Saturday, 19 March 2005

The Ten Greatest TV Characters of All Time IMHO (American TV Only)

Although anthology series were once common on American television, for the majority of its history TV has been dominated by series with regular characters. I suspect that there are two basic reasons for this. First, American television was modelled after American radio. On American radio the dominant format for shows were those with regular characters. Or at least regular hosts. Second and perhaps more importantly, I suspect most people take comfort in being able to tune into the same characters week after week. I suppose to a degree it is like visiting old friends for many people.

In its nearly sixty years of existence, American television has produced its fair share of memorable characters. I've been trying to think of what characters I would number among the greatest television characters of all time. I've narrowed it down to ten indiividual characters and two emsembles of characters. I've arranged the list of ten characters by chronological order, as it was difficult enough deciding on the ten greatest, let alone deciding how they would rank....

1. Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball, I Love Lucy): There were sitcoms on televison before I Love Lucy, but it was the first major hit of the genre. And much of the reason for the sitcom's success was its central character, Lucy Ricardo. Married to Ricky Ricardo, Lucy (whose only talent seemed to be a flair for comedy) was constantly trying to get into her husband's shows. And she would do nearly anything, no matter how ludicrous, to accomplish accomplish that. Of course, she also had other hair brained schemes as well. Lucy was the lovable goof that all of sometimes believe ourselves to be, always hopeful but somehow never quite getting things right.

2. Brett Maverick (James Garner, Maverick): Before Maverick, the hero of the average television Western was brave, honourable, trustworthy, and quick with a gun. Brett Maverick was none of these. A professional gambler and master swindler, Maverick preferred to get out of situations with his wits rather than guns. In fact, while he was cunning as a fox, Maverick was not particularly brave. At a time when television was overfilled with brave, trustworthy heroes, Brett Maverick was a breath of fresh air.

3. Barney Fife (Don Knotts, The Andy Griffith Show): If it wasn't for the fact that Barney was the cousin of Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, it seems highly unlikely he would have ever had a career in law enforcement. High strung, hot tempered, not particularly brave, and with a tendency to go too much by the book, Barney would seem an unlikely canidate for a deputy sheriff. Indeed, Andy demanded that Barney keep one bullet in his pocket because he could not be trusted with a loaded gun! And yet it is hard to picture Andy with anyone else as deputy or to picture Mayberry without him. A wonderful bundle of nerves, occasional bravado, and an obsessive compulsion for rules, The Andy Griffith Show seemed emptier when Don Knotts left the show.

4. Hoss Cartwright (Dan Blocker, Bonanza): Each of the Cartwrights had his own distinct personality. For the most part, however, they were fairly typical of Western heroes of the time. Ben Cartwright was the father and the centre of the clan, the stable voice of reason for his sometimes strong headed sons. Adam was the sombre, serious son who was quick with his wits and his gun. Little Joe was the romantic of the group, a bit too quick with his temper and also quick with his gun. On the other hand, Hoss stood out. Part of this was due to his size. Hoss was fairly large and very strong. But most of it was due to his personality. Hoss was not stupid by any means, but he did seem to lack a good deal of common sense. Very gullible, he was an easy mark for any con man to come along. At the same time, however, Hoss was perhaps the best hearted character on television. He was always willing to help those in need, a personality trait which sometimes caused no end of problems for his family. Hoss was easily the most popular character on Bonanza. In fact, many TV historians think it was more due to Blocker's untimely death that Bonanza was cancelled rather than its change in time slot. As a fan of the series, I can believe it.

5. Jed Clampett (Buddy Ebsen, The Beverly Hillbillies): I've often thought that there were three basic formats for sitcoms. The first is what I call the I Love Lucy format, in which there is a cast of relatively sane people centred around a slightly left of centre goofball. The second is what I call the Gilligan's Island format, in which the entire cast is slightly left of centre. The third is what I call The Beverly Hillbillies format. This is the exact reverse of the I Love Lucy format. Instead of a cast of sane people centred around a goofball, in The Beverly Hillbillies format, one sees a cast of lunatics centred around the sane voice of reason. In The Beverly Hillbillies, Jed was that voice of reason. His mother in law Granny was an unreconstructed Confederate with a hot temper and a passion for bootlegging (although she brewed rheumatism medicine, not liquor...). Nephew Jethro was as stupid as a box of rocks and had a tendecy to latch onto every fad and craze that came along. Daughter Ellie Mae was a tomboy who preferred animals to people. Banker Milburn Drysdale was totally obsessed with money. Out of everyone, only Jed was sane and reasonable. When things got out of hand, it was always Jed who reined things in, acting as both the voice of reason and the voice of morality. He was the perfect straight man for a whole posse of gagmen.

