Sunday, April 26, 2009
TV Highlight Reels™
It's easier to find long-running TV shows that can be said to be the best work of multiple actors involved, sometimes the entire main cast, than it is to find a movie, even a very successful movie, that is the Highlight Reel™ for most of the cast.
I Love Lucy, the quintessential sitcom, clearly counts as a Highlight Reel™. It represents the best work of Vivian Vance, Desi Arnaz and William Frawley, and that can be said with little fear of contradiction. As for Lucille Ball herself, she had a significant film career before the show took off, and she kept working even after all the derivative versions of I Love Lucy went away. That said, this is the show that defines her career, and because it can still be found in re-runs half a century later, it can qualify as Lucy's Highlight Reel™, no matter how much fans might enjoy some of her early work like Stage Door or how much acclaim she got for later work like The Stone Pillow.
Some TV shows, even very successful ones, are harder to classify as Highlight Reels™. The Mary Tyler Moore Show is a Highlight Reel™ in my mind, but just barely. It is the best work of Gavin McLeod, even though he is lucky enough to find himself part of three different long running TV shows. It is the best work of Georgia Engel. But what about the rest of the cast?
For Mary Tyler Moore herself, her fans will be split between her work on this show and her work a decade earlier on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Some might even point to the movie Ordinary People. Ted Knight was great as Ted Baxter, but it's hard to forget his work as Judge Smales in Caddyshack. Some actors in this cast, including Ed Asner and Valerie Harper (not pictured here), reprise their roles in spin-offs, though the Lou Grant in Lou Grant and the character of the same name in The Mary Tyler Moore Show really don't have that much in common. Some Betty White fans might prefer Golden Girls. Cloris Leachman (not pictured here) not only got a spin-off show playing Phyllis Lindstrom, to many she will always be Frau Blucher.
A much more common situation on TV shows is to be a Highlight Reel™ by default, as some actors find it hard to get good work after a show goes away. That is certainly the case for WKRP in Cincinnati. Howard Hesseman, Loni Anderson and Tim Reid moved on from the show to star in other sitcoms, but the rest of the cast, including Gary Sandy and Jan Smithers, struggled to get good work. This type of Highlight Reel™ is more accurately classified as a Milk Carton™. This phenomenon is depressingly common, so I decided to name it as a separate sub-category.
Highlight Reel™ TV shows didn't magically disappear when the era of the Big Three TV networks sputtered to a halt. For my money, The Wire is the Highlight Reel™ for the entire cast, bar none. It's not for lack of work. A serious effort is being made to turn Idris Elba into a movie star, but I doubt he will ever get a role as good as Stringer Bell again. Many cast members have shown up on the Law & Order franchise in guest roles, and yet others have regular work on other TV shows.
Some may get chances to be in more memorable roles than they had on The Wire. But I'm not holding my breath waiting for it. This show was that good.