Fifty years of sitting in front a glowing box have certainly wrought changes
in us: we have fatter behinds, our vision is blearier, we eat out of bags. But
50 years isn't enough to change everything. Even as we become more torpid and
distractible, we retain our human imagination. And we are still social animals.
The small bright figures in the box are companions to us -- peers, heroes,
irritating little brats.
Long after we've forgotten the people who took math with us in eighth
grade, or who drank our beer in college, we remain intimately, vividly
acquainted with the tough cops, sassy kids, and fearless dogs we've met on
screen. We relate to them. Bond with them. The canceled ones stay with us in
memory (or in syndication). Does this make us shallow? Does it cheapen us?
Probably. But we're more shameless these days, too. Here, Phoenix
writers reflect on the characters that matter -- the ones we've admired or
envied, or loathed with happy certainty.
The Young Ones
Back in 1982, the venerable BBC aired the first episode of its new sitcom,
The Young Ones, and before the final beat of its opening drum roll,
British comedy had changed forever. The show was completely mad, unlike
anything the Great British Public had seen before. With the delicacy of a Doc
Martens boot, The Young Ones kicked the chair out from beneath the fusty
establishment, leaving the way clear for the rebellious, surreal, politically
charged comedy that remains influential to this day -- on both sides of the
Atlantic. (Familial lines can be drawn to Ab Fab and Bean.)
The show -- for those who need introduction -- featured four whacked-out
college roommates: Mike (the cool guy), Neil (the downtrodden hippie), Rick
(the smarmy and hypocritical lefty), and finally Vyvyan, the red-haired punk
who made his first entrance on the show by crashing through a kitchen wall.
Before Butt-head, there was Vyv. Vyv sported metal studs in his forehead. He
had a mad Scottish hamster, SPG, who had studs in his forehead, too. Vyv
chopped off his own fingers to relieve boredom, set fire to Rick's bed on a
whim. He headbutted, booted, bludgeoned, and battered. But there was always
something endearing about him. He had a childlike enthusiasm for the havoc he
wreaked, and there never seemed to be any malice behind the gratuitous
violence. He was a sociopath, but a lovable sociopath. And Vyv was
funny. The actor who portrayed him, Adrian Edmonson, had a genius for
physical comedy. Vyv put the slap back in slapstick.
The Young Ones emerged from the same embittered youth culture that had
produced punk rock -- it did for comedy what the Sex Pistols had done for
music. Like punk, the show reveled in its senseless fury. No one epitomized
punk's iconoclastic whimsy, its anarchic glee, like Vyvyan.
It was the contrast between his steely, no-nonsense gaze and luxuriant
pompadour that drew me in: hard-edged efficiency melded with tropical
indulgence. Steve McGarrett, as played by auteur and control freak Jack Lord,
embodied the contradictions of law enforcement in what mainlanders saw as an
"anything goes" paradise. The emotive twin of Dragnet's stolid Joe
Friday ("That's what these kids get for trying drugs"), McGarrett combined
Clint Eastwood's edginess with a West Coast sensibility: Dirty Harry
goes surfing. Viewers were even treated to tantalizing glimpses of his
personal life -- McGarrett was "a bachelor who enjoyed sailing" -- as our man
in the lei worked over various island ne'er-do-wells.
When the series debuted in 1968, I was a mere tot in Corvallis, Oregon, glued
to the black-and-white TV set while Mom and Dad spun Meet the Beatles on
the hi-fi. The psychedelic '60s, flying out of control at this point,
didn't interest me at all. Instead, it was McGarrett's staccato delivery, his
contemptuously polite way with his minions, and his general disregard for
constitutional niceties -- "Gentlemen, I want you to turn this place inside
out" -- that freed me from my parents' grad-student ranch house. McGarrett
chasing after fingerprint-less thieves (they worked in a pineapple-canning
factory); McGarrett ordering around the state's governor; McGarrett hunting
down his nemesis, Wo Fat, "a Red Chinese agent in charge of the entire
Pacific Asiatic theater." It was the world writ small, infinitely dense and
utterly exotic, yet with a strangely familiar Fleurs du mal scent. It
was both sordid and glorious, and Steve McGarrett, omniscient and unknowable,
was its lord of creation and death.
Hawaii Five-O was the last TV show I watched regularly. After McGarrett
sailed off into the sunset in 1980, why bother?