6. Endora (Agnes Moorehead, Bewitched): If ever there was a wicked mother in law, Endora was it. An ancient and powerful witch, she was very unhappy that her daughter Samantha married mortal Darren Stephens. In fact, she put Darren through no end of trials. She shrank him. She aged him into an old man. She made it so he could only tell the truth. And while Endora may have been unhappy with her daughter's choice of husbands in the beginning, one got the sense that after time Endora grew to love Darren. While she might make his life miserable, she seemed to take exception to any other witch or warlock who did so. For all her arrogance and strong headedness, Endora did have a soft spot in her heart after all...

7. Dr. Miguelito Loveless (Michael Dunn, The Wild Wild West): Quite possibly the greatest villain to ever appear on television, Dr. Miguelito Loveless was hardly the largest. In fact, as a midget he stood shorter than everyone else. But he made up for his small size with a gigantic intellect and a large dose of megalomania. In The Wild Wild West: the Series by Susan Kesler, Loveless' creator John Kneubuhl explained the back story for the mad doctor. The son of an upper class, Mexican woman, Loveless' father robbed him of his rightful inheritance and even his heritage and culture. Furthermore, Loveless was angry at God for compounding matters by making him a midget. Although this back story was never spelled out on the show, it made perfect sense, for Loveless sought world conquest with a vengence. He created a powder that would drive anyone exposed to it insane. He attempted to create a war between the U.S. government and Native Americans. He developed a substance that killed all animal and plant life. It is safe to say that had it not been for Secret Service agents James West and Artemus Gordon, the United States might well have become the nation of Loveless...

8. Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy Star Trek): Alongside Lucy and Gilligan, Mr. Spock may well be one of the most recognisable television characters of all time. Even people who have never seen an episode of Star Trek can recognise the Vulcan. The reason is simple. Spock is one of the most complex television characters of all time. The son of Vulcan Sarek and Earthwoman Amanda, Spock followed his father in accepting the Vulcan philosophy of total logic. To this end, he surpresses his emotions in an attempt to live a life of total reason. And though Spock shows little emotion, there can be little doubt of his love of and loyalty to his fellow crewmen. A character often in conflict over his heritage, Spock was certain in his friendships.

9. Detective Lenny Briscoe (Jerry Orbach Law and Order): Television has seen many police detectives, but perhaps none were as beloved as Lenny Briscoe. Briscoe was always ready with the glib remark or sarcastic comment, and yet he remained compassionate towards others. This is perhaps because Briscoe himself was fallible. In fact, what little we know of Briscoe are his failings and failures. He was a recovering alcoholic, who had been divorced twice. His only child, a daughter, died during the course of the series. If anyone had reason to be angry at life, it would be Lenny Briscoe, yet he finds reasons to go on and even to laugh at life. For all his disappointments, Briscoe seemed to love his job and to truly love life.

10. Jim Profit (Adrain Padar, Profit): Profit only aired for four weeks during April 1996, yet anyone who had the fortune to see it cannot forget its protagonist (who was also its villain), Jim Profit. Profit was the Junior Vice President of Acquisitions at Gracen and Gracen, a large multinational corporation. He is also perhaps the most evil character to ever appear on television, willing to do anything to get ahead at Gracen and Gracen. In the first episode alone, Profit framed Jack Walters for the "murder" of Wayne Gresham, who actually died of natural causes! The origin of Profit's evil rests in his childhood. Profit's father took so little interest in him that he made the child (born Jimmy Stokowski) sleep in a pen made out of a cardboard packing box. Indeed, even as an adult Proft still sleeps in a cardboard box. It would seem that under the lupine exterior of one of television's vilest predators was the broken heart of a little boy. Profit was cancelled before the character could be fully explored, but in the four episodes that aired viewers got to see one of television's greatest villains. Fortunately, the complete series (all ten episodes) is available on DVD on August 9, this year!

