In the previous post I agreed with an observation by Rust Hills that series television in the 1970’s (and earlier) leaned heavily on static leading characters. More often than not, the series lead was the same paternalistic hero made famous in film by actors like John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. From a narrative point of view this was not without benefits: the audience developed familiarity with the main characters and knew what to expect each week, in the same way you know what you’re going to get when you eat at a fast-food restaurant.
A show like the long-running and wildly popular Gunsmoke (1955-1975) is an iconic example of this storytelling style. Even a fantastic, medium-altering show like the original Star Trek (1966-1969) followed the same tried-and-true formula. No matter what happened the week before — no matter how close to death the cast came, and no matter how many people died along the way — everything was hunky-dory the following week.
Presenting series regulars as fixed characters had two additional advantages. First, there was no need to waste precious air time preparing for change because the regular characters weren’t going to change. They might squeal or grimace each week, but by the next episode they were ready for another go, none the worse for the wear. Second, every drama could be explored through conveniently disposable guest stars, meaning there would be no need to clean up after them or carry any dramatic impact forward. Each new episode was a familiar and clean (if not sterile) slate.
The downside, as Hills pointed out, is that change is the essence of drama. By splitting the impetus and effect of dramatic change between the regulars and guest stars respectively, television dramas inherently muted the potential of the stories they had to tell. It was safe, it was familiar, it was predictable, and the net result was absurd. How many gunfights did Sheriff Matt Dillon have in Gunsmoke? How many crew members did Captain Kirk lose over the course of his five year journey? Did these cumulative body counts weigh on either character week after week, or on other characters?
To be sure there were always attempts to expand the television norm. Writers wanted to do more, actors wanted to do more, but television was a corporate medium first. Brand identification, both in the star power of the actors playing the series leads and in the audience’s familiarity with the weekly narrative was rigorously maintained because it worked. It delivered an audience to advertisers each week, and that audience was never disappointed. Bored, perhaps, but if a viewer wanted more they could always turn off the tube and read a book. [ Read more ]