Make Room for Daddy
My life as a child bore no resemblance to what I believed to be normal --
i.e., the way people lived on television, a medium I mistook for my window on
reality. Even on TV, though, peer role models were scarce, which is why I ended
up identifying with a kid I didn't really like -- Rusty Williams, Danny
Thomas's obnoxious, freckle-faced son on Make Room for Daddy, played by
all-American, clean-cut Rusty Hamer. Series star Danny Thomas, being
ridiculously kind on the occasion of Hamer's suicide by .357 in 1990, said,
"There is no question in my mind he was the best boy actor in comedy I ever met
in my life." But it was obvious that Hamer never acted; he just delivered
smart-alecky quips he wished he'd thought of himself. And he laughed at his own
jokes -- something that real, self-scripted smart alecks did. Accidental
verisimilitude. Rusty (Williams) was a rude kid. Thomas would respond to his
stage son's smug, disrespectful retorts with bug-eyed parental histrionics,
even as his disapproval was being overruled by the laugh track. Rusty was a
know-it-all jerk, but he got away with it -- was even rewarded for it --
through 11 seasons, two mothers, and several sisters. There was obvious boyish
appeal in that.
Rin Tin Tin
The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin
You think these are the dog days of TV? Flash back to the '50s, the Golden Age
of the Canine. I'm talking Cleo, the basset hound on The People's
Choice; wire-haired Asta on the Motorola version of The Thin
Man; Bullet being upstaged by Trigger on The Roy Rogers Show; a
funny Saint Bernard on Topper -- what was his name? [Editor's note:
Neil.] But the big two had their own pooch shows, both debuting in 1954:
Lassie and The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin.
As a kid, I liked Lassie, but I didn't love him/her. The androgyny was a wee
bit confusing, and the
pettable collie was just too tail-wagging sucky, protecting frail little Timmy
and Gramps and Timmy's kindly mom. However, I adored Rin Tin Tin, that sleek,
no-nonsense, unsentimental German shepherd. The Adventures of Rin Tin
Tin was set, appropriately, in a boy's idyllic adventureland, a fort in the
Old West. The cavalry officer in charge was reliable Lieutenant Rip Masters;
hilarious comedy was provided by Sergeant Biff O'Hara; and the boy was the
fabulous, freckle-faced Rusty, who got to wear a mini-cavalry outfit and have
an honorary title: Corporal Rusty.
And Rusty set Rin Tin Tin in motion. Has TV ever again been so
glorious as at the moment when a sullen bad guy idiotically pulled a gun, or a
renegade Indian foolishly went to shoot with his bow and arrow, and Rusty
unleashed his mighty dog with the immortal command "Yo-o-o-o RINTY!!!"? Rin Tin
Tin made like Superman and flew through the air, teeth landing deep in the
wrist of the villain. The West was saved!
At the end of each episode, Rusty would get on his knees to hug his dog, and
the other series regulars would gather around in tribute. I approved, a true
believer in Rin Tin Tin's omnipotence. Years later, I met a skeptic who told
me, seriously, that he became a permanent atheist from watching The
Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. "I realized that the ridiculous way everyone
worshiped Rinty was the way everyone bowed and scraped before a supposed God,"
he told me.
Star Trek spin-offs
Star Trek, with its idealized view of the future and
temporal-anomaly-of-the-week solution to every problem, was always a bit over
the top. So it's hardly surprising that the three spin-off series (The Next
Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager) have
made an omnipotent character seem perfectly normal, even when he plays with the
universe as if it were his own little holodeck.
The playful, conniving, and mischievous Q, portrayed by John de Lancie, first
appeared in the pilot episode of The Next Generation and figured into no
more than a dozen episodes. But his whimsicality was always refreshing in a
show that leaned toward the self-serious. Q was godlike, but not quite God: he
would whisk the Enterprise from one end of the galaxy to the other with
a mere snap of his fingers, but when it came down to it, Q cared. He
sympathized with the human condition and, like all of us, he tried to
When we last saw Q, he was on Voyager, and he wanted to procreate with
Captain Janeway. She didn't go for it, which bummed out many fans. Perhaps it's
time for Q to snap his fingers and make the whole franchise rest in peace.
The scene repeats like a recurring nightmare at the beginning of every episode
of The Prisoner. A furious Patrick McGoohan -- presumably as John Drake
of his previous show, Secret Agent -- resigns from the intelligence
service. He's gassed, knocked out, and awakens in natty clothes in "the
village," a pleasant burg with the air of a lobotomized 1890s. "Who are you?"
he demands of a disembodied voice.
"You are Number Six."
"I am not a number," he roars. "I am a free man!"
I watched The Prisoner when it was first broadcast in the late '60s,
and it was the ideal program for a student in an all-male Jesuit high school.
