Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#16, September 30, 1998


by Marylaine Block

As I watched the Emmy Awards last weekend, I was struck by how many of those “top ten TV moments” were farewell episodes of long-lasting series -— M.A.S.H., Mary Tyler Moore, All in the Family. These episodes were also among the highest-rated shows of all time.

It suggests that the people in these series were real to us, and beloved, like members of our own family might be if they had better scriptwriters.

If we loved them, it might be because we met them in our own living room. They lived with us, and Ward Cleaver was a kind of adjunct Dad, or maybe even a substitute for one who wasn’t there.

I suspect this is why series revolving around nasty people don’t last very long. The critics loved Buffalo Bill, but we hated it. He was funny, all right, but mean, and that hard edge didn’t wear well, especially not in our own homes.

But the thing that made our favorite TV shows real to us, I think, is the unique feature of the television series: the people in them change and grow over time. Just like us.

Look at the pilot episode of any show you’ve watched for years and it will seem astoundingly shallow to you. It’s an introduction, of course, in which the writers quickly sketch in the situation and the characters. They are introduced as stock characters with just a few defining features: spunky heroine, tough guy boss, vain, stupid newscaster.

But because it is a series, new things happen every week. The characters react to events in their situational world -- the death of Chuckles the Clown, Edith’s cancer. But they also react to each other in odd and unpredictable ways. The shows reflect the same kinds of shifting alliances we see in our own families or at work. Characters irritate each other, fall in love and back out again. They have family crises, and mothers who won’t believe they’re grown up yet. Just like us, in fact.

The actors are always trying to understand their characters’ motivations and make their behavior consistent. They add quirks and gestures, adjust the lines to fit the characters better. The way the actors play the characters, and the way they react to each other, give the writers new script ideas. Since nobody is going to agree to play Ted Baxter forever as he was originally drawn, the actor and the writers had to modulate Ted, make him a tad less fatuous, a bit more poignant, a lot more human.

A really good show has likable people, who enjoy each other, who have interesting things happen to them, and who change over time. You look forward to seeing what’s new with them. And they’re in your living room every week, maybe even five days a week if the show gets syndicated.

That sure sounds like a family to me.

I wonder if these fantasy families become even more urgently important in our lives if our own families are falling apart. I wonder about the children of divorce, the kids whose parents throw things at each other and beat them up, the latchkey children who come home to an empty house and turn on the tube for company.

Do you think the Brady Bunch and the Partridge Family and the Cleavers might have become their “real” families? The ones that kept them sane, gave them hope, made them see that people who love each other could work things out with just good will and words?

When these families leave us, is it surprising that we turn on the TV in record numbers to be there at their farewell party? We’ve come to know everything about these people -- except what will happen to them, and us, when they leave forever.

I think the Emmy people were right. The farewell shows were great moments in TV history. And in ours.

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