Sunday, June 23, 2013

Reflections on Tony Soprano – and Mr. Rogers

The sad and sudden passing of James Gandolfini prompted many commentators to proclaim his most renowned character, Tony Soprano, as the greatest television character ever created. Was this merely understandable hyperbole under the circumstances, or will they still believe this to be true in six months, after the shock of Gandolfini’s death has passed?

The Sopranos is a series that would never be covered on Comfort TV. Watching it was often about as uncomfortable as television viewing gets, surpassed only in total squirm-in-your-seat moments by Dexter, American Horror Story and Pink Lady and Jeff

It was certainly an impressive show, however, and I do believe that the name Tony Soprano will be familiar to TV fans for many generations to come. But the greatest TV character ever? I don’t think so. But I also don’t have another contender that immediately comes to mind.

There are two ways to look at this query – the first is to assess only the attributes of the character that made him or her memorable, and the talent utilized to bring that character to life. That takes into account not only the quality of the actor’s performance, but also that of the series’ writers and directors, and how consistently all of them retained a high standard  throughout the run of the show.

How many television characters have been compelling from first episode to last? How many seemed to represent something unique and exciting, rather than just another TV cop, doctor, housewife, secret agent etc.?

That’s going to be a short list, and Tony Soprano would be on it, along with Mary Richards, Archie Bunker, Dr. Richard Kimble, Captain James T. Kirk, Emma Peel, Matt Dillon, Lucy Ricardo and Buffy Summers.

But there’s a second way to approach the question, and that’s by measuring the influence that a television character had beyond the fictional world in which he/she appeared. Greatness, I believe, has a lot to do with lives transformed and a positive impact on others.

So now we must also consider TV’s role models, those that idealized a profession in such a way as to steer younger viewers to emulate their career path. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor decided to become a lawyer because she was inspired by Perry Mason. NASA is filled with scientists and astronauts that grew up watching Star Trek. Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut, believed she might one day make it to outer space because of Lt. Uhura.

Nichelle Nichols (left), who portrayed Lt. Uhura on Star Trek, and astronaut Mae Jemison

And that brings us to Fred Rogers, and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. He was a daily presence on television for 33 years; most of them in a pre-cable era when few children’s shows aired on weekdays other than those on PBS. He communicated with multiple generations of millions of kids, and we’ll never know how many of them were comforted by his benevolent words and gentle support. 

I’m not just talking about children of divorce, or the abused kids who really needed an encouraging friend. I think about all the kids who were lonely, or ostracized because of their race or religion or how they looked. Perhaps they were too short or tall, too thin or overweight, a little slower to learn, or they just didn’t fare as well in the DNA lottery as their more popular and attractive classmates. For these children, every day at school was a reminder of what they were not.

So how do we measure the solace provided to so many by a soft-spoken neighbor who reminded them that they are special, and they can be liked just for who they are? How many kids grew up to be better parents by remembering the lessons he taught?

Fred Rogers made television a better place to visit, and no one before or since has established a more enduring bond with his audience from opposite sides of the screen. With all due respect to Tony Soprano, that’s how I measure greatness.  

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