Number 6's weekly struggle to escape, the treachery of his fellow inmates, the
sneaky omniscience of his overseers, and the attained freedom that inevitably
proves an illusion -- it all seemed a glamorous reflection of my education by
tyrannical priests, and I aspired to Number 6's persistence, his
resourcefulness, and above all, his cool. In later life, in a village that's
proved to be global, I find myself most inspired by the series's final,
apocalyptic episode, in which Number 6 learns that he is, after all, a prisoner
of his own making.
The Muppet Show
Was there ever a femme fatale like Miss Piggy? Whether karate-chopping
patients as Nurse Piggy on "Veterinarian's Hospital," sabotaging her
Swinetrek crewmates Link Hogthrob and Dr. Strangepork on "Pigs in
Space," dueling with soprano Beverly Sills in "Pigaletto," or dancing with
Rudolf Nureyev in "Swine Lake," she was the Muppets' original Material Girl.
Television hadn't seen anything like her since Edward R. Murrow sat down with
Marilyn Monroe. To be sure, there was plenty of material -- most of it foam
rubber -- and she knew how to throw her weight around. As any Muppet
Show guest foolish enough to crack a pig joke would learn: she'd run, well,
Woe betide even her beloved Kermit if he stood in her spotlight. One minute,
she'd be looking at her green prince with those huge, soulful eyes and swearing
eternal fidelity; the next, word would arrive that Hollywood was beckoning. Her
eyes would go both ways at once, her face would crinkle into a porkpie of
anguish and indecision -- but she always rose to the occasion. Her face set,
she'd look Kermit square in the eyes, chirp a bright "Bye!", and rush off to
Hollywood messed up when it didn't give her the title role in Babe, but
she hasn't wanted for invitations to make talk-show appearances or hand out
Oscars. Miss Piggy even has her own calendar. No question about it, she's TV's
It's Your Move
It's Your Move didn't last long (September 26, 1984, to August 10,
1985). Yet for a scrawny boy on the brink of adolescence 13 TV seasons ago,
Jason Bateman's Matthew Burton was a 14-year-old mentor. He wasn't athletic,
studious, or particularly good-looking. But he was smart, and he was funny, and
he could make a complete fool out of anyone. Matt spoke the wiseass thoughts I
kept bottled up; he was the genius con artist I wished I could become. And with
an insincere smile always on his face and a habit of calling adults "sir" and
"ma'am," he got away with everything (well, mostly everything) while his older
sister got punished.
There was nothing morally redeemable about It's Your Move. This
wasn't typical kiddie fare like Diff'rent Strokes, where Kimberly
learned to overcome bulimia, or Silver Spoons, where the Rickster coped
with shooting a deer. It's Your Move was perfect for a kid whose parents
took care of the don't-shoot-innocent-animals department and who turned to TV
for a laugh, not a lesson. This was a show about a snooty, cynical 14-year-old
pulling off scheme after scheme. "Men, tomorrow's the big day. Our fourth
annual term-paper sale is on," Matt announced to his band of toadies as they
prepared to make a bundle by selling papers to classmates. "We've invested a
lot of time and energy in this project. Brian, you lost your girlfriend.
Gregory here had to give up the track team. And me, well, I've lost a lot of
sleep, between track-team practice and dating Brian's old girlfriend."
The Tonight Show
Beginning when I was 13 or 14 -- when weekend bedtime had long ceased to be an
issue -- I would watch The Tonight Show as often as I could. In the
summer, virtually every night. It didn't matter who was on. Some of these
people seemed to exist only on Johnny's show and in someplace called Las Vegas:
Shecky Greene, Buddy Hackett, Don Rickles. Truman Capote seemed to be from
Mars. I couldn't believe he was a famous novelist. And there were the
juxtapositions: Rodney Dangerfield sitting next to James Mason. ("How are
you doing?" Rodney deadpanned to the British actor after one explosive
series of riffs.) For a long time, the show came from New York and was 90
minutes long (105 if you lived near an NBC affiliate that broadcast a 15-minute
11 o'clock newscast). I fell for the whole urbane party setup -- the carpeted
riser, the couch, the twinkling night sky backdrop. It was bizarrely adult, as
exotic as New York itself. Was Johnny my favorite "character"? Did I want to
be him? No. I wanted to be on his show. It was the world.
Of all the traumatic things that happened during my childhood (I was
not allowed to be a Brownie, for instance, and Russia invaded Afghanistan),
nothing moved me more deeply than the premature death, by helicopter crash, of
Colonel Henry Blake. I was a coddled four-year-old when Blake's plane went
down, and I did not understand war. But that episode (number 72) changed
everything: the way he told Radar to "behave yourself, or I'm going to come
back and kick your butt!," then the seasick faces in the OR and the
heartbreaking strains of "Suicide Is Painless" leading into the summer of 1975,
which would prove to be bleak. Henry Blake never was my favorite character --
B.J. Hunnicutt was the king of my prepubescent heart -- but his death
seemed unbearably cruel after all he had done for the sick and wounded.
