Bikes on TV shows and the endless possibilities of cities

Posted by on May 17th, 2016 at 11:22 am

A scene from Episode 2 of “Girls” on HBO.

This post is by our “Gal by Bike” columnist Kate Laudermilk. She previously wrote about how she’s been influenced by Portland’s silly group rides.

There’s something noteworthy going on in movies and television lately — especially those taking place in New York City. There’s a theme that, while seldom discussed, speaks volumes: Bikes.

They can be found lurking in frame after frame of shows like “Girls“, “Broad City”, and movies like “Francis Ha”. Much like the iconic bike next to Jerry Seinfeld’s bathroom or the cruiser tucked away in Carrie Bradshaw’s hallway — but in a new New York City — one built by Janette Sadik-Kahn.

Instead of Seinfeld’s bike hanging from the wall, the new cultural vanguards of New York are riding them.

A little while back, me and plenty of other Portlanders sat captivated in the Mission Theater listening to Sadik-Kahn talk about the strides New York City has taken to make the city more livable for all its inhabitants — no matter how they choose to get around. It got me to thinking about how much I’ve seen this livability portrayed in the media I’ve been consuming lately.

Now, sadly, I’ve never been to New York. I know, I know… unacceptable. But, never fear, because, through the magic of movies and television, I’ve spent countless hours there, and it’s magnificent.

I’ve power-walked through Central Park with Carrie and the gang as they excruciatingly picked apart their relationships. I hung on every word of Woody Allen’s love poem to New York, “Manhattan.” I grew up visiting the Huxtables’ iconic Brooklyn brownstone each and every week.  I was at the top of the Empire State Building cheering on the love of Walter and Jessica in “Sleepless in Seattle.” And, today, I watch as characters like Hannah Horvath, Ilana Glazer, and Abbi Jacobson make New York the glistening background for their youthful weed and feminism powered shenanigans.

Once merely a background prop, bikes have now become, at times, a strong supporting role — supporting the everyday adventures of everyday people. Understated and sometimes unrelated to the overall storyline yet entirely apropos all at once. Instead of Seinfeld’s bike hanging from the wall, the new cultural vanguards of New York are riding them. Even uncoordinated self-proclaimed couch potatoes like Girls’ Hannah Horvath have given bike riding a shot.

Hannah Horvath and Adam Driver in Season 2.

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Completely normal.

Season 5 of Girls is, in my humble opinion, pure gold. Love her or hate her, executive producer Lena Dunham has her pulse on everything relevant in today’s popular culture and showcases it beautifully on screen each week. While hardly ever glamorous, Dunham has a way of making living in a city look effortless. Unlike so many other shows before it, the character in Girls don’t spend too much time focusing on what they are materially lacking. They don’t have cars, fancy apartments, or high paying jobs, but they still manage to make their lives look completely and utterly alluring.

Several episodes over the course of five seasons have showcased bikes in some way.  While characters Ray and Adam always have a bike prominently parked on the wall stand in their living rooms they also sometimes go for a ride. In fact, Adam once accidentally flung Hannah off of the front of his bike where she was perching much like E.T. (I’m going to make a point to reference E.T in all of my posts) on the way to an impromptu scrapping mission.  What started off as fun quickly derailed and left Hannah screaming to get off of the bike and away from Adam — sending her flying like a rag doll into the air. Contrary to what you may think, I believe this scene was not designed to show how unsafe riding a bike can be. It was used to show that, good or bad, anything is possible on a bike.  Hannah was feeling adventurous and, for one of the first times in the series, traveled out into public with her kind of boyfriend, Adam.  This adventure was emphasized by the addition of the bike. The bike punctuated a growing experience and impending change in herself and, eventually, her relationship with Adam.  

It wasn’t until I saw characters that live much like I do traipsing effortlessly through the most densely populated city in the United States that I truly believed in the endless possibilities of all cities.

Come season 5, a very evolved, but still slightly broken, Hannah stepped foot on a bike again and the outcome was vastly different.  After a very crappy couple of days, Hannah gets flagged down on the sidewalk by her frenemy, Tally (played by Jenny Slate). First of all, this scenario only works in a pedestrian/bike friendly city. If Tally had been in a car, she would have blasted right past Hannah and kept driving. Episode over.  The fact that Tally was on a bike plays a big role in how these two nemeses got stuck together for the remainder of the episode. Much like the interaction between Adam and Hannah so many seasons before, Tally uses bikes to connect with Hannah and encourage adventure. This time, instead of perching on Tally’s bike, Hannah acquires her own in the form of a unattended, unlocked bike, outside a pizza joint.  This is the point where I mention that stealing bikes is wrong and you shouldn’t do it — but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t make for good television.