As I said above, I was also going include two ensembles of characters on this list. The first are the castaways of Gilligan's Island. It has been argued that the castaways of Gilligan's Island are more stereotypes or archetypes than fully fledged characters. There is the village idiot (Gilligan), the stuffy millionaire (Thurston Howell III), the pretty girl (Mary Ann), and so on. Despite this, for many the characters of Gilligan's Island seem more real than those seen in more serious TV shows. I suspect the reason is simple. In being played broadly and simply, the characters of Gilligan's Island often remind us of ourselves. All of us have felt like bumbling idiots like Gilligan at times. And all of us have known people like the Professor or even the Skipper. In making his characters as broad as possible, creator Sherwood Schwarz made it possible for nearly everyone to identify with at least one of them.

The other emsemble of characters are The Monkees from the sitcom of the same name. There have been very few TV sitcoms that have focused on young men in their twenties. And too often on more "serious" shows young men in their twenties have been little more than cardboard pretty boys for girls to swoon over. The Monkees were guys that young men could identify with. An often down on their luck rock group, The Monkees each had their own distinct personality. Mike was the leader of the group and the intellectual, blessed with a dry sense of humour and a skewed view of the world. Micky was the crazy one, with a penchant for celebrity impersonations and off the wall humour. Davy was the romantic of the group, constantly falling in love with some girl or another. Peter was the Gracie Allen of the group, not terribly bright but terribly kind hearted. The four of them played off each other perfectly, taking turns playing gag man and straight man. In fact, they were so perfect an emsemble that it is impossible to picture the group without any one of them.

I have to say that this was a difficult list to create. In fact, among the ensembles of characters I could have included are the cast of The Simpsons (although there is probably enough written about them on the internet already). Although television is derided as a simplistic, even debased medium, and there is a little truth to that, it has created a number of memorable characters over the years. I have no doubt that it will continue to do so.

Friday, 18 March 2005

Disney

Today it is sometimes fashionable to knock Walt Disney Studios. They have been mocked for being overly family friendly. They have been derided for their sometimes less than stellar movies. Even their legendary founder, Walt Disney himself, has come under attack from time to time. But while Disney has released some less than classic films from time to time (anyone out there remember The Monkey's Uncle or The Aristocats?) and while there can be no doubt Walt had his faults (who doesn't?), there can be one thing that cannot be disputed. Walt Disney and Disney Studios were one of the most powerful forces shaping American pop culture in the 20th century.

Like most people born after 1929 (when Mickey Mouse made his debut), I grew up watching Disney products. And like many people I have enjoyed many of the animated shorts and feature films prdouced by the studio. Indeed, in some ways Disney's presence was more immediate for me. Walt Disney's hometown, Maceline, MO is just 43 miles from Huntsville. Disney's presence can be felt everywhere--even their elementary school is named for Walt. While Walt has had an impact on Marceline, Marceline had its impact on Walt. Disneyland's main street was based on that of Marceline!

While the Disney name now brings to mind major motion pictures and the amusement parks, it all started with animated shorts. Disney first produced a series of shorts based on Alice and Wonderland for M. J. Winkler and later her husband Charles Mintz. He later produced a series of shorts featuring the character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit for Mintz, eventually losing the character to Mintz. Fortunately, Walt would create a new character who would be more famous than Oswald ever was. Initially called Mortimer, the character was finally named Mickey Mouse.
Mickey Mouse made his debut in 1929 in the short "Steamboat Willy." It was on that cartoon that the Disney empire was built. Mickey swiftly became the most popular cartoon character around.

The Disney animated shorts aren't seen often, so I rather suspect most people have forgotten how brilliant they were. Most people my age were lucky to see some of them on The Wonderful World of Disney in the Sixties and Seventies. Disney Studios was one of the first to synchronise animation and music ("The Skeleton Dance" from 1932 being a prime example). They were also pioneered the multi-plane camera technique, first utilised on the short "The Old Mill." They were even among the first to use colour ("Flowers and Trees" being the first colour Disney short). Besides all of this, Disney introduced some of the most enduring cartoon characters in the history of film. As popular as Mickey had been, Donald Duck would prove even more popular. Eventually, he would have an entire family, from nephews Huey, Duey, and Luey, to sweetheart Daisy. Beyond Micky and Donald, there would also be Goofy, Chip and Dale, Pluto, and yet more.