After all he had done for Radar.
The full extent of this tragedy didn't sink in until years later, when McLean
Stevenson was guest-hosting Celebrity Challenge of the Sexes, and it
became clear that the writers had in fact killed Blake off on purpose
because Stevenson had wanted more money. It was like going through
the crash twice. How could the second cousin of Adlai Stevenson make
such a blind career move, when M*A*S*H would own its time slot until 1983? How,
after the bluff, collegial 4077th, could he be satisfied with Hollywood
Squares? And sometimes I still wonder why they actually killed the
man, since it wasn't required dramatically. But that was war, after all. It was
only one of the difficult lessons I took from 11 seasons in Korea, which really
was my Vietnam.
I would not suggest that Max Headroom's Edison Carter changed my life.
I was 15 when the show premiered; change was afoot regardless. But there were
certain resonances involved.
Edison Carter -- for those of you who weren't watching, which was probably
most of you, given the ratings -- was a reporter for the globe-spanning Network
23, and the human counterpart (twin? father? science fiction beggars genealogy)
to the computer-generated Max Headroom. He was tall, angular, ironic; I was
tallish, bony, and working on my irony. He flirted easily with his luminous
British assistant, Theora Jones; I flirted awkwardly with --
But what mattered was what he did on the professional side. There was never a
real TV newsman like Edison Carter; real TV reporters are cowards and idiots.
He was, instead, the embodiment of the medium's unrealized promise, an old-time
newspaper reporter freed from the constraints of deadlines and editors and
ink-onto-paper-onto-delivery-truck. He set his own agenda. Nobody asked him to
consider the advertisers' point of view. He got wind of the story and, long
coat flapping, he leaped on his motorbike and hunted it down: tracked the
sources, invaded the inner sanctums, leveled his yard-long camera at the truth,
and -- LIVE AND DIRECT -- there he was, on the airwaves, without a net,
interrupting the regularly scheduled programming to right a wrong, clear a
name, expose malefaction at the highest levels. The wicked quailed; the mighty
fell; the world watched, rapt.
That is, the fictional world watched, rapt. Out in Nielsen's America, nobody
else seemed as impressed as I was. ABC killed the show in its second season,
sticking it in a Friday-night slot that guaranteed the youth audience wouldn't
be watching. But I didn't much mind. Wrapped in my new long duster coat, I was
busy taking over the school paper.
Detective Andy Sipowicz
A drunken, racist goon with a heart of gold, Detective Andy Sipowicz (Dennis
Franz) is the moral core of the jagged cop drama NYPD Blue. Never has
such an undesirable character been so compelling a television hero. During his
tenure on the beat, Sipowicz has trampled over people's Miranda rights, berated
immigrants, gotten drunk on the job, been shot while rolling in bed with a
prostitute, called a black activist a nigger, and beaten enough suspects to
fill Riker's Island three times over. But lately he's sobered up, gotten
married to a perky assistant DA, fathered a son, lost another, befriended his
Hispanic partner, Bobby Simone (played by the comparably low-watt Jimmy Smits),
and become an investigator nonpareil. Of course, Sipowicz won't ever go totally
soft, but thanks to Franz's underrated, edgy mixture of grit and sensitivity,
you can't take your eyes off of him. Even when he's kicking the tar out of some
In high school, I used to stand in front of the mirror, practicing the
tightlipped, cockeyed smirk that David Addison (Bruce Willis) dealt out at the
end of almost every episode of Moonlighting. I don't think I ever got it
right, but it didn't keep me from trying.
The episode "My Fair David" (from the second season) was the one that sealed
it for me: "Limbo Rock" in the office, Addison following Maddie, swinging his
clasped arms like an elephant's trunk while she lectured him on office decorum.
Or maybe it was his smirking his way through the line "Doth bears beareth? Doth
bees beeth?" in a parody of The Taming of the Shrew. Either way, if all
of Addison's brilliant dialogue from the show's four-year run were collected in
one place, the narrative to my adolescence would be complete.
Maddie Hayes did nothing for me. The teased, then consummated, then failed
romance didn't even register. The cases taken on by Blue Moon were irrelevant.
All that mattered was David Addison, wisecracking his way through yet another
hour of television.
To this day, I still use that smirk.
C. Montgomery Burns
"Scourge of the weak, master of the atom," he once declared himself. Has
television ever known a character so epicly fiendish as Monty Burns,
The Simpsons' 104-year-old nuclear power plant owner with an unbridled
loathing for his fellow man?
