Characters matter

I admit it – I am SUCH a 70’s pop culture kid. I was reading at three and watching TV soon after, and my memories of that time are rooted in the TV that I watched. Our TV may have picked up all three networks, but other than a precious few comedies (like Laverne and Shirley), we were definitely a CBS family, courtesy of our local station, the broadcasting behemoth that was KDKA.

I remember so many shows from that era – the humor-through-atrocity of M*A*S*H, the dry, pointed humor of Bob Newhart, the sweetness and familiarity of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the close-to-home family politics of All in the Family, and the comedy genius of The Carol Burnett Show. It was a time where we’d hear the familiar “This… CBS” dozens of times in a week. (Of course, after the cancellation of Guiding Light, I have two other words I’ve prefaced the word “CBS” with.)

But perhaps my favorite was a tall woman with a deep voice. She sounded like a few women in my neighborhood, and dressed like them too. But there was something different, something completely captivating about this Maude Findlay.

Maude – and Maude – was one-of-a-kind, and the woman who portrayed her, Bea Arthur, passed away today at 86.

Maude Findlay was an obvious role model for gay men like me who came of age watching her (and her successor, Dorothy Zbornak of The Golden Girls). She was a woman who wanted to be shoulder to shoulder with the men, but they never knew quite what to make of her. She was shoulder to shoulder in a way that threatened them, and her height and voice made her stand out. (Been there, read that book, saw that movie AND have that T-shirt.)

Arthur’s comedic timing was a joy to watch.

I’ll miss Arthur. I also miss Maude, and it made me think about how much I miss characters. We’ve really walked away from giving characters their own quirks, oddities and endearments in daytime and primetime. A character like Maude would never in a million years make it onto broadcast TV today. There are some fantastic shows with singular characters (like Mad Men, Damages, and Big Love, to name three) but those shows live on cable.

There’s been a real homogenization of the fictional characters we see on TV in the last 10 to 15 years. Many of the characters we do see are stock characters like cops, doctors and public servants. They’re played by talented actors, but they’re mostly there to serve the plot.

I’ll be the first to admit that most of the prime time shows I watch – Grey’s Anatomy, Castle and Brothers & Sisters – are shows that, despite solid acting and writing, are filled with characters who have their edges sanded off. It’s a group of characters who are mostly white, who don’t have to worry about money or a place to live, and who deal with drama that is primarily self-inflicted.

Well rounded, unique characters are like unforgettable friends. I miss Nola Reardon, and Mac Cory, Phoebe Wallingford and Marco Dane, Eugene Bradford and Lisa Miller. (Yes, I said I miss her – we never see her!) I miss Sally Spectra and Mason Capwell and Julia Wainwright and Augusta Lockridge and, hell, let’s just say it, the whole damn cast of Santa Barbara, where characters lived and were welcome.

It’s not like we don’t have interesting characters on-screen now. We do see some real characters, mostly veterans. When ATWT lets Elizabeth Hubbard out to play as the magnificent Lucinda Walsh, daytime gets a dose of one of its most well-rounded characters. But too often, writers and shows think that “quirky and memorable” means “homicidal and/or criminal.” We end up rooting for someone’s who’s completely cracked or been pushed over the edge (paging Annie Dutton and Phyllis Newman to the Solitary Wing, please!)

I’m sure TPTB are influenced by reality shows and the current state of pop culture, which is filled with bland, blond imbeciles who get attention for falling down drunk in public sans underwear.  That’s why we’re seeing vapid vampires like Melanie on Days and Stacy “Fiasco” Morasco on OLTL siphoning airtime from more relatable people that we’d like to see.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – I want to see imperfect people. I want to see Democrats and Republicans, people who smoke and curse and say inappropriate things, people that aren’t always poltically correct – but who are still likeable characters we can see ourselves in. People like Maude Findley.

People like us.

One thought on “Characters matter

  1. Great post, Patrick. Pop culture isn’t what it used to be. I guess that’s why I still live in the 60s, 70s and 80s. And I want to see more imperfect people on television as well (although I think “The Office” and “30 Rock” have some very entertaining but politically incorrect characters).

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