Five Lessons From the Career of Bea Arthur

Apr 26, 2009  •  Post A Comment

Bea Arthur’s passing was one of the most talked about topics on Twitter over the weekend.
Bea Arthur
Think about that for a minute.
Arthur was an 86-year-old woman who hadn’t been part of the primetime landscape since the early 1990s. She wasn’t a pioneer of the medium like Lucille Ball, or a movie legend.
And yet, the Twiterrati– many of whom were still in Pampers the last time Arthur was a TV regular– seemed deeply bummed by news of her death. It wasn’t quite Kurt Cobain/Selena/Heath Ledger- level shock, but there was a definite vibe that an icon had left us.
I’m not an expert on “Maude” or “The Golden Girls,” so I won’t try to summon up any memories of favorite lines or episodes. (Cynthia Littleton does a good job of that here, as does James Poniewozik here).
But I do think there are a few lessons to be drawn from the pretty incredible career of Beatrice Arthur.


1. Never underestimate the power of syndication. The main reason so many younger folks knew Arthur was because they grewing watching the endless loop of “Golden Girls” repeats on Lifetime (the show now airs on WE and Hallmark).
Syndication’s ability to extend, even deepen, a TV’s show legacy first became apparent during the mid- to late 1970s. Gen Xers like myself grew up watching weekend repeats of “Star Trek” (1966-69) and afterschool episodes of “The Brady Bunch” (1969-74)
We had no idea the shows were…old. We just liked them. And we claimed the characters and plotlines of long-canceled series as our own.
Today, of course, it’s easier than ever for series to be reborn for new generations.
Just about every show ends up on DVD or Hulu (though I still can’t find “James at 15″ anywhere). And the explosion of cable networks means a series with even the slightest of appeals can find a new fan base. (Based on how frequently TBS airs “Just Shoot Me,” don’t be shocked by an outpouring of grief among millennials when David Spade cracks his last smirk).
There’s a reason actors regard residuals as untouchable.
2. Broadcasters are making a big mistake not developing shows starring older people. Yes, “The Golden Girls” represented a hard-to-replicate chemistry of amazing actresses and sharp writers (including, of course, Marc Cherry). But the show’s huge popularity when first on NBC, and its continued cult following today, indicate younger audiences judge shows by the content of their scripts, not the age of their actors.
With comedies still struggling on the networks, broadcasters need to start coming up with concepts that aren’t on the air. Old folks on comedies don’t exist in primetime, even, amazingly, on CBS. I’m with James Poniewozik over at Tuned In: Bring on the geezers!
3. Broadcasters are making a big mistake not developing shows with political courage, like “Maude.” There’s been a lot made in recent months about the number of shows in the works that touch upon the impact of the mini-Depression. I haven’t, however, heard about any politically-tinged, Norman Lear-style sitcoms or dramas on the drawing board.
That’s a shame, since as ratings for MSNBC and Fox News demonstrate, Americans are ready to be engaged in dialogue about political matters. Networks need to take a chance on writers willing to push our buttons the way Lear did with “Maude.” Why not a half-hour about an African-American teacher who disagrees with President Obama? Or a Southern bubba whose political views are to the left of Michael Moore?
4. Theme songs matter. OK, this is probably a stretch. But I’m convinced that part of the enduring appeal of shows such as “Maude” and “Golden Girls” is that they had awesome, complete theme songs– with lyrics. Redd Foxx would be even better remembered today had somebody taken a few minutes to write words to the theme for “Sanford & Son”.
By the way, the songs don’t have to be specifically written for the show. Andrew Gold had probably never heard of Estelle Getty when he wrote the words to “Thank You For Being a Friend”. And it’s OK if the lyrics aren’t used on TV, as long as they exist (as in this case).
But great shows need great theme songs. Period.
5. If you star in one monster TV hit, just retire. It’s all downhill afterward.
Arthur is actually the exception who proves this rule. By toplining both “Maude” and “Golden Girls,” she did what few TV actors ever do– star in two iconic series. It’s a distinction that makes her a legitimate legend.
By contrast, Lucille Ball followed up “I Love Lucy” with hundreds of episodes of shows such as “The Lucy Show” and “Here’s Lucy.” They may have helped pay for the hair dye, but let’s face it: Nobody remembers those shows.
Likewise, “Spin City” was an underappreciated gem for Michael J. Fox, but it’s not in the same league as “Family Ties.”
“Maude” and “The Golden Girls,” however– like Mary Tyler Moore’s two big shows– both stand as legitimate small screen classics. The only open question: Which was better?
To me, it’s not even close: “Golden Girls” was lots of fun, but “Maude” gets the nod because it was so rooted in reality and featured Arthur front and center in virtually every episode.
Feel free to disagree in the comments below.

