What Hollywood Gets Right (and So Wrong) About Staten Island

A scene from Colin Jost's Staten Island Summer. Photo: SARAH SHATZ

The release of Saturday Night Live head writer — and Staten Island native — Colin Jost’s coming-of-age comedy Staten Island Summer (available on Netflix Friday after a one-week run in theaters) isn’t the first time the “forgotten borough” has taken center stage in a movie or TV show. But as a native myself, I’ve always been surprised by how underrepresented the Island has been onscreen. Apart from 2009’s Staten Island (a barely noticed crime drama starring Ethan Hawke), the Island’s main claim to fame on the big screen has been when it doubled for other places in movies: The Godfather (Long Island), Safe Men (Rhode Island, weirdly enough), and School of Rock, where the venerable St. George Theatre was the setting for the final battle of the bands, though the location was never identified. The theater also performed double-duty on TV’s Smash, where it served as both a Broadway house and a Boston one. Even when Staten Island is called out by name, it often gets short shrift. Grounded for Life — which took place in Staten Island’s traditionally Italian neighborhood of Rosebank — could have been set anywhere for its five seasons, apart from occasional references to the Staten Island Ferry.

By virtue of a Staten Island native writing it (and plenty of location shooting), can Staten Island Summer instantly become the top representative of the island that has called Christina Aguilera, Rick (né Ricky) Schroder, the Wu-Tang Clan, and ex-Met John Franco home? SIS does have some competition, chief among them the contenders listed here, ranked from worst to best. (We’ve also flagged the Staten Island failings that only an S.I. local would notice.)

7. Sex and the City, “Where There’s Smoke …” (2000)
This early episode finds Carrie & Co. slumming it in Staten Island at a FDNY calendar benefit. The episode makes as much fun of the gals (especially Charlotte) as it does the Island’s working-class charms, and a pre–Mad Men John Slattery made a fine showing as a charming politician (not from the Island, of course).

Island cred: Manhattanites complaining about the long trip on the way out to the Island on the ferry (and coming back drunk)? On the money. And the boat was the real thing, not a set.
Fuhgettaboutit: “It’s almost 12 — I’m gonna miss the last ferry,” exclaims a crestfallen Carrie. As any Islander can tell you, the boats run all night.

6. Jersey Shore (2009)
While short-lived reality shows such as Staten Island Law (on Oprah’s OWN network) and Staten Island Cakes (WEtv) tried to show the aspirational part of Island living, and episodes of MTV’s My Super Sweet 16 and True Life captured the lowlights, the most exposure any docuseries ever gave the Island came in the form of the former music channel’s Jersey Shore. The show’s overnight-sensation debut introduced America to some of the Island’s orange population in the form of Vinny, Angelina, and, yes, even “the Situation,” all of them Staten Islanders, no matter how much the borough might have wished it were otherwise. (In a banner week for embarrassing Staten Island nationwide, Shore’s 2009 premiere aired just two days before actress Blake Lively appeared in a Colin Jost–co-written parody Gossip Girl: Staten Island, showcasing the tough-girl scene-chewing she would win acclaim for in 2010’s The Town.) 

Island cred: We’re not all like that (many of us have skin colors found in nature), but we all went to school with them.
Fuhgettaboutit: No, seriously, we’re really not all like that, I sweah … er, swear.

5. The Mindy Project (2012–present)
Mindy’s Danny, as played by Chris Messina, is possibly the most believable ex–Staten Islander to ever appear on TV. (As we’re seeing here, it’s not a long list to conquer.) Beyond his excellent credentials as a real New Yorker, he has all the hallmarks of an Islander who moves to the City, equally embarrassed by and proud of his roots, while still holding a soft spot for (and a head shot of) the Republican stronghold’s favorite NYC mayor, Rudy Giuliani.

Island cred: Daniel Alan Castellano — possibly taking his name from the infamous deceased mob boss who lived in S.I.’s glitzy Todt Hill neighborhood — may be the greatest fake Staten Island name ever, though Staten Island Summer’s “Krystal Manicucci” poses serious competition.
Fuhgettaboutit: No one, I repeat, no one, refers to Staten Island as “Staten.”

