Best movies, TV shows set in Denver and Colorado

In “Guilty Party,” English actor Kate Beckinsale plays a disgraced Colorado journalist who’s been demoted from the Denver Herald newspaper to a millennial-run, Lodo-based startup called Pop Bite News.

The series, which premiered Oct. 14 on Paramount+, features a handful of Denver shots — our skyline, the Speer Boulevard bridge, 16th Street Mall’s D&F Clocktower — but was made in Canada.

It’s the latest TV project to use Colorado as a backdrop, even as the scenes are actually being shot thousands of miles away. While there’s lately been an explosion of home-improvement, ghost-hunter, true-crime and “Ninja Warrior”-style series that truly shoot here, when it comes to fictional TV titles — from “Dynasty” to newer shows such as “Those Who Can’t” (now on HBO Max) and “Space Force” (on Netflix) — does the production location matter?

Yes and no. Denver residents expressed excitement in April when NBCUniversal announced plans to shoot a prestige pilot on-location in Denver and Durango. But shows that are not shot in (or anywhere near) Colorado can sometimes feel more “Colorado” than others.

The beloved “Mork & Mindy,” for example, starred Robin Williams as an alien and Pam Dawber as a University of Colorado student. Running 1978-1982, it helped cast an enduring, crunchy-granola image of Boulder nationwide. While it only employed a few exterior shots of Boulder (where the Mork and Mindy house remains) and the Flatirons, as well as the occasional location shoot (see the 1979 Broncos episode at Mile High Stadium), it was largely made on a soundstage in California.

In “Guilty Party” the setting feels more incidental, whereas a show like “South Park” is full of insider Colorado references. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone were ringing the bell for Casa Bonita and mocking American Furniture Warehouse founder Jake Jabs and local newscasters since the early 2000s (it’s no surprise that they recently bought Casa Bonita).

“South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who produce their Colorado-set animated show in Los Angeles, recently purchased the Lakewood eatery Casa Bonita. (AP/Comedy Central)

The libertarian, long-running “South Park” is also one of the few that invokes Colorado’s wildly disparate demographics and economic classes.

“I was drawn to the idea of Colorado’s purple-state politics, and I find Denver a really exciting, vibrant city,” said Rebecca Addelman, who created and wrote “Guilty Party,” following work on “New Girl,” “Ghosted” and “Dead to Me.” “Whenever I’m there driving around, I see all walks of life within a stone’s throw of each other.”

That’s likely true of most cities, but for “Guilty Party,” Addelman also was inspired by Colorado’s supermax prison in Florence, which houses some of the country’s most dangerous criminals. She adapted that into a remote women’s prison on the plains of Eastern Colorado, where one of her main characters is incarcerated.

“Whenever I was pitching (the show), the fun part of the pitch was, ‘Why Denver?’ ” she said. “But as soon as we started to poke around we realized the economic incentives present in many other places weren’t there.”

While New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah offer significant rebates to film and TV productions that spend a certain amount of money in-state, Colorado offers a relative pittance due to resistance from Republican state legislators. Just $2 million total was available last year, courtesy of the Colorado Office of Economic Development.

Kate Beckinsale plays disgraced Denver journalist Beth Burgess in the new Paramount+ series “Guilty Party,” which is set but not filmed in Colorado. In this case, the production was moved to Calgary, Alberta, to double for Denver for financial reasons. (David T. Brown, provided by ViacomCBS)

That’s forced most major film and TV productions to shoot in locales that double for Denver or Colorado, such as Calgary, Alberta, whose silvery skyscrapers and Rockies background (well, the Canadian Rockies) is a virtual doppleganger for Denver in “Guilty Party.”

“I’m Canadian so I have a pretty good sense of mountain terrain, and for ‘Guilty Party’ we wanted real Rocky Mountain plains and wide open spaces and sunshine and snow,” Addelman said.

Luke Slattery, a Denver-born actor who’s appearing in the new Tinder-backed interactive series “Swipe Night: Killer Weekend,” sees nothing but opportunity in Denver, even as he appreciates the lack of economic incentives.

“There’s just such a wealth of beauty in the natural landscapes, the architecture and the history,” said Slattery, a Brooklyn-based TV regular (“New Amsterdam,” “The Good Doctor”) who auditioned for a role on “Guilty Party” during casting. “Jack Kerouac used to hang out there at My Brother’s Bar near the confluence. There are all these incredible places and stories to mine.”

So how “Denver” or “Colorado” are these Denver- and Colorado-set shows? Here’s a subjective sampling.

John Forsythe is joined by fellow “Dynasty” castmates Joan Collins, left, and Linda Evans at a party in 1986 celebrating 150 episodes of the popular series. (Denver Post file)

“Dynasty”

Once the most popular prime-time soap opera (er, drama), “Dynasty” was prompted by ratings giant “Dallas” as well as the city’s oil-boom culture of the 1980s, making it a blank slate onto which viewers could project any number of opinions about the city. When the city appeared at all.