11 Comments

  1. This is a great article. My only exception is to the comment that no one remembers “The Lucy Show” and “Here’s Lucy”. Clearly, someone did or it would not have been mentioned in this article.
    Though they never achieved the status of “I Love Lucy” (really, what show actually can or will?), they are mostly remembered as her follow-ups and solidified her as the undisputed Queen of Comedy in that – like with “I Love Lucy” – she not only headlined these two programs, but also OWNED them and was the behind-the-scenes driving force BEHIND them. That is quite an accomplishment for a woman in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
    Now had you mentioned 1986′s “Life with Lucy”, that would have been understandable. However, you did not, so that must have truly been forgettable.
    I am truly saddened by the passing of Bea Arthur — much more than I would have anticipated. She was just a funny, funny woman with the gift of delivery and timing that she bought to both dialogue and a facial expression.
    We are blessed in this day and age for widespread syndication, memories and DVD releases to continue to pay tribute to her enduring talent.
    I hope there is a quick tribute to her at the Emmys with Betty White, Rue McClanahan, Adrienne Barbeau, Conrad Bain and Bill Macy.

  2. Great column–and don’t apologize for Point #4! I think one of the reasons why HBO shows have a greater hold over their audience is because they still set the mood with distinctive theme songs.
    Would “The Sopranos” embody Jersey grit as well without “Woke up this morning…?” Can you even think about the show without the tune running through your mind? Ditto the quasi-religious dreaminess of “God Only Knows” on “Big Love.”
    Somehow, I doubt “The Andy Griffith Show” would have been as successful if it began with a cold open of Andy and Opie launching the plot or delivering an unrelated introductory gag.

  3. And speaking of great theme songs: there are some shows that I really like to listen to their theme songs. As Chalmers noted in a previous post “The Sopranos” and “Big Love” both have great theme songs, but also what about “Rescue Me,”
    “The Big Bang Theory,” “Psych,” “Deadwood,” “Firefly,”and
    “Rome,” just to mention a few relatively recent shows. I was primed to love “Rescue Me” the minute I saw the opening credits and heard the song.

  4. Great column. Cheers. Arthur will be missed and taught us much.

  5. I think your points are well taken but I’d also take exception that Lucy’s followup shows weren’t as memorable. I was one of those kids who watched Here’s Lucy after school, just after they’d play The Brady Bunch, Star Trek and Time Tunnel.
    What about Kelsey Grammer following up Cheers with Frasier? True, it was the same character but it’s just as iconic (and I think I liked Frasier better than Cheers but I’m probably the only one). Bob Newhart’s second show about the Vermont innkeeper wasn’t quite as fantastic as his 70′s show but it did stay on the air for a number of years and certainly it’s part of the cultural landscape. And although it wasn’t specifically her show, her Sue Ann Nivens on Mary Tyler Moore and Rose on Golden Girls were very iconic. And speaking of MTM, Dick Van Dyke and her own show … not that all these examples take away from the brilliance that was Bea Arthur’s comedic timing and her ability to turn a comedic scene dramatic and vice versa, but she wasn’t the only one who has had two hit shows.

  6. Just wanted to add.. I wish shows would restore the theme song! For too many years it’s been just a title card and a little music… Can you imagine “Gilligan’s Island” or “The Brady Bunch” without their theme songs? Or “The Flintstones”.. Heck, even the opening for “Two and a Half Men” is catchy and memorable! :)

  7. Good column, but you’re off the mark on LUCY. I grew up with the 2 series you’ve dismissed, and didn’t find I LOVE LUCY until after I was already a confirmed fan of the loveable redhead!
    If you haven’t seen Lucy and her best friend, Viv (Vivian Vance aka “Ethel Mertz”), trying to install a glass-door shower enclosure, you haven’t lived! And who isn’t intimately familiar with the iconic relationship of Lucy and her penny-pinching banker, Mr. Mooney?

  8. Count me in as one of those that watched and enjoyed Lucy, Vivian and Mr. Mooney long before I had heard of Lucy and Ethel. And I’m in agreement about the theme song, if someone mentions Golden Girls the theme song starts playing (with words) in my head. Some would call that an annoyance, but it is a good marketing tool.

  9. Lovely article, but also disagree about Lucy: if you ask most people on the street what Lucy’s two shows were, they could probably only name “I Love Lucy” because it is always on television. But if you ask them the name Mr. Mooney rings a bell, I’d bet it does, indicating that the other show has some cultural relevance.
    Similarly, in twenty years if you ask most people on the street what Bea Arthur’s two shows were, most are probably only going to be able to name “The Golden Girls” because it has stayed constantly in syndication. But if you start singing the theme song to Maude, they’ll recognize it.

  10. I’m going to disagree with your last point, but mostly because of your reasoning. Michael J. Fox may not had as much success with Spin City as he did with Family Ties, but in all the interviews,etc.I’ve seen, he’s had nothing but pride in it. It was a good show, hilarious and well-written, with actors who brought every character to something larger than life.
    Alex P. Keaton was funny and Family Ties is one of my favorite shows from growing up. It continues in a way that Full House and Growing Pains can’t, because you can get older and still watch it without feeling like your teeth are about to fall out. But if Michael J. Fox had stopped there, I think the silver screen would definitely be the lesser.
    That said, I agree with your comments about Lucy. Maybe the lesson is be incredibly careful about your second sitcom!

  11. I think it’s also worth noting how Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan have a place in TV history as a great comedic duo who succeeded twice in iconic shows as different sets of characters, in a way not really done by anybody else but Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance, ironically where we’re referring in this discussion to Lucy and her other shows too. First as Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz, then as Lucy Carmichael and Vivian Vance, the actors were the same but they each made their characters distinct in some way from what and who they were in their previous teamings’ incarnations.

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