The death of Valerie Harper this week got me to thinking about TV characters and the people who love them.
This is Us.
You see what I did there. Even in writing about television a TV reference sneaks in.
For those too young to remember, Valerie Harper played Rhoda Morgenstern, Mary Richards’s talky, funny, Jewish best friend forever neighbor on the famed Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 1970s. She was so popular she was later spun off as the star of her own show, Rhoda, where she was given a fuller life, less catastrophic dates and, finally, a hunky man who became her husband in one of the highest rated episodes on TV at the time.
Of course, television being what it was/is, she eventually had to get divorced (Note: for no good reason, in my opinion) so the whole cycle of jovial unhappiness could begin again.
I grew up with Rhoda and she meant a lot to me, mostly because I knew her. In the seventies there were 0.0 young Jewish New Yorkers on hit television shows and certainly none as instantly recognizable and human as Rhoda. We all not only knew her, we were her on any given day.
And who wouldn’t want to be?
Rhoda joked about her life being a mess but she wore vibrant colors, had perfect one-liners for every occasion and was smart. Moreover, she was a survivor. You always knew Rhoda would be okay and even if you couldn’t literally be her or have her physically in your life you wanted her to at least be in your living room or bedroom or wherever you watched television, with you, whenever possible.
Much of this was due to Valerie Harper’s ability to embody a well-written sitcom role, take her beyond the laughs and make her feel real. It was just impossible to believe that in real-life she wasn’t Jewish, didn’t speak with a trace of a New York accent and had never appeared in a TV comedy before she became Rhoda. But she wasn’t, she didn’t and she never had.
Certainly, you don’t have to be a Jewish New Yorker to play one but back in the 1970s, and even now, many performers become so obsessed with playing us that they get the accent and the mannerisms exactly right to the point where they are not playing anything else. They (nee we) become wawking, tawking hand-waving neurotics ready to mow down anything and anyone that gets in our way.
Okay, sure, we are all of that. (Note: See Larry David on any given day, even though he long ago transplanted to L.A.). But there are times when we also do color outside our given lines. Rhoda always did that and without a very special episode where a beloved relative gets hit by a car and she has to deal with it seriously. Or one where she’s chastised by everyone around her for making a bad joke about the accident. (Note: See Larry David again).
Of course, this phenomenon stretches across all ethnic, sexual and religious lines. As a gay man I’ve cringed, ranted and left the room numerous times over the years as some straight actor badly pretended he was a certain type of homosexual male and then went on to win an award for said performance.
Name your minority group and I bet you could, too.
Meaning, we all need our Rhodas.
Luckily times have changed and, with it, the level of writing, especially on what is now broadly considered to be contemporary television. Given where cable and streaming series have taken us, it is not unusual in these times for many actors to transcend their actual selves and portray believable niche characters that bear little relation to whom they truly are in real life.
But they exist in a 2019 world where the roles are a lot deeper and niche is the new…Black? Asian? Jewish? Gay? Hispanic?
It is also a world where, ironically, the brilliant work Valerie Harper did might today almost be required to be done by a New York, Jewish actress. See if that gets you to thinking a whole host of non-PC as well as PC thoughts.
This is exactly the point where, for me, television comes in handy. Every time things get too heavy or confusing in my life I know l can feel comfort in being able to wander onto the couch – or if it’s really bad, a bed – and spend minutes or hours with a whole host of non-existent people who, in those moments, are as real to me as anyone I’ve ever met. By my count over the years:
Lucy Ricardo’s determination made show business not seem all that bad.
Murphy Brown allowed me to hold out hope that in the end journalism would get the last laugh, and word.
Olivia Benson on the street reinforced to me that on balance there is someone to protect those of us who somehow managed to survive against all odds.
Don Draper shamed me back to the gym for fear we (or the actor playing him) happen to meet on a busy NYC street (or preferably empty stuck elevator) during one of my yearly trips.
Walter White scared me into always protecting myself by reminding me there can still be great danger around the corner because anyone could break bad.
Liz Lemon made me feel sane and well adjusted, by comparison.
Jack Pearson helped me imagine a world where I really did want to spend time with every member of my extended family, and
Midge Maisel made me laugh, cringe and sometimes cry at seeing all of my dead relatives and their friends on the small screen in ways that I could never have imagined in the days when I first met Rhoda.
RIP good friend.
I will still miss you even though I can see you tomorrow and every day of the week for the rest of my life.