The Revolution Will Be Televised

Tune in, turn on, drop out. That ’60s counterculture catch phrase
is more likely these days to evoke an evening on the sofa with the
tube than a mind-expanding trip of consciousness-raising or
cultural opposition.
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.

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