Monday, October 11, 2010

A legend of manly television dies

Stephen J. Cannell, mega producer and prolific writer, passed away last week. He was an amazing man, responsible for some of my favorite pop culture memories from the Eighties. Husband-cat says that in 1986 he had six shows in prime time. Six! He was responsible for the A-Team and The Rockford Files, two signature shows and clear winners, recognizable around the world. Other classics include: Hunter, Hardcastle & McCormick, The Greatest American Hero, Riptide, and Wiseguy. Over 40 shows and 17 books. Oh, and he acted. They don't make players like that any more!

Stephen J. Cannell always struck me as a genial man making genial shows. His singular flavor was the approachable, relatable male character – even when that character was constantly under duress, like in Wiseguy, or completely over-the-top popcorn, the A-Team. He could make men macho and manly but with feeling and humor. His own geniality came out in his guest starring roles. Hell, he even was on the ultimate pure male Technicolor show: Magnum PI. Meeting of the minds there. Which begs the question: why don't they make male characters like that any more? We used to have shows featuring men who were independent, outside the lines, but had bonds with other men in their lives. Nowadays everything is drama and dysfunction, dark and graphic, soap suds or humor so broad you can feel them checking off the demographic box covered as the image plays.

Take my mother's viewing habits: Criminal Minds, CSI, Two and a Half Men. The fact that she can watch all of them in one sitting astonishes me. Harsh, graphic, mindless. Yet I can almost understand her lineup given her televisual options. Today's male characters are borderline sociopathic or misanthropic – see The Mentalist, Psych, 24, or any crime show. The godawful "spouse" comedies are even worse. I feel like everywhere I look it's nothing but male characters disconnected from the world, the people in their lives, and the past. Or the shows are organized around horrific things – CSI(s), Law & Order(s), Supernatural, House, Criminal Minds (or any damn profiler show) all spring to mind as examples.

They don't have those men-in-functional-bonded-relationships shows any more. It seems like an Eighties specialty, classic popcorn like Jake & the Fatman, the A-Team, Simon & Simon, the A-team, Magnum PI, et al. The subtext of unassailable male bonds – from Vietnam, family – seemed to be enough to show a level of camaraderie and comfort missing from television these days. Everything's epic, dramatic, and serious now. Don't get me wrong, I love many of today's shows, but I miss the affable heroes of old.
In all his purple glory. (picture from Castle, a current affable man series - click here for an interview with Cannell about Nathan Fillion, star of Castle, napping and writing)

So if you've ever used the phrase, "I love it when a plan comes together," raise your glasses to the man that gave us the so much of what was fun and endearing about the televisual landscape.


  1. I already miss Mr. Cannell ... he was a legend, and some of those shows, particularly Magnum and Rockford, I can watch over and over and over ... it doesn't matter that I know what will happen. It is like visiting with an old friend ...

    Though I would include House in the misanthrop category ...

    What are your current must watches??

    I am enjoying Parenthood (mostly because I get to see Lorelai - LOVE HER), The Good Wife and Bones.

    Of the new shows, the only one that I am giving time to is Outlaw. Gotta support a brother representing.

  2. My fall must watches are Castle (genial man!), Fringe, and Supernatural (at least that's all we've gotten through so far, our TiVo list is HUGE). I love the horrifying otherworldly and science-fiction shows, but I miss the diversity of the 80's. I feel you on Outlaw - Undercovers is my representin' show (please don't get canceled!).


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