Monday, April 27, 2009

Thank her for being a friend

I was away from the computer for most of the weekend, so by the time I was in a position to write anything about the death of Bea Arthur, it felt like the moment had passed. Fortunately, plenty of other TV pundit types provided their own thoughtful takes, including my friend Joe Adalian, who just started up his own blog at TVWeek. Joe offers up five lessons modern TV could learn from Arthur, and I give a particular amen to this one:
2. Broadcasters are making a big mistake not developing shows starring older people. Yes, "The Golden Girls" represented a hard-to-replicate chemistry of amazing actresses and sharp writers (including, of course, Marc Cherry). But the show's huge popularity when first on NBC, and its continued cult following today, indicate younger audiences judge shows by the content of their scripts, not the age of their actors.

With comedies still struggling on the networks, broadcasters need to start coming up with concepts that aren't on the air. Old folks on comedies don't exist in primetime, even, amazingly, on CBS. I'm with James Poniewozik over at Tuned In: Bring on the geezers!
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: "Friends," as popular as it was, and as good as it could be at times, really wrecked the sitcom because it convinced every programmer that they had to fill their comedies with young and attractive people, regardless of whether they were funny.

UPDATE: I should also point you to Linda Holmes' piece at NPR about that brief period in the mid-late '80s when sitcoms were full of "broads" like Bea Arthur.


Rachel said...

I adored Golden Girls growing up and still find myself watching a rerun once in awhile. And Joe is right about the theme song -- I love it!

Stephanie said...

I read all of Joe's points, but I have to agree with number 2 the most. When Golden Girls first started, I was just hitting my teenage years, theoretically a time in my life when a show about a group of older, retired women living in Florida would be of little interest.

But I loved it. What's more, it was a show I watched WITH MY PARENTS. It was like an extension of our family dinners. We all sat down together to watch and we all laughed at the same jokes. Two different generations appreciating the same show. I would think with the increased competition for TV viewers, networks would be salivating over the chance to capture two demographics like that.

But then, I don't know that I truly understand the inner workings of TV studios.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Alan, for pointing us to Joe's column. He echoes one of the points that's been made here about the importance of a good theme song to create the right mood.

If you watch the first few episodes of "Golden Girls," it's evident that Sophia's character was conceived as a minor one-joke device. (They also had a gay cook for similar purposes.)

Estelle Getty was so good, that they made her almost an equal player and gave her a lot of the smart aleck lines that might have gone to Dorothy.

With Sophia's emergence, and a never-ending barrage of Mae West jokes for Blanche and Gracie Allen lines for Rose, it seemed almost certain that Dorothy would be consigned to the role of traffic cop.

It's happened to excellent actors on other excellent shows--colorful side players emerge and the lead ends up as a static centerpoint around which the other characters shine.

But it didn't happen to Bea Arthur. While the comedy was much easier with the other three, she often got the show's biggest laughs.

Perhaps her theatre experience playing colorful side characters to stars like Angela Lansbury gave her the skills to be a type of scoring point guard.

James Poniewozik said...

Mitch Hurwitz, formerly a writer on The Golden Girls, originally conceived of Arrested Development with much older characters. (IIRC, he envisioned Jeffrey Tambor as Michael Bluth.) Quickly realized that was not going to be practical on Fox.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Yeah, they would not have bought that show.

Amazingly, there used to be a prejudice against young and attractive people in comedies. I believe the "Cheers" producers had to fight to cast Woody Harrelson to succeed the late Nick Colasanto. The network just wanted another old guy, and thought audiences wouldn't find someone in his 20s funny.

Anonymous said...

I am still struggling to fempute this news.

melarol said...

I would also add a lesson about the importance of real female friendships on TV. It's frustrating that women are often only defined by their "will they or won't they" relationships with men. That's important but I also feel that female connections are often lacking on network TV. I see glimmers of it with Robin and Lily or Liz and Jenna but I feel like there could be more.

R.I.P Bea

Denis said...

I don't know how many other PBS stations are show this, but the one up in Boston has been showing New Tricks from Britain and I am really enjoying it. It's a pretty simple set-up. 3 Retired Cops brought back to solve unsolved cases. All 3 of them are in their 60s and their commanding officer is in her 40s. I guess it does incredibly well over there. We've gotten 4 seasons shown over here and I think there are a few more. But I can only imagine if someone tried to sell it to a network over here.

Anonymous said...

Oh, yes, my PBS shows New Tricks, too, and I enjoy it.

It's not just older people that today's TV shows are lacking; good, strong female characters are lacking, too. And as melarol said, female friendships are just not out there. The Golden Girls were allowed and expected to date. But today, if a woman dates a lot of men she's probably seen as a slut. Golden Girls episodes sometimes never contained men or only briefly contained them. That would never happen today. It's depressing how we've moved backwards.

Elena said...

I too watched Golden Girls and it was on when I was in my late teens. The whole family watched, and I enjoyed it, unlike some other shows my parents watched (think Lawrence Welk) which caused me to abandon the tube for alternate pursuits (probably a healthy thing).

Here in the Seattle area, we also get New Tricks, and it is a good show. Another one to check out is Doc Martin (also PBS out of England), with a middle-aged lead and a few strong older supporting cast members (Auntie Joan and Bert Large).

Unknown said...

"Friends," as popular as it was, and as good as it could be at times, really wrecked the sitcom because it convinced every programmer that they had to fill their comedies with young and attractive people, regardless of whether they were funny."Friends came at the time when the Nielsen ratings not just shows how many people were watching but who were watching, and started the obsession with the 18 - 34 viewership as if they are the only people who matter to advertisers. That's why a show like NCIS can get twice the viewership of House or three times that of Sara Connor Chronicles and not be considered a top show, because it doesn't win the demographic.

I think it's very stupid; young people are paying off debts and starting families while many people 50+ are comfortably off.

Not only shows with older characters were lost but also shows with sharp, witty writing. There are few shows today as well written as Maude or Golden Girls even if there were actress like Bea Arthur to deliver the lines.

Niffer said...

I was away for the weekend and missed a lot of news. I had no idea Bea Arthur had died! :(

I, too, started watching Golden Girls when I was a teenager, and I LOVED it! I would watch it with my grandmother and I remember laughing so hard I had tears. It is a shame we don't have more shows like that.