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Trump Card Turns to Joker if Used Too Often
February 23, 2011  | By Tom Brinkmoeller

When a good pitcher relies too often on his best pitch and telegraphs its delivery, that fast ball, curve or slider loses much of its effectiveness. The same loss can happen on TV comedies when the people in power -- writers, producers, network executives -- play too often to a popular character's quirkiness.

Consider the cases of Alex P. Keaton and Jack Donaghy.

Alex was, of course, the Family Ties character played to Emmy-winning level by Michael J. Fox, while Jack has been an Emmy-winning role on 30 Rock for Alec Baldwin.

These two exceptional actors share other distinctions. From 1982 to 1989, Fox's character won deserved attention as the ultraconservative son of two once-hippie parents. His idol worship of Nixon, Agnew, Reagan and Bush and his fierce devotion to capitalism became primary ingredients of the series. Since 2006, Baldwin has been playing a later-issue version of the same red-state, blue-chip male.

And both, it can be argued, have had those roles painted into corners by over-reliance on caricature.


Family Ties took on some really serious subjects over its seven seasons, handling them with class. Now that the series is running again on the Hub channel's prime-time schedule (Monday-Thursday at 10 and 10:30 p.m. ET), re-watching more than two decades later proves its quality level endures. And the flaws seem just as bad. Whether audiences demanded stories be punctuated by broad strokes of Alex's conservatism, or whether that was a perception of the show's makers, those lines pop up regularly to seem as out-of-place as a saxophone solo in a Mozart concerto.

Similar things happen on 30 Rock. Clever and creative dialogue, delivered by any number of characters, will be building the story in a fun way until the script gives Donaghy a pin-striped line from the right that trips up the tempo. It happens often enough to make one think the writers rely on the same old shortcut again rather than keep trying for a truly fresh alternative.

Whether it's Keaton in the '80s or Donaghy next Thursday, there seems an implied obligation to toss in the character's cliches so viewers don't feel cheated. In reality, leaning on those crutches is a cheat in itself. Actors generally like to expand their characters, and people who love good television love when that happens. Even though characters like Klinger on M*A*S*H, Cliff on Cheers and Phoebe of Friends were created as easy-laugh gimmicks, each developed other sides that delivered nice payoffs.

Left unchecked, television grows cliches like weeds -- even on classy lawns like 30 Rock and Family Ties.

Now you take a turn: Let's hear which series you think let themselves and you down by playing too much to a single breakout character's quirks.




Sherman said:

This is an interesting thesis, but can be a tough nut to crack especially based on your examples for consideration.

I enjoy both shows (I actually attended a taping of Family Ties in 1987), but the over-quirkiness is based on tensions inherent in the odd couple setups. Alex P. Keaton was the antithesis of his liberal parents and the underlying theme of that show was that love/blood is thicker than water/greed/self-interest. The greater his initial (within each episode) selfishness, the greater the redemption by each show's conclusion.

On 30 Rock, the creators don't pretend to strive for redemption, or any character development, and of course there's Odd-Coupling all over the place, especially in the Liz-Jack pairing. Every character on that show could equally be accused of over-quirkiness, and in fact I'm surprised that Kenneth wasn't the character you singled out.

But to go with your theory, it's a lot easier to feed into the audience frenzy in front of an actual live audience (as opposed to filmed/edited show). Think of any appearance of Rerun, Schneider or even Fonzie. We loved the characters but writers milked it for everything they could.

As for modern shows, Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory (yet another Odd Couple derivative) qualifies. The writers have had to pull out all the stops to keep it from becoming The Sheldon Show. (And Sheldon's clinical, detached attitude causes me pause to wonder if he's identical to Bones' Tempe Brennan.)

But the one who takes the cake is Charlie Sheen, because he's, uh, oh waitaminnit, he's the actor, not a TV character...

Comment posted on February 24, 2011 10:21 PM

Tom Brinkmoeller said:


A very smart person who works for a very smart show recently wrote to me, after reading some TVWW reader responses, "What an articulate and erudite following Dave has!"

Your thought-out, insightful response is the kind of dialogue we who love this site have come to almost take for granted. I'm so lucky to be among those writing for such amazingly smart readers.

Reading what you wrote is a chance for me to expand my thoughts on a subject I labored far too hard over, hoping to make a point.The idea began when I had finished watching a three-part "Family Ties" in which Steven Keaton, the father, almost dies from a heart attack. It was an example of a serious subject given a wonderful exposition during a 1980s "Family Hour" time segment that too many were filling with fluff. Comic relief is necessary in such contexts, but when the relief duty moved to Alex, too often the writers gave him what I call Looney Tunes dialogue.

It waylaid the redemptive ending you spoke of, in my opinion.

I know I couldn't write for a sitcom. It's a skill, and, when done well, is an art. And I picked two fabulous programs as examples. It's when the series is a fabulous one, however, that the imperfections stand out even more.

Comment posted on February 25, 2011 10:50 AM

Sean Dougherty said:

What you're describing isn't the overuse of fastballs. I'd agree with you if there a single joke - what you're referring to is character.

The most famous example is from radio - Jack Benny telling Jack Pearl, who played Baron Munchausen - not to use his "Vas You Dere Sharlie?" catchphrase every week or it would lose impact. He didn't and the show was cancelled, and Pearl was never as successful ever again.

Benny, of course, rotated his running gags over whole seasons and even years (Buck Benny Rides Again took a 7-year hiatus at one point, for example) so even when he re-used gags like the racetrack tout, his French violin teacher, the Maxwell, attempts to romance guest stars, etc. it always seemed fresh.

What you're arguing is the same as saying that Jack Benny shouldn't have used his "cheap" character so frequently. What's important is that he used that character trait in so many novel ways over his 33-year broadcast career.

Cheap is who that character was, just like Jack Donaghy and Alex Keaton are Republicans.

Comment posted on February 25, 2011 1:18 PM
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