Have you ever thought about why you watch certain television shows?
Is it the overall concept of the show, or is it one particular star that is the drawing card?
For example, would you have watched “All in the Family” without Archie Bunker?
Personally, I feel it is the individual talent of an actor or actress that can carry a program, no matter how weak the material in question may be.
“All in the Family,” during its 1971-79 heyday on CBS, would be a prime example. Some of the plot lines were extremely predictable — and, at times, even lame — but we all knew the lovable bigot, Archie (portrayed by Carroll O’Connor), would say something outlandish at some point. Would you have tuned in knowing only Edith, Mike and Gloria were featured? Likely not.
Here are five other examples of this point, illustrating how one particular personality can uplift what might otherwise have been a rather pedestrian program at best. I tried to select the following from different eras of the past 70 years of prime-time television:
Donna Mills: She played the extraordinary — and often scandalous — Abby Fairgate-Cunningham-Ewing-Sumner (1979-83) on the popular “Knots Landing” prime-time CBS soap opera.
In 2012 I wrote, “No one, absolutely no one, rocked eye shadow and the messy-hair look like Abby, who was this marvelous combination of vixen and corporate sleuth.”
As Abby’s character developed in particular, “Knots Landing” became destination TV every Thursday night for more than a decade. Was it the overall concept of the show and its vast cast of characters that made it a ratings hit. Or was it simply Mills, and what she would try and do next?
In three succinct words, long live Abby! Without her, and the development of her character, “Knots Landing” would have been little more than a footnote in TV history.
Gene Barry: Barry was the star of “Bat Masterson” in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Barry portrayed Bartholomew William Barclay “Bat” Masterson, a formidable figure in the old west. Barry’s tongue-in-cheek and wink-of-the-eye interpretation helped draw a sizable network audience and offset some of the almost-comic story lines.
Masterson, who in real life had been a U.S. Army scout, lawman, professional gambler and journalist, was highly glamorized on the TV program.
So did the subject matter or Barry/Masterson himself appeal most to the audience?
Another easy one.
Barry later used that same debonair lawman charm he won audiences with on “Bat Masterson” to foster other hit shows like “Amos Burke” and “The Name of the Game,” which also offered minimalistic scripts that Barry was able to turn into ratings success stories.
James Spader: There is one reason and one reason only “Blacklist” has been on the air since 2013. The popular NBC show’s sometimes-outrageous story lines involving governmental conduct are both saved and even uplifted by Spader’s eccentric portrayal of scoundrel Raymond “Red” Reddington.
Would I even watch “Blacklist” without Spader in the fold? Nope.
Jason Alexander: “Seinfeld” is arguably the finest overall show in TV history, thanks in part to Jerry Seinfeld himself and the erratic Cosmo Kramer, portrayed by Michael Richards. But the soul of the show was always the neurotic George Costanza (Jason Alexander), who on occasion was described as “short, stocky and slow-witted” — all very accurate.
We always knew what we were getting when Jerry and Kramer were on the screen, but what might follow George was usually a surprise. And that’s why he, and not Jerry, Kramer or Elaine, represented the true north of “Seinfeld” and its dominance of 1990s network television.
Cole Hauser: He represents the new generation of small-screen stars with his portrayal of Rip Wheeler on the Paramount Network blockbuster “Yellowstone.” Wheeler is more than a cowhand in the modern-day western, he is the protector of the Dutton family empire. He’s a good guy who does (plenty of) bad things when needed.
Over the course of the show’s first three seasons, Hauser’s character has gradually risen to superstar status. “Rip is what we’d like to think a real-life hero is, and that is why he is the most dynamic and compelling character on ‘Yellowstone’ right now,” writes Sly Sanchez of Entertainment Weekly.
While “Yellowstone” is quality television with or without Rip Wheeler/Cole Hauser, he is what elevates the program to must-see status. He fills the same role as Donna Mills, Gene Barry, Jason Alexander and James Spader did — or is doing — for their successful series.