I recently caught reruns of a PBS documentary series called AMERICA IN PRIMETIME. It looks at four archetypical characters in American primetime television and how they’ve evolved over time from the birth of television to the present, though obviously missing the last couple years of new/newly iconic tv shows.
The four archetypes are these: The Independent Woman, Man of the House, The Misfit, and The Crusader. The Independent Woman goes from the model housewife to women who want more from life, whether it’s sexual freedom or a career outside the home, and who are allowed to have flaws. The Man of the House is the father, going from “king of the castle” in the 1950s through varying levels of domestic power, including Archie Bunker, Cliff Huxtable, Don Draper, and Tony Soprano. The Misfit is the outsider, the wise fool, the weirdo. This category has grown in strength over the years, especially since SEINFELD. Misfits are those who refuse to fit in and refuse to apologize for their oddities. Finally, the Crusader is the hero, but our definition of hero has changed over time. While fifty years ago a hero might have been a somewhat two-dimensional infallible type, their stories are growing increasingly complex and are blurring the lines of what is traditionally seen as right or wrong.
I love this series. I think it’s fascinating, insightful, and I like that actors, writers, and producers are interviewed about both their own shows and other shows, talking about their influences from earlier years and the current shows they admire. However, there are some interesting gaps in the lineup of shows referenced. There’s a heavy emphasis on shows from the late 50s to early 70s, then on shows from the last five years or so, and little attention to those in between. I think there are some excellent examples of the chosen archetypes that got left out.
THE CRUSADER is the easiest category to identify, in some ways, though this could of course be a mental bias on my part related to my current obsession with crime dramas. The detective, FBI agent, or crime scene investigator leading the story must of necessity be a crusader for justice. A figure like Stana Katic’s Kate Beckett in CASTLE is driven by her need for justice, possibly the result of the unsolved murder of her mother several years earlier. But this is not an obvious obsession at the start of the series, when she tries to explain to Castle that in the real world if there’s a guy standing over the body with a gun, he probably did it.
In the world of CSI, Gil Grissom is a different sort of crusader. He is driven by a need to pursue objective, scientific fact. Gil doesn’t actually care as much about motives as some of his colleagues, and he doesn’t generally get emotionally involved in the cases. At the other end of the spectrum is David Caruso’s Lieutenant Horatio Caine from CSI: MIAMI. He is the definition of crusader, from his all-black wardrobe to his husky voice that can go from sensitive sympathy to spine-chillingly threatening in seconds. And yes, I know that he’s easily mocked for the overdramatic phrasing and carefully timed putting on of sunglasses, but that’s a risk all archetypical characters must face. Caine is the ultimate crusader, going through life as a sort of avenging angel. Though he does date, has a son, and even marries during the series, I’m not sure we ever see him engage in behavior that is remotely sexual. He is a grim force of justice, protecting the victims, helping the needy, and punishing the guilty even if that means going outside the law.
The other category that has me thinking is MAN OF THE HOUSE. Yes, it’s interesting to track the trajectory of paternal roles over the course of television history. But an intriguing trend in television show is the creation of a non-biological family. Shows like CHEERS, WEST WING, and CRIMINAL MINDS create familial dynamics between people who are close to each other without being biologically related. They all have a paternal figure, flawed though he might be – Sam Malone, Josiah Bartlett, and Aaron Hotchner. MAN OF THE HOUSE limits the character of the father by restricting it to the traditional family (and yes, the episode of the documentary does include the gay couple on MODERN FAMILY, but they’re still seen as more of a “traditional” family than workplace colleagues). It might prove intriguing to add the not-actually-the-father-fathers into the mix of MAN OF THE HOUSE. The episode purports to be about paternal power in the household, from FATHER KNOWS BEST to figures like Tony Soprano or the guy from BREAKING BAD.
But it’s more general than that, really. It’s about power in a group, and who has the final say in something, how he deals with the challenges from his subordinates or colleagues, and how those colleagues react to his assertion of authority. An increasingly common element of such figures in primetime is that they must deal with challenges by those they technically supervise. Malone is of course a comic character, flawed by his intelligence level, his womanizing and drinking problems, and his short temper, but he also manages to hold together a devoted, if dysfunctional, family of friends and employees. Bartlett and Hotchner in particular must struggle with the balance of an official hierarchy – one is President, one is unit chief – and the intelligence and passion of those they nominally command. And of course the truth is they don’t wield as much true power as their positions suggest. They rely on the advice and assistance of their teams.
I think that this method of studying characters and cultural development is fascinating. I find the change-over-time method very effective and very illuminating. Identifying archetypes can also be useful as it provides an identifiable element to track over time. However, as I’ve said above, it can be limiting. There are actors in paternal (or maternal, but that’s a way different category) roles that are not actually fathers. And as a result there are parent-child or sibling-to-sibling interactions between people who are not related to each other by blood or by law. The family dynamic can be extended beyond the home, and would create other archetypes or sub-archetypes (like a subcategory of an archetype) to study over time. Perhaps if PBS did a follow-up documentary to AMERICA IN PRIMETIME they could include other character types, like THE BOSS, THE CHILDREN, THE UNWILLING REBEL (think Mal Reynolds), THE ONLOOKER (like a misfit, but more observational of the dominant culture, like Spock), or THE AMBITIOUS YOUNGSTER.
I’d enjoy watching that.