weekly podcast on Monday mornings, which can be found here.

CONCHATA FERRELL (Marge) has a lengthy career, starting by transferring her Hot L Baltimore character from Broadway to television.  Over forty years she’s been featured in multiple episodes of ER, L.A. Law, and Hearts Afire.  She’s been nominated twice for an Emmy for her current role as housekeeper Berta in Two and a Half Men.  Interestingly, she also played the manager of the eatery in the 1988 movie Mystic Pizza, which, while having different relationships, is very similar to the set-up of Townies.

JOSEPH D. REITMAN (Jesse) has worked as an actor, producer, director, and writer.  His eclectic career includes creating and filming segments for The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson, appearing in the movie Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and playing in the Las Vegas World Series of Poker tournament twice.  He’s currently engaged to famous poker player Annie Duke.

Townies was never released on DVD, despite the star power it ultimately held.  There are ways to watch it, however, as all the episodes are downloadable at a Lauren Graham fansite.  Otherwise, there really isn’t much information out there about the show specifically, since much of the cast is known for other ventures.  Townies is mostly a minor footnote in the successful careers of a great many people….

…and that’s the way of most shows that paved the road to success.  Actors are known for the popular things they’ve done, not necessarily where they began.  But unlike the characters they played, the leads of Townies ultimately found their way out of those beginnings to places where they were noticed, enjoyed, and hopefully fulfilled.

We all start somewhere, in a world where many of us have big hopes and bigger dreams.  Sometimes those hopes and dreams lead us elsewhere, into the larger world and who knows what.  And sometimes, those same dreams keep us as townies, in the best sense of the word, as people who have found their chosen place… exactly where they started.  Either way, the ultimate goal, whether you’re a townie or not, is to surround yourself with those who care about you, where you all feel like you’ve found a place called home.

Vital Stats

10 aired episodes — five unaired
ABC Network
First aired episode:  September 18, 1996
Final aired episode:  December 4, 1996
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  No, it got lost in the shuffle on Wednesday nights at 9:30/8:30.  Fortunately, while the show was lost, the talent never was.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

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1 comment
  1. Lola said:

    Good article. I wish they would release the serie on DVD, just for the star power. I discovered the show because of Lauren Graham.

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