Shot in Pittsburgh, the new “A League of Their Own” series is finally streaming on Amazon, with East Carson Street pinch-hitting as Rockford, Ill., the home of women’s professional baseball team the Peaches. So we thought it would be a good time to pick out the best TV shows ever made in Pittsburgh.
First — are there any?
Yes! Not a lot, but enough to fill a few solid weeks of streaming, at least.
Of course, there have been quite a few great movies made in Pittsburgh, something we’ve covered in detail. But TV productions tend to last longer, and have a more substantial economic impact. Landing a major TV/streaming show — especially if it comes back for more seasons — is a big deal, and exactly the kind of thing that a local film/TV industry needs in order to grow.
It’s tricky to determine exactly what constitutes a Pittsburgh-shot series. We’ve had some entire series and isolated episodes — the legendary ‘90s sci-fi/mystery series “The X-Files” apparently shot four shows here, for instance.
There are also are anomalies like the current Apple+ series “See,” which is apparently set in a post-apocalyptic Pittsburgh — but it wasn’t shot here, for some strange reason. We’ll disregard anything set in Pittsburgh, but not made here.
For our purposes, we’ll stick to mostly-shot-in-Pittsburgh shows, pilots and series. Here are our favorites:
“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” (1968-2001)
What still needs to be said about Fred? Not much. The radical kindness and boundless empathy of public television icon Fred Rogers touched the lives of generations of Americans — and he did it in a low-key way from a studio in Pittsburgh. With “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Rogers took children — their fears, conflicts, feelings — seriously. When tragedy struck — like the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, or many years later the Challenger space shuttle disaster — Rogers was asked to interpret these events for children.
Though Rogers’ gentle puppet-powered storytelling and benevolent demeanor rarely wavered, there were moments when his steely tenacity peeked through. In particular, when defending public television before Congress, Fred Rogers showed the kind of grit that Pittsburghers usually associate with linebackers and defensemen. You can stream full episodes of the series from 1968 to 1975 for free on the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood website and find more on PBS Kids, Amazon and iTunes.
“A League of Their Own” (2022)
The first episode starts with a meatball right over the plate — with the legendary 1992 film about a World War II-era women’s baseball league as a template — and whiffs mightily. But stick around for the full nine innings. Once you get to know these characters a bit, they start putting runs on the board and gradually win you over.
It took me until the last episode to figure this out — but this show wasn’t made for me (a straight white guy). And that’s okay. At its heart, it’s story about women trying to build something of their own in a hostile world.
The baseball action is a little odd, with lots of obvious computer-animated inserts, and some glaring errors (the team seems to only allow one pitcher, for example). But the real action is on the home front, as the Rockford Peaches struggle to sell women’s baseball to a war-weary public that needs a diversion, but has very particular ideas about how women should act.
Abbi Jacobson (half of the hilarious “Broad City”) plays the conflicted catcher Carson Shaw, who flees her small-town Idaho life as a housewife married to an overseas soldier, for an unknown future as a ballplayer. She meets two women who change everything — the glamorous big city refugee Greta Gill (D’Arcy Carden) and the steely, cannon-armed pitcher Maxine Chapman (Chanté Adams), who has the added burden of unofficial segregation keeping her off the field.
There are so many great Pittsburgh visuals here, from the Peaches’ stately Victorian home base, to the secret rendezvous behind the Benedum Center’s blaring marquee. Watch “A League of their Own” on Amazon.
What is it about Pittsburgh and serial killers? “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991) gnawed its way into the horror pantheon by giving us serial killers who were smarter than their pursuers. “Mindhunter” on Netflix finally gives that concept its funeral with a detailed, surgical depiction of the early days of psychological profiling at the FBI.
“Mindhunter” follows two FBI agents and a psychologist as they slowly develop a framework for criminal psychology by interviewing incarcerated serial killers and applying their findings to crack otherwise unsolvable cases. It’s based on real events and actual serial killers, such as Ed Kemper — whom “The Silence of the Lambs” was partially based on — played with unnerving calm by Cameron Britton. The acting here is uniformly brilliant, and the ad-hoc team of hunters are given nuance and depth by Holt McCallany and Anna Torv in particular.
“Mindhunter” is set in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s — and clearly, there are plenty of places around Western PA that don’t require much set dressing to get that look. Several scenes from the first season were filmed inside The Lamplighter restaurant in Delmont, and the old Pantone Lawn & Garden on Main Street in Sharpsburg acts as the team’s Atlanta headquarters in the second season.