With one weighted sentence, Tally convinces Hannah to snap out of her morosity and “ride into the future.” The moment Hannah stepped onto that bike, her entire demeanor changed.  A smile spread across her face, her hatred for Tally subsided, and they both became two powerful women riding through a powerful city. They journeyed over bridges, through streets with patient slow-moving cars, on protected bike lanes, and ending on pedestrian-filled sidewalks in Tally’s idyllic neighborhood. Did I mention that Vanity Fare’s “Hitchin’ a Ride” was playing in the background the whole time? It was perfection. I cried.

This thing, the bike, was the catalyst for Hannah coming to terms with who she is and where she is in her world. After her epic failure of a bike ride with Adam she came to the conclusion that their relationship may be more toxic than positive. After her escapade with Tally she realized that she doesn’t give herself enough credit for who she is. The ride gave her a confidence that she didn’t know she had in her. By the end of the episode she proclaims, in front of dozens of Moth Story Hour listeners, that, for the first time in a long time, she felt free. Slow clap for the power of bikes.

New York has always been portrayed as a city where all things are possible. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” as poet Emma Lazarus so beautifully exclaimed. But it wasn’t until I saw characters that live much like I do traipsing effortlessly through the most densely populated city in the United States that I truly believed in the endless possibilities of all cities.  Another poet once wrote, “like any great love it keeps you guessing.  Like any real love it’s ever changing. Like any true love it drives you crazy. But you know you wouldn’t change anything — welcome to New York.”  It’s with Taylor Swift’s wise words that I invite you open your mind to the possibility of more livable cities everywhere — on and off screen.

— Kate Laudermilk, @katelaudermilk

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11 Comments
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    Spiffy May 17, 2016 at 11:39 am

    I’ve been sending all your posts to my gf to help her get over her fear of riding… they’re empowering…

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    Wells May 17, 2016 at 11:57 am

    You had me from, “Portlanders sat captivated in the Mission Theater listening to Sadik-Kahn talk about the strides New York City has taken to make the city more livable for all its inhabitants…”
    Somewhere along something reminded me of One Hulk’s Opinion and Ann Romano last week Day at a time, Mother’s Day special, a read need.
    Saw NYC Saturday Oct 22nd, 2011, Mother nature snowed and blew out Occupy, the day after a clear blue sky riding a dark blue folder along Central Park festivities and tourist rides. Sunday, the leftover light dusting and clustering of snow, morning calm and sunlight through autumn leaves, pushed me into the street empty of traffic and yell, I love this city.

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  • Go By Bike
    Go By Bike May 17, 2016 at 12:18 pm

    Bicycles are the new Red Convertible of youth freedom

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      Todd Boulanger May 17, 2016 at 3:40 pm

      …yes that red [Game of Thrones] convertible…the one that tried to kill me at least twice before I left it in a South Dakota field ditch….and became car-lite [for the benefit of other roadway users].;-)

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    Gary B May 17, 2016 at 3:38 pm

    I’ve been rewatching the entire Seinfeld series on Hulu (currently in Season 6), and I just find myself staring at that bike on the wall. I mean it was always there, but in my current mindset it’s awkward presence just looms so large. Take that damn thing for a ride Jerry!

    Anyway, great piece, even if I’ve never seen Girls.

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    • Go By Bike
      Go By Bike May 17, 2016 at 6:27 pm

      I know! And now he is just doing Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee. Would love to see Comedians Riding Bikes Getting Stoned instead

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        resopmok May 18, 2016 at 12:29 pm

        I have a feeling the only person who would find a stoned Jerry Seinfeld funny is himself. Also, legally speaking, driving around hopped-up on caffeine is a bit more acceptable than operating a vehicle (bicycle) under the influence of a controlled substance.

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    Chris May 18, 2016 at 5:07 pm

    The characters in Broad City often ride bikes in NYC as well!

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    William May 18, 2016 at 6:17 pm

    Anybody know why they very often show a flash of bikes in TV car commercials?

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    Doug Klotz May 18, 2016 at 6:57 pm

    To show that car drivers are hip, too.

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    Ted Timmons (Contributor) May 22, 2016 at 11:12 am

    Thanks Kate. I’ll pay more attention- I like how you framed it as “bikes as background” evolving to “bikes as part of a normal lifestyle”.

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