From animated shorts, the next natural step would seem to be an animated feature film. Suprisingly, this was not the traditonal wisdom when Disney first announced Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. For the entirety of its production, it was called "Disney's folly." Many expected it to fail. It came as a surprise to all but Walt and his crew when the film was a success. This was a considerable feat, given it took four years and $1.7 million to produce, during the Depression at that! Disney would follow Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with yet other classics. Surpisingly, with the exception of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, I would not get to see any of the classic Disney animated fetaures until adulthood. Fortunately, through re-releases, VHS tapes, and the Disney Channel, I have gotten to see most of the classic Disney features. Beyond Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (the only one I've gotten to see in the theatre), my favourites would be Sleeping Beauty and Dumbo. To me Sleeping Beauty is one of the great animated feature films, with beautiful animation, well developed characters, and even a bit of action. Dumbo is the classic story of an outcast. I really had to feel sorry for the poor fellow and I was happy when his ability to fly redeemed him in the eyes of others. I have yet to see Pinnochio or Bambi, which I have on the word of others are the greatest Disney films of all time. Indeed, I have heard many describe Pinnochio as the greatest animated movie of all time. I have heard that Disney has shut down its hand drawn animation unit and is switching entirely to computer animation. I truly hope this is not the case. While I love computer animation, I still think there is room for old fashioned, hand drawn animation. Indeed, the beauty of such films as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Sleeping Beauty beg for more such films to be made.

Eventually Disney would start making live action feature films in addition to its animated features. Fortunately, I got to see many of these on The Wonderful World of Disney over the years. Of course, Walt had combined live action and animation in the old Alice shorts. And in 1941 The Reluctant Dragon became the first Disney feature to combine live-action and animation. It should not have been a surprise when Disney Studio released their first live action film in 1950, Treasure Island based on the Robert Louis Stevenson classic. Disney's version of Treasure Island is the definitive movie version in my mind. Another of Disney's early live-action features is another one of my favourite films, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Directd by Robert Fleischer, the son of Disney's old animation rival Max Fleischer, it is a great film. To this day I cannot think of Captain Nemo without picturing James Mason. Disney would even look to the old West with Old Yeller, perhaps the best film about a boy and his dog. Eventually, Disney would produce comedies as well as adventure films. The Absent Minded Professor remains a classic to this day in my mind. I've always thought that the quality of Disney's features declined quite a bit in the Seventies, with several Love Bug sequels and such films as The World's Greatest Athlete, but the studio would eventually recover. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is the greatest pirate movie this side of The Crimson Pirate, while I still love Hidalgo as a good, old fashioned adventure film (a shame it didn't do better at the box office).

Of course, eventually Disney would conquer television as well as theatres. In fact, like the majority of my generation, my first introduction to Disney was The Wonderful World of Disney. Walt Disney appeared on television as early in 1950, in the special One Hour in Wonderland, promoting his new film Alice in Wonderland. This would be followed by The Walt Disney Christmas Show in 1951. In 1955 Disney Studios would become the first major Hollywood movie studio to enter television production. Disneyland debuted that year, beginning an incredibly long run. While its name changed over the years, The Wonderful World of Disney (the name with which I am most familiar) remained essentially the same. It would show segments specially made for the series (the Davy Crockett series being the most memorable), Disney's feature films, and classic animated shorts. Watching The Wondeful World of Disney is one of the fondest memories I have from my childhood. It seems to have been for many others as well. Althogh cancelled many times, it keeps returning to television.

Of course, Disney would also produce other series as well. Nineteen fifty eight would see the debut of Disney's version of Zorro. The series would prove to be one of the most durable shows made for children, joining The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid among boy's favourites. I have very fond memories of watching it as a child...well...I have fond memories of watching it as an adult, too. Disney would also produce The Mickey Mouse Club in 1956. Not having been born yet and never seeing it until it aired on the Disney Channel, I don't really have fond memories of it. And I was much too old for its revivals.

Arguably, Disney Studios may well be the most successful Hollywood studio of all time. While all of the studios have produced their share of classics. And while Warner Brothers and MGM can boast their own cavalcade of animated stars, it seems to me that Disney Studios is the only one that has seen success in animation, live action features, and television. In fact, for the longest time Disney was the only studio to produce animated features! Regardless of what anyone else thinks of them, I must say that I will always have a place in my heart for Disney, even when their fortunes may not be as good as they once were.