4. Easy Money (1983)
Filmed all over Staten Island — I remember attending a screening in an S.I. movie theater as a kid where a local street sign earned a round of applause — this comedy stars Rodney Dangerfield as a drunken Islander forced to clean up his act to inherit big money. Some halfhearted hilarity ensues, including some silent-movie-style slapstick with co-star Joe Pesci, scenes of overcrowded backyards that are a tribute to the Island’s lack of urban planning, all topped with a mediocre title song by Long Islander Billy Joel (if you squint, Long Island and Staten Island kind of look alike). Not all that funny, Money disappoints a little extra because it isn’t half as good as either Dangerfield’s Back to School (three years later) or Caddyshack (three years earlier).

Island cred: Besides the fact that the bakery in it made my wedding cake, this snapshot of the super-white (even more than today) Staten Island of the early '80s has familiar-to-Islanders sites — like the now-defunct diner that was open 23 hours a day — in practically every scene. All that plus a racially intolerant main character? Solid Rock.
Fuhgettaboutit: A department store run by Rodney’s wife’s family is very clearly the A&S (today a Macy’s) on Fulton Street in Brooklyn (you can see “Fulton Street” engraved over the doors). Hey, filmmakers! What, Macy’s at the Staten Island Mall wasn’t good enough for you?

3. Working Girl (1989)
The workplace rom-com that defined the Staten Island style for a generation — big hair, makeup applied mid-commute by sneaker-wearing secretaries (who switched to less-comfy shoes before getting to the office) — is mostly about making it big in Manhattan, but its Island elements are pretty much perfect. Co-stars Olympia Dukakis and Joan Cusack top Melanie Griffith’s Island brogue — which Griffith’s character masks most of the time to be taken more seriously — with accents that are like chalk on a blackboard, and Alec Baldwin, as Griffith’s philandering Staten Island boyfriend, is every guy who took my milk money growing up (though better-looking).

Island cred: If you can get past the accents — as anyone from Staten Island has had to since birth — what you get is a very affectionate look at S.I. as a place that not everyone wants to leave.
Fuhgettaboutit: The famous opening sequence (glimpsed in the Carly Simon video for the hit “Let the River Run”) features a very S.I.-centric continuity error, as the boat Griffith and Cusack are on at the beginning of the ferry ride is an entirely different boat from the one they exit minutes later.

2. Big Fan (2009)
As “Paul in Staten Island,” an obsessed New York Giants fan living with his mother in S.I., Patton Oswalt deserved every accolade he got for his ready-to-snap performance. Beautiful location shooting on the Island helps bring this tragic-comic story to life, as Paul’s efforts to interact with a star he’s admired from a distance have terrible consequences.

Island cred: The frustrated desire to be part of something bigger? Staying in awkward, uncomfortable living circumstances on the Rock because it’s all you can afford? It’s all there.
Fuhgettaboutit: It’s so dark. Sooooooo dark. In fact, it’s so bleak that I have to put in something else at No. 1.

1. The Simpsons (1989–present)
Welcome to Eltingville was a failed 2002 Adult Swim pilot adapted by Staten Island comic-book writer/artist Evan Dorkin from his lovably raunchy comics about comics nerds in S.I.’s Eltingville. That pilot certainly captures a segment of Island life, but the best overall picture of S.I. that can be found in animation may well be The Simpsons’ Springfield. The similarities are plentiful: Springfielders’ jealousy of their more-sophisticated neighbor, Shelbyville, feels an awful lot like Staten Islanders' love-to-hate relationship with the other boroughs; Springfield’s corrupt Mayor Quimby could easily be one Staten Island congressman (even while Quimby’s nephew could be another); and as Staten Island prepares to put up a Ferris wheel, in the borough’s latest effort to get tourists to come to the Island and actually stay for a while, remember that Springfield had its famous monorail. And we all know how that worked out.

Island cred: Homer a Staten Islander? Please. Islanders are hardworking, upstanding individuals. On the other hand, there is that problem with un-plowed streets that he’d be especially good at dealing with
Fuhgettaboutit: Lisa’s a vegetarian. Not on my Staten Island.