It's happened again: Colorado has popped up in the popular zeitgeist as the setting of yet another entertainment smash, in this case The Last of Us, a post-apocalyptic-video-game-turned-streaming-series on HBO. Because like the zombies so prevalent in narrative cataclysm, pop culture also has to eat itself to survive.
But just as so often happens, the Colorado in The Last of Us isn’t Colorado at all. The series is filmed — as too many of our narrative analogs are these days — in Canada.
Still, it's a fun show, and probably garnering some good attention for Colorful Colorado, if in fact this state can benefit from being the make-believe setting for a mushroomy-zombie story in which we’re all essentially doomed right there in the title. But it does offer an excuse to count the times that Colorado has received some long overdue respect as a geographic backdrop for storytelling, even if the shows aren't actually filmed here.
Below are fifteen examples. Let's hope The Last of Us won’t be the last.
The Last of Us, 2023
HBO’s smash hit probably comes at a good time for America, on what we hope is the downslope of COVID and isolation and all that. It’s not what you’d call feel-good escapism — maybe it’s more hey-things-could-be-worse escapism. I mean sure, Earth is sort of suffocating and there’s essentially an American political party that embraces being fundamentally stupid as its central platform, but hell, at least the chances that you’ll turn into a walking fungus tomorrow are pretty damn low. The show isn’t fully set in Colorado — main characters Joel and Ellie only got here in Episode 6, at the fictional University of Eastern Colorado. Like other Colorado posers, this show doesn’t bother to get anything right — not even some simple geography. The fictive university is supposedly set in Boulder (insert statewide eye roll here), but why an institution that has “eastern” in its name would be in Boulder — which is eastern only in the sense that it’s not on the Western Slope — is a mystery. To add insult to injury, the campus is clearly just a Photoshop wash of not the University of Colorado Boulder, but CSU, right down to the Rams mascot. Why? That's a question that can only be answered by the original game designers and series producers, all sitting poolside in California while on the phone with Canada.
Resident Alien, 2021
What if Northern Exposure took place in Colorado and Joel Fleischman was an alien? That’s essentially what we have with the ongoing pleasure that is Resident Alien, now filming its third season (in Canada, of course).
Space Force, 2020
Even the great Steve Carell and many of the writers from The Office couldn’t keep this Netflix series set in Colorado Springs flying over the last couple of years. It was probably tough for a comedy to compete against the actual ludicrousness of American life during the Trump era.
The Stand, 2020
Both this excellent remake and the equally awesome first TV mini-series from 1994 make good cases for representation at elevation. Stephen King might be from Maine, but a good number of his books involve Colorado. Another candidate for this list is the highly underrated TV version of The Shining, which, unlike the movie, was actually filmed in Estes Park at the Stanley Hotel.
Those Who Can’t, 2016
Westword alumnus Adam Cayton-Holland was one of the creators and stars of this three-season sitcom on TruTV, along with Andrew Orvedahl and Ben Roy, all members of Denver-based comedy troupe The Grawlix. Set at the fictitious Smoot High School, the show nonetheless represents Denver well, including several scenes set at none other than the Lion’s Lair.
The Man in the High Castle, 2015
Like The Last of Us, this Amazon Prime series is dystopian — but the dystopia in this show is all about an alternate history in which the Nazis won WWII and Denver is the capital city of the dividing line between east and west. It’s based on the 1962 novel by Philip K. Dick, who also penned Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which later became the massive movie hit Blade Runner. Here’s some historic horror that doesn’t need zombies to scare the crap out of you.
Last Man Standing, 2011
Tim Allen was born in Denver, but moved to Michigan at eleven when his father was killed by a drunk driver. Although Home Improvement was set in Detroit, Allen came back to the state of his birth for his second successful series, Last Man Standing. The show lasted ten years on various networks, hampered to some degree by Allen’s own political conservatism and how it became a focus of the program. You can’t dress up as Donald Trump and talk about “sticking it to progressives” and how you “like pissing people off” without losing some audience members. And also sort of looking like a self-important douchebag.
The much-loved TV series doesn’t just look like it was set in Colorado. It was, and deliberately for whatever reason — but just as deliberately, the production team made no effort to make it look like the show was filmed anywhere but on a soundstage and the campus of L.A. City College, where exteriors were shot. But that’s okay — there are enough Colorado shout-outs that we’ll still claim the show, and since a “six seasons and a movie” lineup was announced to be in the planning stages, we could have one more chance to see Community really enhance its Mile High bona fides.
Aside from helping to launch the career of Chris Pratt (who played the improbably named Bright in his first television role), Everwood is remembered best as that generic-Colorado-mountain-town show that Greg Burlanti did before he became DC Comics guy for the WB. It was a show sort of like Seventh Heaven, only with Treat Williams as the fatherly lead instead of accused pedophile Stephen Collins.
South Park, 1997
If you’re unaware of the Colorado cultural juggernaut that is South Park, then it’s a mystery how you’re even reading this sentence. You have 26 seasons and counting to catch up on, and Casa Bonita to enjoy come summer.
Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, 1993
Jane Seymour stars as a Colorado Springs doctor in 1867, fighting both frontier injuries and the male-dominated West. It was feminist for the early ’90s, even if it was mixed with a healthy dose of Fabio-hair romance novel sort of stuff.
Diagnosis: Murder, 1993
The 1993 TV season was apparently pretty good for both Colorado shows and interruptive titular punctuation. Dick Van Dyke’s just-as-charming answer to Murder, She Wrote was this series, originally set in Denver. After eight episodes, the show moved to Los Angeles without so much as a mention of the shift, let alone an explanation. Luckily, we here in Colorado are quite used to being annoyed by issues involving California transplants.
This prime-time soap opera brought a lot of attention to the swanky side of Denver — but only if you had no idea what Denver really looked like. Sure, it was “set” in the Mile High City, but the Carrington estate was really in San Francisco, and the office buildings were all L.A. The best we got was the occasional reference to the 16th Street Mall, or the rare appearance of former Denver news anchor Mike Landess.
Mork & Mindy, 1978
This might be the first TV series set in Colorado that wasn’t a Western. Robin Williams’s Mork character had initially appeared on an episode of Happy Days, which itself was set in the 1950s; his egg-ship landed in Boulder in 1978 because he was “from the future.” Why Boulder? Reportedly because creator Garry Marshall’s niece was going to school at CU.
Hotel de Paree, 1959
This just might be the first TV series set in Colorado, and since it was 1959, it was a Western, of course. The main character, a gunfighter named Sundance, came out of prison after seventeen years only to become the town marshal of Georgetown — and part-owner of the titular hotel with two ladies from France. If it is in fact the first TV series set in the state, it wins the title by only five days: It debuted on CBS on October 2, and another Western, The Pony Express, debuted on October 7.