Thursday, 17 March 2005

EverQuest Turns Six

Yesterday, March 16, EverQuest turned six years old. For those of you who have never heard of EverQuest, it is perhaps the most popular MMORPG. As to what an MMORPG is, the acronym stands for Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. It is essentially a computer role playing game, taking place in a virtual world, in which a large number of people can play. The earliest such game was Meridian 59, although Ultima Online was the game that brought MMORPGs to the forefront.

EverQuest itself was the creation of Brad McQuaid, Steve Clover, and Bill Trost. EverQuest proved incredibly successful. By December 1999 it was already more popular than Ultima Online. Indeed, the game proved so successful that the company McQuaid, Clover, and Trost founded to produce the game, Verant Interactive, was eventually purchased by Sony Online Entertainment.

I have never played EverQuest myself, although I know people who do. According to a certain beautiful, green eyed blonde, the game is positively addictive (the term EverCrack comes to mind). Indeed, the first time I heard of the game was several years ago when KOMU did a news story on MMORPGs. Some of the players that they talked to would come hope from work Friday evening, start playing, and continue playing all weekend with the exception of eight hours asleep at night. The KOMU story also addressed the phenomenon of in-game artefacts being sold on eBay. By January 2001 the practice was so rampant that EQ's creators asked eBay to stop listing such auctions.

The success of EverQuest even led to the development of another game, EverQuest II. I really don't know all the differences between EQ and EQII, but I am told that the graphics are better for the most part on EQII and there differences is in the classes, world, et. al.

I don't know how long EverQuest will continue to be popular. It is possible that some day another MMORPG might overtake it (I don't know which is more popular--EQ or EQII). Regardless, I do think MMORPGs are here to stay. In fact, I have to wonder that as the games grow more sophisticated and more complex, they can only grown in popularity.

Wednesday, 16 March 2005

A Brief Entry

This is going to be a brief entry. Tonight finds me a little down. I haven't heard from my favourite green eyed blonde since Saturday and I am a little bit concerned about her. Her health hasn't been the best of late and I am so afraid she may have taken a turn for the worse.

Anyhow, I do have some good news to report. Quentin Tarantino will not be directing a Friday the 13th movie. New Line talked to him about it, but he turned them down. He says that he likes Jason, but that he has no interest in directing a movie. Here's the story.

I suppose I should also mention that I saw the trailer for Revenge of the Sith Saturday, before Robots. I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed in both Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones (I swear the movie came to a dead halt every time Natalie Portman was on screen), but I am actually hyped into seeing the third film in the trilogy. Indeed, I have to admit that I am even more interested in seeing it since George Lucas says it may be the first Star Wars to be rated PG-13. Supposedly, Revenge of the Sith is going to be the darkest Star Wars movie ever made. Of course, given that it chronicles the transformation of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader. I just hope I am not disappointed this time around.

Tuesday, 15 March 2005

Lord of the Rings the Musical?

Before anything else, I must apologise to any regular readers of this blog (all one or two of you) for not updating in the past few days. Unforuntaely, I am still somewhat under the weather. In fact, I don't think I've felt worse in my life, at least not for a long while, than the past several days.

Anyhow, today I read a news story that just astounds me. There is going to be a £11.5 million stage production of The Lord of the Rings. What's more is that it is a musical, the most expensive musical in the history of man. Fortunately, producer Kevin Wallace says that there will be no singing or dancing Hobbits. They are going to use traditional music, drawing on ethnic traditions.

As much as I love Lord of the Rings and musicals, I can't picture a musical based on the book. The biggest hurdle I can see is that it took Peter Jackson three separate movies, each around 3 hours each, to adapt the book. And even then Tolkien purists complain that he left things out. I don't see how a stage musical could manage to adapt the entire book, especially when one adds in the songs necessary to qualify it as a musical. Another hurdle I can see is that the idea of a musical based on Lord of the Rings also brings to mind that episode of The Simpsons in which Troy McClure performed in a musical version of Planet of the Apes (the original with Charlton Heston, not the remake with Marky Mark...). In other words, even without singing and dancing Hobbits, I fear it could come off as just plain silly. Of course, I suppose if someone had told me twenty years ago that there would be a musical based on Phantom of the Opera, I would have thought that silly, too...

Anyway, here's a link to a news story on the musical: Yahoo News: Lord of the Rings Musical