In his unrepentant sloth, gluttony, and stupidity, Homer Simpson serves as the
comic anchor of the series. But what draws Simpsons junkies is the
show's dark side, its assumption that cynical calculation and an evil corporate
oligarchy make the world go round. Burns embodies those qualities: greed and
malice are his only principles, and they go hand in hand. As he once asked,
"What good is money if you can't inspire terror in your fellow man?"
Bony and beak-nosed, with those trademark liver spots on his bald crown,
Burns is a bottomless well of villainy. His rage brings sudden lightning and
thunder to a clear sky, or draws booming strains of the Darth Vader theme. His
tools of oppression are limitless: a troop of ruthless lawyers, a network of
hidden cameras; trap doors, poisoned doughnuts, bloodthirsty hounds; an army of
flying monkeys. All are marshaled against those who stand in the way of his
accumulation of money and power.
"Well, sir, you've certainly vanquished all your enemies," his faithful
lickspittle, Wayland Smithers, once said after a particularly ruthless Burns
offensive, "-- the elementary school, the local tavern, the old-age home
. . . "
It was Burns who tried to shroud Springfield in permanent darkness so as to
make the town desperately reliant on his nuclear energy, declaring that "since
the beginning of time, man has yearned to destroy the sun." It was Burns who
once sought to troll the oceans and "recycle" aquatic life into a delicious,
marketable "slurry." And it was Burns, inevitably, who actually tried -- and
failed -- to steal candy from a baby.
Burns may be so fascinating because, for all his excesses, he's not all that
unrealistic. We suspect that a lot of Burnsian characters populate the
boardrooms of America. As if to prove the point, conservative groups have
actually complained that the show unfairly demonizes big business and nuclear
power. As Burns is wont to say: Excellent.
The Brady Bunch
Anytime Cousin Oliver's pudgy mug made an appearance on The Brady
Bunch, a cloud descended over my television time. I hated Oliver. It wasn't
only that he was a jinx prone to snoring. It was that he was just so damn
pathetic. The Dorothy Hamill haircut, the thick glasses, that pig squeal of a
voice . . . you couldn't watch the guy without squirming in
embarrassment. Never mind that he started a dangerous trend in family sitcoms:
when the show begins to age, bring in a baby/cousin/orphan/street kid to boost
ratings. Today I have only to catch a rerun of Diff'rent Strokes with
that little hick Sam, and I feel the Oliver bile rise in my throat.
I think the real problem was that I felt Oliver's pain a little too
acutely. I had a snoring problem when I was a kid. My haircut wasn't so hot. I
was a bit of a klutz. My adoptive family hated me. Oliver ruined the show's
escapist factor for me, and drove me to drastic measures. Whenever an Oliver
episode came on, I would go read a book until Three's Company began.
Actually, Mrs. Columbo is probably my favorite TV character of all time. As
far as I know, she never appeared on an episode of Columbo, but she
always came up at just the right moment, giving Peter Falk that crucial
opportunity to scratch his head self-consciously and ask the one last seemingly
harmless question that inevitably caught the murderer off guard. And that's
what was so great about Columbo himself: his lack of pretense, his bumbling
appearance, the fact that he seemed to be more interested in digging up a piece
of trivia for his wife than in grilling a possible suspect. No, he didn't carry
a gun, and God help him if he ever had to chase a criminal on foot or in his
broken-down car. He was Poirot without pretense, Sipowicz minus the bad temper.
And -- who knows? -- maybe the Lieutenant wasn't even really married. Maybe it
was all a ruse. Now that would be brilliant. And I wouldn't put it past
Barney and Friends
The purple blob got me during a fallow period in my life, a summer when I had
cable and wasn't paying rent and didn't have a damn thing else to do every
morning at 10 a.m. Barney-bashers were a dime a dozen in 1993, but how many of
them really understood? I still hear echoes of his dreadfully adenoidal
voice, the saccharine squeak of Baby Bop, the syllabically inept songs set to
popular nursery tunes. Every day, a roster of woebegone child actors outgrowing
their preschool set mouthed lines in hypnotized thrall to that vacuous foam
lizard, spewer of platitudes and bad advice (the answer to "Barney, how do our
Native American friends make tambourines?" is not "With paper plates and
macaroni"). Parents were right to worry about Barney; the show was pandering,
intellectually spongy, and terrifyingly addictive. I escaped in the end by
yielding to the various social pressures that push a 23-year-old to do
something more productive with his mornings. I only hope the millions of little
conscripts in Barney's army made their own getaways.