What does it mean when we say a television character has “integrity”?
According to an online dictionary, it could mean “The quality of being honest and having principles that you refuse to change.”
That will suffice, yet it’s more than that. It’s someone you can trust to do the right thing. It’s not just having principles but how someone expresses them, and how he or she interacts with those that do not. But even that doesn’t fully capture why those who personify this trait are held in such high esteem. “I know it when I see it” was how one Supreme Court justice defined pornography. Integrity is like that as well. There is no mistaking it. To me it’s always been one of the most admirable qualities a person can possess.
It is not a word I hear much anymore, perhaps because many of the public figures that once personified that trait no longer do so. But when I was growing up it seemed like all of television’s most popular shows had at least one character that one could point to and say with confidence, that’s what integrity looks like.
So, fellow classic TV fan, who comes to mind when you hear that word?
For ne that path leads first to law enforcement. Sgt. Joe Friday on Dragnet; Eliot Ness in The Untouchables; Detective Adam Flint on Naked City; Officer Pete Malloy on Adam-12; Marshal Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke; Detective Sergeant Chad Smith on The Smith Family – all of them personified integrity in how they performed a vital societal function. And when you watched those shows and those characters, you sensed that this was an intrinsic quality they brought to their profession, rather than something instilled by their training.
I’ve made this point before but in this piece it bears repeating – showcasing such characters to an audience of millions was part of the responsibility once accepted by network executives that supervised program schedules.
I would not be surprised if there were creators then who pitched shows about a vigilante with a badge, or an antihero whose personal character flaws clashed with his effectiveness as a policeman. But the Code of Practice for Television Broadcasters dictated that, “Criminality shall be presented as undesirable and unsympathetic. The condoning of crime and the treatment of the commission of crime in a frivolous, cynical or callous manner is unacceptable.” Such characters would thus always either repent or face justice themselves. Not to do so would have sent the wrong message.
Such guidelines may now seem restrictive, but the shows they shepherded are still watched, still remembered, and are still being discovered by generations raised on less flattering portrayals of authority figures.
The next exemplar for me is Hays Stowe, as portrayed by Hal Holbrook on The Bold Ones: The Senator.
His politics did not always align with mine, yet I probably would have voted for him, because he was a public servant of profound integrity who earned and deserved the admiration of those he opposed. This series of clips shows why.
What attributes come through from those moments, outside of just how good Holbrook was with smart material? For me it’s a reminder that real integrity is quiet. Not silent, but calm and measured. That’s how you present an argument, and it will always be far more effective that the people you see in protests now on TV, destroying other people’s property and screaming their outrage with maniacal expressions. They do nothing to advance their cause.
Integrity is not a trait limited to authority figures, though that is where it is most often found on television. Doctors like Marcus Welby, lawyers like Perry Mason and Lawrence Preston, teachers like John Novak. But Jed Clampett had more integrity than Mr. Drysdale, and even Jan Brady showed a moment of integrity in “Her Sister’s Shadow,” when she sacrifices a school award that she did not deserve because of a grading error.
Sometimes that quality shines through but with some characters its suitability could make for an interesting discussion. One would expect the starship commanders on the various Star Trek series to have it, but all of them violated the Prime Directive, their most sacrosanct regulation. Does it take more integrity to adhere to it, or to ignore it when deemed necessary?
I can’t list all of the characters that brought integrity to the classic TV era, because that would require a very long piece – and how good that feels recognizing that television gave us so many positive role models when there were just three networks – far more, certainly, than are presently available on so many more.
Or am I wrong? Given my preference for television’s past it would be easy to say that integrity is in shorter supply now, but I don’t know that for sure because I’m not watching today’s scripted series. What I do know is that television reflects popular culture, and culture currently seems to extend its sympathy only to those who lack the qualities once prized, while those with principles once admired are now viewed as rigid, intolerant, reactionary.
History teacher Pete Dixon on Room 222 was a man with great integrity – do any of the teachers on Abbott Elementary share that trait?
Someone else will have to answer that. But I hope that’s the case, and I’d feel better knowing it was true. Television is not the mass medium it used to be, but it can still motivate someone onto a better path through one positive example.