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The Two-Edged Legacy of Brandon Tartikoff

Brandon Tartikoff died Wednesday at the age of 48. If you've forgotten him, he used to be the big kahuna of programming at NBC during the 1980s.

Now, a lot of people will eulogize Mr. Tartikoff with words like "genius" or "visionary." But when we think of him, we can't help but also think that he was the foundation of our wasted youth. He was the man who gave us Knight Rider, a show about a guy who worked with a talking car to right wrongs that us ordinary people can't. And then there was The A-Team, the show he premiered on a Super Bowl Sunday about a crack group of commandos who right the wrongs that the proper authorities couldn't handle. Or Voyagers!, a show about a couple guys who travel through time doing good deeds and solving problems that figures of history couldn't handle. And of course, he gave us Manimal, a show nobody could handle.

When we think of all the homework assignments we never finished, we blame Brandon Tartikoff. When a certain member of our group recalls all the embarrassment he suffered after he decided to get that blasted mohawk like Mr. T, he blames Brandon Tartikoff. When we think of the time we thought we could carry off the Miami Vice look, we blame Brandon Tartikoff.

And yet despite all of the crud he fed our young minds, we find ourselves wanting to thank him. To thank him for shows like Cheers, Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, and L.A. Law. True, he didn't create any of those shows -- or any of the other shows we mentioned above -- but he was the one who allowed them on the air, and stuck with them until they found audiences. Without him those shows wouldn't have survived.

Tartikoff's genius, if you want to call it that, was that he recognized that while America certainly loves its crap, there's also actually an audience for good stuff. The key is that you have to be patient and wait to find that audience, a concept lost on all the microencephalic TV executives (hello, Fred Silverman) that came before him. We can say with some assurance that without Tartikoff, we wouldn't have ER, or Homicide, or NYPD Blue.

Let's also not forget another Tartikoff contribution: He was one of the men who made black people commonplace on TV. Though it's difficult to believe in this era of Fox, UPN and The WB's urban-themed schedules, blacks were almost non-existent on TV unless they were criminals or domestics. But thanks to the success of Cosby and other shows Tartikoff green-lighted, we got to see black lawyers, doctors, cops, teachers, and college students. Granted, Tartikoff might have been motivated by what was clearly an untapped market for television -- but the changes he wrought were monumental just the same.

So, yes, we honestly and unabashedly salute the same man who set Misfits of Science loose upon the world. Brandon Tartikoff inherited a TV world filled with nothing but crap. When he left it, it was still mostly crap -- but if you looked hard enough, you could find quality amid the crap.

You might not find that an important legacy, but we do. Brandon Tartikoff had enough faith in TV viewers that he knew if his network put good shows on the air, people would find them, fall in love with them, and support them. He had faith that not everyone wants to watch tits-and-ass extravaganzas -- at least, not all the time.

He left his arena a better place than when he entered it. As we see it, that's a life well lived. And one worth remembering.

Additional contributions to this article by: Jason Snell, James Collier.


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