Last night I cleaned the sink portion of my bathroom. My apartment is set up in a strange way, where the sink is separated from everything else. It’s its own space, about four square feet, and it took me two hours to clean. I ended with a bag of trash, a yard sale bag (I don’t know if this happens for men, but women tend to accumulate products that we try that don’t work for us or that people give us and we’ll never use, but it’s a full bottle and we don’t want to throw it away. I learned years ago that if you put these in a box at a yard sale with a sign that says 25¢ people will actually buy them) and a surprising number of tubes of toothpaste. It made me think about what it takes to make a space look “lived in” on television.
I have a friend who, until very recently, worked in the set decorating department. (Now he works in the art department.) It might sound easy to go to a furniture-renting warehouse, tag what you want and then decorate a room. But the room usually can’t look decorated. The sink needs a tube of toothpaste next to it, but probably not a full tube. There should be notes on the fridge, and half-eaten food inside. The floor should be scuffed. The rug might need a vacuuming. You’re not supposed to take couches off the side of the road and put them in a set, but what if you’re decorating a crack den? (Fun fact: rental houses rent books by the foot.) It takes a lot of effort to look effortless.
But as much as the set needs to look like what you’d recognize as a home, it can’t be set up that way. If you pull up any rug on a set you’ll probably find the floor underneath isn’t finished. Sinks aren’t hooked up to real plumbing and the stairs don’t go anywhere. Walls need to move, sure, but also people will be walking in unusual traffic patterns so outlets have to be hidden in the middle of the floor, under furniture so no one trips. The safety of the actors is most important. I was working on a show once where the characters went on vacation. One character had to rifle through his overnight bag, but in an effort to be authentic the props assistant had packed the bag with the standard hygiene supplies – travel-sized shampoo, a toothbrush, razors… Yeah, the actor cut himself in the middle of a take. But the set medic couldn’t just put a band-aid on him and call it a day, because that would be a continuity problem. And they couldn’t just keep going with him bleeding because, among many other things, that would also be a continuity problem. He had to heal himself through the sheer power of ACTING! (I’m kidding. They used a liquid bandage and were grateful it wasn’t bigger.)