“Dynasty,” which ran 1981-1989, focused more on the haughty, catty Carrington family (all praise to the fabulous Joan Collins) than its setting, although references to Colorado’s mineral and oil riches are part of the plot, given the Denver-Carrington company’s influence and the fact that one of the characters starts out as a geologist. Most scenes never leave their 48-room mansion, however. The 2017 Netflix reboot, unfortunately, also moves the setting from Denver to Atlanta.

Rating: Not Very Denver

“Perry Mason”

Legal eagle Perry Mason helped set many of the tropes for the lawyer-procedural with this enduring CBS show, which originally ran 1957-1966 and starred the imposing Raymond Burr. The property, revived over the years with Burr’s participation, was reportedly the first-ever Hollywood one-hour show filmed for TV, and it’s mostly set and made in Los Angeles.

However, the later TV-movie versions of “Perry Mason” were both shot and set in Denver, and Raymond Burr retired here. With mixed provenance and legacy (“Perry Mason” was also rebooted last year on HBO) the show isn’t exactly a fully-Denver production, but it’s also not fully L.A. Making it and writing it for a time in Colorado gives it a leg up on most, even if it didn’t start out here.

Rating: Very Denver (eventually)

“The Stand” and sci-fi TV

Sci-fi and horror miniseries have long loved Colorado as a setting for the apocalypse — or at least a personal, supernatural meltdown (see the 1997 “Shining” miniseries, which was shot at Estes Park’s Stanley Hotel). But while shows like Stargate SG1 and miniseries like “The Stand” weren’t filmed here, they feature regular references to and images of, respectively, Cheyenne Mountain and Boulder.

The latter is where the best of humanity retreats to in Stephen King’s “The Stand,” which has been adapted twice for TV. The 2020 version was filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia. A popular setting for TV shows of all varieties, Vancouver is a poor stand-in for Colorado, and the local references are understandably cribbed from the book — no script innovations here. At least the 1994 version shot a segment in Gardens of the Gods in Colorado Springs. The 2020 version? Not so much.

Rating: Not Very Colorado

“Community”

The NBC cult hit, which ran from 2009 to 2014, was Dan Harmon’s claim to fame before “Rick and Morty” and starred a young Donald Glover alongside Joel McHale, Alison Brie, Chevy Chase and others. Set in the fictional town of Greendale, Colo., at Greendale Community College, the show was produced in California and featured almost zero local references. There were so few, in fact, that most people surveyed for this story had no idea it was set here.

Other sitcoms that weren’t made here but that invoke Colorado or the metro area, however nominally, include “The Bill Engvall Show,” “Last Man Standing” and “Good Luck Charlie.” None of them are remotely as good as “Community.”

Rating: Not Very Colorado

“Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman”

Hugely popular for a time on CBS and now a family-friendly hit in syndication, “Dr. Quinn” used a frontier-era Colorado Springs for its tales of pioneer medicine and drama. That’s nothing new, considering all the Westerns and pioneer dramas set here over the years, but it put a sustained TV spotlight on Old West Colorado.

Starring Jane Seymour as the eponymous character fighting for respect in 1867 Colorado, it’s been channeled over the years by shows like “Everwood” — about a surgeon who moves to the small Colorado town of Everwood — but rarely duplicated in its canny mix of sentimentality, action and progressive social commentary.

In its scripts, the 1993-1998 series references historical events such as the Sand Creek Massacre, but uses dramatic license to fudge the details. Its rugged individualist spirit played into existing ideas about the Wild West, but also helped evolve the depiction of women in frontier environments and Indigenous people. It was filmed on the Western set on Paramount Ranch in Agoura Hills, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Rating: Very Colorado

“Those Who Can’t”

Originally produced for truTV following an Amazon cash-infusion (the latter passed on picking it up), this three-season sitcom from the Denver-based Grawlix trio is likely gaining new fans after its move to HBO Max. The Southern California-filmed show follows inept teachers at Denver’s fictional Smoot High School (a.k.a. the film-legendary Van Nuys High) and includes multiple Denver-bred comics alongside cast members Maria Thayer and Rory Scovel, and guest stars such as Susie Essman, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Patton Oswalt.

Its creators — Adam Cayton-Holland, Andrew Orvedahl and Ben Roy — fought hard to produce it here, they’ve told The Denver Post, but it never worked out financially. At least it’s peppered with tons of references, including The Lion’s Lair (where the characters go drinking), Mutiny Information Cafe (a South Broadway punk/comics haven), and John Elway and the Broncos. All of the creator-stars still live here, following short stints in Los Angeles. On your next watch, try to spot all the local-band T-shirts.

Rating: Extremely Denver