“Holy Toledo!” It’s a ubiquitous phrase that might be the only reference many people have for the city of Toledo, Ohio. Despite being the fourth largest city in the state, and the largest that doesn’t start with “C,” Toledo has garnered little attention in the outside world, except when something bad (the water crisis) or strange (the Christmas Weed) happens. Even many Toledoans themselves see the city as little but a place to escape from. Television loves to poke fun at us in passing, rarely taking the time to celebrate or seriously talk about the Glass City and its people. Toledo has become to go-to reference for jokes about Middle America—as if television writers sit around thinking of one-liners throwing the Midwest under the bus, and Toledo is always the answer. After all, if we believe John Denver, being in Toledo is “like being nowhere at all.”
The only constant when it comes to Toledo’s representation in entertainment is a lack of one. The protagonists of Supernatural visit Toledo for a single haunting early in the show’s run (the creator, Eric Kripke, is from Toledo). Riverdale, a drama targeting teenagers, portrays the town as a literal dump; the lead character’s mom abandons her child and runs away to Toledo. Shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Parks and Recreation work in one-off jokes about the Glass City, most echoing Denver’s sentiment—if you know anything about the government of citizens of Pawnee, IN, you also know that “With your help, we can become Toledo!” isn’t a compliment.
Even children’s programming like Veggietales and The Penguins of Madagascar make reference to the Glass City, with the latter showing pure animated terror in the faces of the animals as they discover their companion has been shipped off to the zoo in . . . Toledo [*gasp*]. . . Ohio [*bigger gasp*]. All of these shows see Toledo as simply a one-off joke to be referenced as a place that is isolated, undesirable or obscure. The lack of presence of Toledo on our screens feels representative of a lack of public knowledge about the city, supporting a tendency to drop us into any fill-in-the-blank about some nowhere town with just enough name recognition to be relevant.
A few shows have placed Toledo at their center, displaying a seemingly fully-functioning version of the city. A. P. Bio and Melissa & Joey, for instance, are some of the most intensive televised looks at life in Toledo. While these shows are not necessarily at the forefront of mainstream American popular culture (and neither of them are still in production), the fact that they are set in Toledo at all sets them apart. Neither were produced in Toledo, but A. P. Bio filmed some scenes at the Huntington Center during a Walleye game, bringing some of the actual city into its fictionalized representation.
It is worth noting that while these shows take place in Toledo, the city rarely gets accurately—let alone complexly or authentically—portrayed. In Melissa & Joey, Melissa is the youngest city council member for the seventh district in Toledo (which doesn’t even exist in real-life Toledo), but the real debates and issues facing local government rarely come up. And, arguably just as important, there is no snow on the show, a sadly fictional scenario for those of us with two-wheel drive vehicles. A. P. Bio features a “Toledo Mall” as a possible parallel to the Franklin Park Mall, but its boring appearance exaggerates the characteristic blandness of Toledo life. Although, I would like to know where he bought a computer chair inside the mall— I could use a new one.
Occasionally, however, shows have referenced Toledo for its reality—albeit a very negative reality. Take, for example, the season one episode of Nurse Jackie in which a patient comes in with abdominal pain. The first thought is pregnancy, but the reality (one that perhaps hits a little too close to home) is an opioid withdrawal. The patient, on a trip to NYC, defends herself by saying a high is “like the most perfect day in your entire life and that’s not easy to feel in Toledo, Ohio.” On screen, Toledo is either a gut-wrenching joke or a punch-in-the-gut reality check.
On the flip side, a couple of the most well-known representations of Toledo on television are not only positive, but also accurate, as seen in M*A*S*H’s references to the Glass City and one of its most famous institutions: Tony Packo’s. As the Hungarian restaurant’s website addresses, Toledoan Jamie Farr’s character Corporal Maxwell Klinger believes Tony Packo’s hot dogs to be the greatest in the world. M*A*S*H amassed a huge following with families all over the country during its run between 1972 and 1983, as well, with the show’s finale pulling in over 106 million viewers, more than any single episode of any scripted television show ever. Now, Tony Packo’s is possibly the most talked-about restaurant in the Toledo area, thanks in part to these celebrity shout-outs.
Perhaps the most important element of Toledo’s media representation is who is receiving these messages. Knowing how little most of the nation knows or cares about Toledo, experiences with entertainment media likely inform many of the assumptions viewers make about the city. Toledo is stereotypically viewed as a place marked by a lack of desire—a contentment with mediocrity, resistance to progress and struggle with reality. And the impact that makes on outside audiences has an effect also on Toledo’s population—one marked by a recurring inferiority complex.
M*A*S*H is perhaps an anomaly, and even then doesn’t really applaud Toledo for much other than its chili dogs. The stereotype of Toledo as an undesirable place is proliferated through pop culture in general, and knowing most of the Toledo-based or Toledo-referencing shows are family sitcoms or aimed at young adults, families may be raising new generations on content that disparages or makes little attempt to understand the Glass City. But television is also changing, as Netflix binging replaces tune-in premiers on cable television. Media is consumed across platforms, new series are released every day and old cable sitcoms are finding comebacks through streaming platforms.
And just as television is changing, Toledo is a complicated city in transition. It’s trying its best to advance in a time when the population is dwindling and the mainstream media is using it as a punchline. Perhaps the solution is as simple as creating and supporting media in which Toledo is represented to American families in a more positive and complex light. Imagine a Pixar-esque film following an illustration falling out of its painting at the Toledo Museum of Art or a tale of an East Coast native relocating for the engineering program at the University of Toledo (people really call soda “pop”?).
But perhaps the solution is more complicated than that. Whether or not the stereotypes or commentary are true, Toledo is an ever-changing city that is searching for its identity—beyond what television, pop culture or outside influences more generally make it out to be. The uncertainty of where we are headed is a curse and a blessing; it seems we rely heavily on national media to define who we are—and as a result, let it define who we become.
Mentions of Toledo on TV seem to create an “OMG” (or perhaps, “Holy…Toledo!”) moment for all Toledoans, even those who have moved away—an excitement that others recognize us, even if it isn’t always positive. But this city is far more than some tired, old joke—it’s a city in the midst of rebuilding itself, recreating its local and national identity and forging a path ahead to define itself before letting others define it.