But the tedium isn't the message. At least not the only message. Ironically, even from the sofa, you're prone to see characters who embody ideals and lifestyles outside the mainstream.
Over the years, countercultural characters have turned up in the unlikeliest spot-prime time TV-calling attention to marginalized (or demonized) topics like the sexual revolution, alternative medicine, and progressive politics.
Maynard G. Krebs, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959-63)
TV's original, like, beatnik, Maynard G. Krebs (Bob Denver, who later played the title role in Gilligan's Island) was a surprisingly anti-establishment voice of slacker insouciance in the 'I like Ike' era. While his good buddy Dobie was chasing skirts and pathetically trying to fit into the button-down world, scruffy Maynard was bashing bongos, dodging work, and coyly critiquing the establishment-all the while spewing hepcat slanguage (Ya dig, Daddio?). Given to praising jazz greats like Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, Maynard made it hip to be beat for millions of mainstream kids who otherwise might never have heard of Ferlinghetti or Kerouac.
Oliver Wendell Douglas, Green Acres (1965-71)
Going back to the land was anything but bland when Oliver (Eddie Albert) and Lisa (Eva Gabor) moved from a Manhattan penthouse to a Hooterville hen house. Initially as clueless as any utopian hippie farmer, Oliver had his own spin on being one with the earth. Absurdly insisting on wearing suits to do the chores, city slicker Oliver was given to spontaneous romanticized orations about Yankee farmer self-reliance (complete with fife player) and found himself surrounded by comic manifestations of what Marx termed rural idiocy. More than just The Beverly Hillbillies in reverse, Oliver and crew created some seriously silly absurdist theater in the fallow corny fields of prime time.
Lincoln 'Linc' Hayes, The Mod Squad (1968-73)
The original undercover brother, black militant cop Linc was the superbad third of The Mod Squad. The three were wayward, painfully relevant youths who came around to the right side of the law-working for the Man, but only to help the Kids. Seen alongside his hippie-dippy cohorts (Pete and Julie), reformed Watts rioter Linc (Clarence Williams III) seems like a real revolutionary. With his groovy shades, hip threads, and high-rise Afro, Linc is one of the coolest dudes in TV history. He was often heard spouting over-the-top lines like 'He's a soul brother. I don't fink on soul brothers.' Or his all-purpose signature line: 'Solid!'
Meathead Mike & Gloria Stivic, All in the Family (1971-83)
Archie Bunker was the ultimate reactionary buffoon on the nation's top-rated show. Which meant that daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers) and son- in-law Meathead Mike (Rob Reiner) got to make all kinds of good lefty-liberal points that rarely got an airing any- where else on the tube. Meathead and Gloria's strident speechifying didn't do much to counter the impression that many lefties lack the humor gene, but they did manage to get off their share of zingers at Archie's expense.
Gabe Kotter, Welcome Back, Kotter (1975-79)
What goes around, comes around. If teaching is a subversive activity, then Mr. Kotter (Gabe Kaplan) is a true grassroots radical. A former remedial-student 'sweat hog' himself, Kotter gives back to his Brooklyn community by putting up with a bunch of smart-alecky underachievers, changing the future one kid at a time (Barbarino, Horshack, Epstein, Washington-they were quite a struggle). You can think of it as a human recycling project or maybe a high school karma wheel that keeps on turning. Welcome back, indeed.
Reginald Perrin, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976-79)
Crack up, drop out, drop back in. That's the character arc of this quirky '70s Brit-com. Reggie (Leonard Rossiter) is the high-strung sales drone who goes wiggy, ditches the soulless corporate world, follows his bliss, and remakes himself a couple of times. After faking suicide, he attends his own funeral as a long lost old friend and begins romancing his wife all over again. Ultimately he opens an absurd business selling clearly labeled 'useless' items like Square Hoops (which won't roll) and Round Dice (which won't stop rolling). Naturally, the balmy business becomes an absurd success, which drives Reggie crazy (again). Ultimately, he starts an anti-competitive commune that doesn't quite work out as planned, but somehow it all fits together perfectly in this hilarious satire of corporate idiocy.
Leonard Quinhagak, Northern Exposure (1990-95)
Native American wisdom is a fundamental strand in our loosely interwoven notions of counterculture, and prime time shaman Leonard Quinhagak-(Graham Greene) brought tribal ways to his recurring role on Northern Exposure. He played the cousin of show regular Marilyn (Elaine Miles), an Indian storyteller/truth vendor in her own right, so there was no shortage of native knowledge. As a medicine man, Leonard took his time with his patients-fishing or hanging around at the house with them-and in general employing a refreshingly holistic approach to healing. Just try to get that kind of house call from your HMO.
Fox Mulder, The X-Files (1993-2002)
The ultimate Question Authority insider, Fox Mulder of The X-Files is that oddest of odd birds: a counterculture FBI agent. Which is kind of a contradiction in terms (if you don't count all the infiltrators and instigators who joined radical political movements on the government's payroll in the '60s). But with his 'out there' ideas, faith in otherworldly spirits, and fanciful theories, Mulder is the intuitive counterbalance to hyperrational, status-quo keeper Scully (Gillian Anderson).
Ellen Morgan, Ellen (1994-98)
If there was ever an unlikely champion of a cause, it has to be hilariously low-key comedian Ellen DeGeneres striking a blow for gay liberation with her eponymous show. Her 'coming out' in 'The Puppy Episode' was big-time Event TV that sparked conversation (and rattling in closets) nationwide. Though Ellen the show was never as funny as Ellen the comedian, the program paved the way for other successful gay-theme shows like Will & Grace and Queer as Folk.
Carrie Bradshaw, Sex and the City (1998-)
If we had known the sexual revolution was going to be televised, we probably would have gotten cable much sooner. As it is, Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) and her libidinous Sex and the City pals are the ultimate contemporary pop culture expression of the sexual revolution, continuing to explore the social bounds and bonds that shape our erotic expectations (and limitations). As sexual pioneers in the '60s and '70s discovered, there's more to the struggle than random rutting, avoiding sex-role pigeonholing, and the quest for meaningful relationships-there's also the endless, often maddening, chatter. Ah well, every revolution has its hazards.
Jefferson Reid, a former editor at Utne Reader, is a musician, screen writer, and cultural critic living in Los Angeles.