Shows with eponymous settings resort to optical illusions and other tricks

Good TV is like a portal off the couch and down the rabbit hole, and it’s a production designer’s job to let you know where you’ve landed — preferably before the titles roll. Some cities are so iconic that you can just flash the Hollywood sign or the Brooklyn Bridge and call it a day; others wave their flags more subtly. All of these hit shows — “CSI: Miami,” “Las Vegas,” “The OC” and “Boston Legal” — paint their mythical settings in a fresh light, finding creative, unexpected ways to make that ride down the rabbit hole as smooth as a perfect wave.

“CSI: Miami’s” Fred Andrews wants nothing more than to give viewers a free vacation in South Beach once a week. But first he needs to make sure they don’t realize they’re in Long Beach. Calling the port city “Miami west,” Andrews cites Long Beach’s mix of high modern and Spanish-style architecture, its vegetation and its flat coastline as suitable doubles for its East Coast counterpart.

He’ll use aerial sequences shot in Miami, then take it down to street level at the Long Beach marina for, say, a car chase. Andrews notes that certain locations, like the Everglades, can’t be faked — except for that one time he built the Everglades at a duck-hunting club at Point Mugu.

The show’s stylized palette of oranges, greens and blues is essential to the atmosphere, as is the perpetual “sunshine” that sparkles in the newly revamped, louvered glass-and-steel set.

On “The OC,” lighting is equally instrumental in establishing place. “I used to think it was all about scenery,” says Tom Fichter, “and now I realize it is all about light. My sets are there as a way to put light into the environment.”

Palm trees are a close second, but nothing, according to Fichter, screams “The OC” like McMansions. In fact, the huge cookie-cutter residences are so integral to the fantasy, Fichter thought the show’s producers coined the term.

The only locale that’s actually in Orange County is the Newport Beach peninsula, represented by a painted backdrop with holes and bits of cellophane tape that shine like ocean waves in the moonlight. “Cheap theater tricks,” grins Fichter. “They really work!”

Unfortunately there’s no trick that makes a palm tree look like an oak tree, or a hacienda look like a brownstone, as Peter Politanoff knows all too well. The production designer’s aim on “Boston Legal” was to present a Boston that hadn’t been seen before — and he had to do it in a place where quintessential Northeastern elements like brick and Georgian architecture were nowhere in sight.

“We have to cheat a little bit more,” admits the designer, who uses the back lots at Paramount and Universal interchangeably. “You play it as the same place and hope no one notices,” he shrugs.

The “Boston Legal” set’s main “selling piece” is the 120’x25′ photographic backing of the city skyline, which is visible through the windows of the Crane, Poole and Schmidt law firm.

Sometimes a TV production designer is asked to go far above and beyond the call of duty, as Rich Toyon was when the “Las Vegas” script called for the Montecito Hotel to be torn down and given a complete facelift. Toyon not only created the interior of the hotel and casino, he designed a hotel that could theoretically compete in the real high-stakes world of contemporary Las Vegas.

“We wanted it to be the next thing and to make that believable,” says Toyon of the mirrored monolith that he estimates would have cost $1 billion to build.

The exterior may be virtual, but the interior — at 38,000 square feet the largest interior set ever built for television — is a flurry of slot machines, flashing lights, an iLounge sponsored by Apple and a Wolfgang Puck restaurant with a functional kitchen and wine cellar.

It’s still more smokescreens than steel beams, but nothing can stop the viewers who want to believe. “There are people who swear that it exists,” Toyon reveals with a mixture of amazement and pride. “People go to Las Vegas all the time looking for the Montecito.”

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