10 Stand-Out Films and TV Shows Set in Wisconsin
Last Updated on August 16, 2021 by Bennett Floyd
When most non-locals think of Wisconsin, they picture cheese, cold winters, and the Green Bay Packers—which is a shame, because Wisconsin has also earned its rightful place as a stellar location for Hollywood films. While Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids (2011) is probably the best-known, most recent example, Wisconsin films have been making a splash in the movie and TV worlds for decades.
Whether you’re looking for something new to watch or you simply want to celebrate your home state by enjoying its beauty on the big screen, give one (or all!) of the shows and movies below a whirl. You can stream most of them online through your favorite streaming service, an activity made much easier (and more enjoyable) with a high-speed internet connection. Alternatively, you can catch them on On Demand or live on DIRECTV.
From Milwaukee cityscapes to rural roadsides, you can find shots of Wisconsin’s best angles in a variety of genres.
Comedy: Bridesmaids (2011)
In 2011, Paul Feig revolutionized the comedy genre with an all-female, star-studded cast that proved women could do raunchy humor, slapstick, and verbal barbs as well as men—and perform at the box office, too. The film takes place largely in Milwaukee and doesn’t gloss over issues like the economic downturn of the late 2000s, which impacted small business owners in states across the nation, including Wisconsin.
The movie also functions as a tale of two cities: Annie, played by Kristin Wiig, is bitterly jealous of her best friend’s new best friend, Helen (Rose Byrne), who hails from Chicago. The rivalry between the two ramps up, and for a while Chicago seems destined to pull Annie’s best friend away from her–but good old-fashioned Wisconsin friendliness and community ultimately win out.
Kids’ Flicks: The Straight Story (1999)
The Straight Story is, believe it or not, a Disney-produced film directed by David Lynch, though it’s a far cry (tonally and thematically) from Lynch’s most beloved works. This charming, true-life story follows the journey by tractor of aging farmer Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) to make up with his estranged ailing brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton).
Alvin encounters a host of colorful characters along the way, and as most of his journey takes place across Iowa and Wisconsin, the film features beautiful shots of the rolling Wisconsin landscape.
Rip-Roaring Sci-Fi: Contact (1997)
Hollywood has taken Wisconsin to the stars time and time again, painting picturesque Wisconsin against the backdrop of the universe. In Contact, filmmaker Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future) works off a script by Carl Sagan to imagine what humanity’s first encounter with aliens would look like.
Most big-budget alien flicks gloss over Wisconsin as the setting for first contact, preferring areas like LA and New York City (though Star Trek: First Contact opts for Montana), but we think cozy Wisconsin fits the bill as the perfect place to welcome alien visitors to the universe.
Not Your Ordinary Sci-Fi/Romance: Starman (1984)
Starman also kicks off in Wisconsin, but it’s wildly different from Contact, especially in its genre-bending merger of science fiction and romance. A young Jeff Bridges plays an alien visitor who lands in Wisconsin and goes on a frantic cross-country journey a la Escape to Witch Mountain to reach a point in Arizona that will send him back to his own planet. Karen Allen plays his love interest, and their relationship carries the bulk of the film. Starman won Bridges an Academy Award nomination.
Bittersweet Dramedy: Away We Go (2009)
They say Virginia is for lovers, but Hollywood’s depiction of Wisconsin grants the state the same ambiance, albeit with a more melancholic, nostalgic slant.
Sam Mendes’ Away We Go was written by husband-and-wife team Vendela Vida and Dave Eggers. The story revolves around couple Burt and Verona, played by John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph, who find themselves dealing with an unexpected pregnancy. Both of their parents have died, and in their search to find parenting role models, the two take a cross-country road trip to decide if and how they want to raise their baby.
The tongue-in-cheek film takes its most comic turn in Madison, where Maggie Gyllenhaal appears as Burt’s condescending, free-range, hippie relative who utterly fails to offer any meaningful baby-raising advice.
A Different Kind of Romance: Lars and the Real Girl (2007)
Lars and the Real Girl shares the same quirky tone as Away We Go, but it presents a love story of a different sort. Lars, played by Ryan Gosling, lives with his older brother and sister-in-law in a small Wisconsin town. When Lars’ brother and the larger community realize the girlfriend Lars has been talking about is actually a life-size doll, they don’t ostracize him: instead, they rally around him, treating “Bianca” like one of their own.
The movie focuses on overcoming the trauma of lost childhood with the help of a forgiving community, all against the harsh, uncanny beauty of a Wisconsin winter.
Political Thriller: Michael Clayton (2007)
Political dramas aren’t just for New York City and Washington, D.C. While Michael Clayton largely takes place in New York state, a few pivotal scenes—most notably one involving a dramatic courtroom breakdown by Tom Wilkinson’s character, Arthur Edens—occur in Milwaukee.
Michael Clayton centers on the eponymous main character, played by George Clooney, who fixes “problems” that could cause his legal firm’s shady clients to lose major cases. The film hinges on a class-action suit against an agricultural firm that released dangerous, life-threatening chemicals.
The film garnered several Oscar noms and appeared on critics’ best-of-the-year (and even a few best-of-the-century) lists. Even though the film has largely disappeared from public memory—perhaps because of its rather bland title—it’s certainly worth a watch.
Looking for something to watch that will last longer than a few hours? Plenty of TV shows have been set in Wisconsin over the decades, but we’ve chosen to focus on these three standouts.
Time-Tested Classic: Happy Days
Happy Days’ impact on pop culture is undeniable. For one thing, it’s where a young Ron Howard got his start. For another, the phrase “jump the shark” came from a Happy Days episode where a character literally jumped over a shark. The program’s portrayal of the idyllic Midwestern family life was made possible by its Wisconsin setting, and if you’ve never watched before, get ready to reschedule boredom: there are over 250 episodes for you to enjoy.
Over-the-Top Drama: The Young and the Restless
While Happy Days promoted a wholesome picture of family life in Wisconsin, The Young and the Restless is a classic soap that, for better or worse, does the opposite. The story focuses on several families and their feuds, has aired since the 1970s and is contracted to produce new episodes until at least 2020. If soaps are your thing and Wisconsin is your home, you can’t miss out on the 11,000+ episodes of this delightfully dramatic classic.
Teenage Sitcom: That ‘70s Show
In the mood for something funnier than the two above? That ‘70s Show takes place in Wisconsin in part as an homage to (and satire of) Happy Days. Along with launching the careers of Mila Kunis, Ashton Kutcher, and Topher Grace, the show got millions of viewers calling “Helloooooo, Wisconsin!” when they sang along to the first season theme song.