Apr 26, 2009
Five Lessons From the Career of Bea Arthur
Bea Arthur's passing was one of the most talked about topics on Twitter over the weekend.
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.