Thursday, May 20, 2021

Which Comfort TV Characters Did You Emulate?


Television had a much greater influence on its viewing audience back in the era where there were just three networks, and everyone was watching the same shows.


One way this manifested itself is in presenting characters that viewers admired, and perhaps tried to emulate.


We’ve all heard stories of attorneys that grew up watching Perry Mason, or astronauts whose fascination with science and space originated with Star Trek. But I’m not thinking about something as profound as a choice of career. By emulate I mean recognizing habits or personality traits in a character that you may lack in your life, and making a conscious effort to be more like that character.


Maybe Pete Dixon on Room 222 inspired you to read more American history. Perhaps Ann Marie’s continual succession of colorful, stylish outfits on That Girl inspired you to upgrade your wardrobe.


The Waltons might have motivated you to complain less about not being able to afford that new car just yet. Maybe you noticed how the Addams Family pay little heed to how the outside world views their eccentricities, and feel more confident in just being yourself. Remembering a life lesson taught by a sitcom dad may help you handle a similar situation with your own kids.


I think these scenarios happen a lot – or at least they did back in the day. And as I look back on my own life I can recall four television characters that at one time exerted some influence on the person I wanted to be. They have very little in common with each other, but perhaps that isn’t unusual since our priorities tend to change, as we get older. Sadly all of these attempts save one were doomed to failure, but I got close with one and am still trying with one of the others.


Hawkeye Pierce


I was still in elementary school when this show debuted, and at that time it was clear to me that the troublemakers and kids who talked back to teachers were also the students scraping by with a ‘D’ average. Hawkeye was intriguing because he had the same open contempt for authority that the kids in detention showed, but he was also really good at what he did. You don’t get to be a doctor, much less a surgeon, much less someone who can adapt his skills on the fly to perform lifesaving procedures under perilous conditions, without being an outstanding student and knowing your stuff. 



So I found that mix of being cocky yet more than competent to be appealing, and it tied into my own natural tendency to diffuse situations with humor. But as I grew older my politics diverged sharply from Hawkeye’s, though not to the extent that I morphed into Frank Burns. At least I hope not.



Happy Days

This one was short-lived, and shared by many, until we all realized that no one could ever be that cool, at least by how that term was defined in the show. And in my junior high and high school years I was well behind the curve already.


When we wanted to emulate The Fonz it wasn’t about donning a leather jacket or trying to turn a jukebox on with a well-placed punch. What made the character impressive is how he projected a steadfast self-confidence, both with girls and with bullies, and got what he wanted without having to prove why he deserved it. In the real world such qualities are forged through struggle; when you find yourself in a desperate situation you either get tough or you don’t survive. Indeed, the references to Fonzie’s childhood and his absentee father suggest that’s how he attained his elite cool status. Like Richie Cunningham, my comfortable suburban upbringing did not require that extra steel in my backbone. 



Lou Grant

Lou Grant

Not the Lou Grant who drank too much after another day of dealing with third-place ratings and Ted Baxter. He was a lot of fun and certainly admirable as well. But when the character spun off into a drama set at the Los Angeles Tribune, every episode of that series taught me what it means to be a journalist, every bit as much as the journalism teachers I had in high school and college (and I had some good ones). It didn't inspire my career choice - I was writing for the school newspaper in junior high - but it made me a lot better at it.


I’ll resist the urge to launch into another tirade about the woeful state of journalism in its present condition. I can’t do anything about that. But I can continue to abide by the lessons Lou stressed to his reporters – objectivity, fact checking, on-the-record sources, and a level of professionalism that brings honor to oneself and one’s trade. I owe Mr. Grant and Mr. Asner a lot. 



Mr. French

Family Affair

It’s not that at this stage of my life I desire to be a butler (or, as French would clarify, “Gentlemen’s gentleman.” What I find so remarkably admirable about him is that he is a man of infinite patience, while I have almost none. In fact it’s one of my worst character traits, though I tried to justify that outlook with this piece I wrote a few years ago.


In “The Unsinkable Mr. French” he has one of those days that we all seem to have, in which he has responsibilities relating to an upcoming important occasion, and everything possible goes wrong. The climax has this proud man collapsing into a cake in front of a group of distinguished guests, and even in that mortifying moment he never loses his self-control. French faces down similar challenges in episodes like “Marooned” and “Mr. French’s Holiday” and never forsakes his dignity.



He also takes pride in the performance of his daily tasks, but is humble in accepting praise. He is always well dressed and well groomed. I wish I had his patience and impeccable manners. Instead, all I’m getting is his waistline.


What classic TV characters did you emulate? Did any of their positive attributes take root, or did those attempts last as long as a New Year’s resolution?


No comments:

Post a Comment