During a conversation about television icons, a buddy of mine said that Matthew Perry is on track to achieve legendary status (and she wasn’t talking about his legendary knack for starring on shows that get canceled). Lucille Ball, Andy Griffith, Carol Burnett, Matthew Perry – one of these things is not like the others.
What this friend of mine failed to understand is that there is a difference between an icon and someone who is simply a prolific and perhaps beloved television actor, a difference that may be harder to identify when it comes to this medium than it is with film. Perry certainly possess many of the qualities that go in to making an icon – he’s charismatic, his particular set of comedic gifts are perfectly suited for the sitcom format, he’s been on TV for as long as I can remember. But he (on his own and not as a member of the Friends cast) hasn’t had the same kind of impact on the medium or the culture that someone like Jerry Seinfeld has – Seinfeld’s influence is still felt today in shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and he is so cherished by the public that we don’t hold The Marriage Ref against him.
So, if not Perry, who is poised to join the pantheon of TV gods?
First we should probably define “TV icon.” On the most basic level, they’re actors (or, in some cases, television personalities) who may also appear in films but who have made outstanding and often groundbreaking contributions to television – they push the medium in exciting, strange, or even uncomfortable new directions. These are people whose names are lodged in the collective consciousness. A TV icon is someone whose work transcends whichever decade they’re working in but who we associate with a particular era in television history because they typically play characters who personify some aspect of society (anything from fashion to politics) or a social ideal at that time. Mary Tyler Moore who first played housewife Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show and then 30-something bachelorette Mary Richards on her eponymously titled ’70s sitcom is both a symbol of the shifting role of women in America and a shift in the types of characters that women portray on TV – as Mary Richards she was a happily single career woman who was on the pill and could speak with relative candor about sexuality.
Liz Lemon is certainly cut from the same cloth as Mary Richards and like Moore did in the ’70s, Tina Fey – the most obvious future TV icon – has redefined what female-centric comedy looks like. No doubt inspired by the success of 30 Rock, we’ve seen an influx of comedies (Parks and Recreation, The Mindy Project, Girls, Veep) led by female comedians, playing genuine, endearingly graceless characters. Fey also happens to be one of the most adept comedic actors/writers working today – clearly, talent must play some role in which TV stars we choose to revere.
Stephen Colbert is a comedian who perhaps isn’t as unmistakably destined for icon status as Fey is but whose work should definitely be considered in this sort of discussion. He’s had a long career in TV, something that we might forget – before he was the star of his own faux news program, he was a cast member and writer on The Dana Carvey Show and co-creator of the darkly hilarious sitcom Strangers with Candy, a series that was totally counter to the political correctness that dominated mid to late ’90s TV. Naturally, though, it’s on The Colbert Report that he’s done his most noteworthy work. I pick Colbert over Jon Stewart (who may have already cemented his legacy with The Daily Show) because this right-wing blowhard character that he’s created is impeccably crafted and seamlessly performed. Also, The Colbert Report is a reflection of what’s currently happening in at least two different realms – he’s parodying a television phenomenon while engaging humorously with politics. If that weren’t enough, he coined a word (“truthiness”) – whether you’re talking about TV stars, authors, or ancient tyrants, quotability is an important factor when determining which people have had the most significant influence over an era.
With the line separating television and film thinning, any TV greats that this generation produces will have to be dedicated – not entirely but substantially – to the medium and that’s why I think Seth MacFarlane could one day be mentioned in the same breath as Mel Blanc. Love him or hate him, MacFarlane is a TV juggernaut, currently producing three different animated shows on Fox while also voicing multiple characters on each one of them. And then, of course, he’s about to host the Oscars. He creates shows that are impossible to watch passively, that are defiant in their vulgarity, and that always offer some kind of demented critique on the culture (reality TV, race, liberalism, trans fats, have all been tackled).
In Bryan Cranston and Michael J. Fox, we see career longevity and diversity that matches the likes of Bill Cosby and Carroll O’ Connor. Like those earlier performers, Cranston and Fox have starred on multiple successful TV series (Cranston on Breaking Bad and Malcolm in the Middle, Fox on Family Ties and Spin City) and have experienced periods of TV ubiquity at some point in their careers. As things stand, both have already made significant contributions to TV history (Cranston as the star of one of the most complex dramas in the history of television and Fox as the stand-out member of the Family Ties cast), so in recent years it has really been interesting to see how they’ve challenged themselves as actors and continued to build their legacies. Fox in particular – who took a short break from acting after his Parkison’s diagnosis but who has made memorable guest appearances on Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Good Wife, been nominated for a ton of Emmys, and has a new TV show in production – is truly devoted to the medium.
While movie stars are elusive, TV stars are our pals. They hang out in our living rooms every week, we see them grow and develop, and so we feel a kind of intimacy with these actors and the characters that they play. Which TV stars of today will become tomorrow’s icons? I obviously don’t know. But the ability to achieve that kind of buddy-buddy familiarity is going to be at the center of their success.