“Justified” (pilot, 2010)
Appalachia is really hard to capture onscreen without devolving into cliche and contempt, and this show is one of the only ones to ever pull it off convincingly. Just as rare is the sense that everybody making “Justified” was having an insane amount of fun, slipping in and out of genre archetypes — buddy cop shows, Westerns, crime procedurals, gangster flicks — with reckless abandon.
Only the first pilot episode was shot in Pittsburgh, before the production moved elsewhere. However, it kicked off a six-season epic about Harlan County, Kentucky, which grew into one of the best crime dramas ever made. It captures a place as distinctively strange and uniquely American as the New Jersey of “The Sopranos” and the Albuquerque of “Breaking Bad.” The pilot was based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, master of hard-boiled, realistic dialogue, called “Fire in the Hole.”
Timothy Olyphant brings depth to a character that seems like an anomalous archetype, a stoic lawman straight out of a ’40s Western, incorruptible and alone. But it’s the show’s criminals — Walton Goggins’ moonshine-scented schemes and Margo Martindale’s marijuana-kingpin matriarch — that make this story pop.
“Bizarre Foods America” (2013)
It was only one episode, but chef and gastrointestinal daredevil Andrew Zimmern figured out Pittsburgh’s peculiar and surprisingly fascinating foodways like few outsiders have. When he came to Pittsburgh, he went straight for the pierogies, braunschweiger and stuffed cabbage.
Really? That’s “bizarre food?” Around here, we just call that “food.” That isn’t weird. It’s dinner at grandma’s house.
Watching the process of grinding liver and emulsifying blood to make sausage and braunschweiger at Silver Star Meats in McKees Rocks is a little surreal — Zimmern couldn’t hold back his excitement. The idea that Pittsburgh actually has a unique food culture (besides fries on sandwiches) wasn’t common at the time.
Zimmern seemed to find something strange to love behind every corner bar, from the tried-and-true Pierogies Plus to the off-the-beaten-path Emil’s Lounge in Rankin, to the cutting-edge Cure (now closed). There are key cameos from Rick Sebak, Lucy Nguyen (the Strip banh mi sandwich wizard), cigar-chomping Jimmy Sunseri and chef/butcher Justin Severino, who breaks down goat to make goat heart tartare.
Nobody seems to have more fun eating than this guy (give or take Guy Fieri), and it’s fascinating to see a superstar chef enjoy a humble dish like flaczki (tripe stew) at S&D Polish Deli as much as the most high-end dining. He returned to Pittsburgh for another show, “The Zimmern List” in 2019.
“Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” (2017)
The late Anthony Bourdain left a singular mark in television history, elevating the humble travel show into something close to an art form. He had a certain genius for empathy, understanding and open-mindedness encased in a hard, cynical New Yorker shell. He found common ground in the most unlikely places through the universal language of food.
That said, his long-awaited Pittsburgh episode seemed to come in with a pre-cooked narrative about urban gentrification that he wanted to tell, and found people to tell it. (Sure, gentrification is an issue here, but there are probably 20 cities that could illustrate that story better.) It’s the opposite of his usual approach.
Still, even bad Bourdain is better than 99% of food and/or travel television, and plenty of significant Pittsburgh culinary voices (Justin Severino, Sonja Finn, Jamilka Borges) got to speak their minds here. The scenes at Hungarian hole in the wall Jozsa Corner (now closed; RIP Alexander Jozsa Bodnar) in Hazelwood and the bocce court in Bloomfield are terrific.
“American Rust” (2021)
“American Rust” got clobbered by the critics, but sometimes the critics get it wrong.
In Western PA, there’s a lot of sympathy for underdogs, which ought to include this low-key, doom-laden drama about a principled cop in a collapsing Fayette County steel town, facing impossible choices when the son of the woman he loves (Maura Tierney) is accused of murder.
Beneath its oxidized patina, there’s a serpentine story here about labor, solidarity, family bonds and the management of pain. Even Pittsburgh seems like some sort of faraway, implausible dreamland from the fictional Buell, PA, with football and fentanyl seeming like the only avenues for escape.
The monolithic remnants of Carrie Furnace and the streets of towns like McKeesport and Clairton provide a rich landscape, seldom visited since the “The Deer Hunter” captivated audiences in 1978. “American Rust” finds warmth just beneath each character’s stoic visage — there are few stereotypical villains here, just those who chose poorly from an array of bad options.