Hey, Micks, You're So Fine
"Saints be praised!" me mate Seamus McGillacuddy shouted. "At last a show that finally gives us sons of the Emerald Isle our due!"
"'Tis a fine show," said Patrick O'Flaherty, a local police officer who may soon become a priest, Lord bless him. "But sure 'tis no Trinity. Now, there was a program that could charm the Devil himself!"
"Ach, you're a fool, O'Flaherty," snarled Tommy Kelly, as drunk a man as ever there was in Christendom. "Everybody knows that Trinity was as dull and lifeless as the queen's arse."
"Why, you bastard," Patrick shouted, knocking over his pint of Bushmill's. "I'll cudgel ye with me shillelagh."
And that started the biggest row the pub had seen since the spring of '83 when a Protestant tried to toast the crown on St. Patrick's day. We fought and drank and fought some more well into the night. And by the dawn's first light, we were arm-in-arm again, singing "Danny Boy" and casting all our troubles aside! So me and me brothers Liam and Patrick and O'Toole and Pat and Tip and Patty, we all staggered back to the apartment we share with our mother -- our sainted mother! -- where we enjoyed a hearty breakfast of potatoes and corned beef and cabbage.
Or at least we would have, if my life actually mirrored the grim fantasy world that TV has constructed for itself. The television networks have rolled out five new series this year that focused on the lives and loves of Irish-Americans and all their attendant cliches -- -- the latest being CBS' Turks which debuted a couple of weeks back.
Years from now, when the great minds of the future are ready to grapple with the truly weighty issues of our era, people will look back on the 1998-99 television season as the Golden Age of Paddy-oriented programming. Whether it's that Visa commercial where the put-upon woman carts her harpie-like mother back to the homeland or the ever-present, always unsettling Riverdance, just a quick flip around the dial will prove one inescapable conclusion -- television is lousy with Irishmen.
Nowhere has this been more evident than on the TV networks and the Mick-skewing shows they've sought to broadcast. From Costello -- which may have finally tested the last limits of America's endurance for no-talent stand-up comics who get their own shows -- to To Have and To Hold -- which may have set a new indoor record for having its Irish protagonist break into a chorus of "Danny Boy" -- you couldn't turn on the ol' Magnavox without being exposed to close-knit families, comical brogues and the lilting strains of pipes and fiddles. In between, you might have stumbled across Legacy, and its gripping tale of the only 19th century Irish clan not wiped out by the potato famine, before having your senses pummeled into submission by the cliche trifecta of Trinity.
Note to NBC's programming department: the next time someone walks into your office and says, "A priest, a cop and a union organizer walk into a bar," realize that they are probably just telling you a joke they saw on the Internet, not pitching you the plot for the next monster-hit drama from the producer of ER.
Three of those shows are now off the air, given their own sparsely attended Irish wakes at the hands of low ratings and creative missteps. The fourth, Legacy, may become the first show to ever outlast the network on which it airs. And now, Turks joins this happy band of brothers, bringing with it all the elements -- Close-knit families! Cops! Silly brogues! Incessant pipes and fiddles! -- that made its forerunners such big hits with public.
Turks centers around a family of shepherds, living on the outskirts of Constantinople whose lives are torn asunder by the brutish rule of Abdulhamid II. But even the harsh realities of shepherding, a despotic ruler and the systematic genocide taking place around them isn't enough to make them forget what's most important -- family.
No, wait. That's not right. Let me check my notes... Ah yes!
Turks centers around a family of Chicago cops. Chicago Irish cops. The patriarch of the family -- played by the toothy William Devane -- is one of the best cops on the force, but, faith and begorah, he's having problems on the home front with his dissatisfied wife.
This should, in no way, be confused with Trinity, which also featured an Irish law enforcement officer who happened to be one of the best cops on the force, but, faith and begorah, was having problems on the home front with his dissatisfied wife. Nor should it conjure up any memories of To Have and To Hold where the main actor was one of the best cops on the force who always seemed to be having problems on the home front with his mouthy wife.
For starters, Turks deals with mick cops in Chicago, whereas Trinity was all about a New York-based clan of paddies and To Have and To Hold looked at the lives of a bunch of potato-eaters from a Boston point of view. And the other two actors don't have dental work near as impressive as Bill Devane's. See? Completely different.
And while those other shows portrayed the proud Irish-American people as a bunch of drunken louts constantly hanging out in neighborhood pubs as background fiddlers and pipers belted out a merry Gaelic jig, Turks strode confidently in an entirely different direction. Its pilot episode debuted with a shot of... um, a neighborhood pub. Where proud Irish-Americans were behaving like a bunch of drunken louts. As fiddlers and pipers belted out a merry Gaelic jig in the background.
Perhaps, I'm taking this a mite bit personally because I'm of Irish descent. But I don't have a comical brogue like so many of my TV-based kin. I don't live within a stone's throw from my parents and countless relatives. I've never contemplated a career on the police force or in the priesthood. Hell, I'm a Protestant. I do happen to be a drunken lout, but my taste in liquor runs more toward Canadian brews rather than the nasty, warm beer enjoyed by my ancestors. And I've never grown misty-eyed when some old codger plays a tune from the old country on his trusty fiddle.
Of course, I'm also part German. So this could really be just some crazy-ass Teutonic thing.
Still, I can't quite get over the fact that Irish-Americans have been reduced to little more than one-dimensional stereotypes on the ol' boob tube. Does any other race or ethnicity have to grapple with such time-worn cliches? Are Italian-Americans always portrayed as oily wiseguys in deep with the mob? Does TV unfailingly depict Jewish characters as wound-up balls of neuroses, whose primary concern is finding a quality Chinese restaurant on the Lower East Side? Do African-Americans who show up on the small screen always seem to turn up as jive-talkin' street hustlers named Huggy Bear?
Yes. They are, it does and they do.
There's a reason, of course, for why TV producers and writers love to traffic in stale bromides and tired stereotypes -- it's so much easier that way. Think about it. You've got to put together a pilot episode for new TV show that introduces all the characters, sets the premise of the series in motion, captivates the hearts and minds of the audience, grabs a 30 share in the Nielsens and gives you an entry into bedding fabulous, large-breasted starlets.
Oh sure, you could spend hours painstakingly crafting a backstory that slowly unfolds over the course of the first few episodes, adding dimension and nuance to the characters that populate your show. But by then, half your audience will have flipped over to the pro wrestling show on the USA Network. So what better way to quickly and effortlessly introduce America to a brand new set of TV characters than by ordering up some ready-made cliches and easy-to-recognize conventions?
A show about the Irish, you say? Get me some police officers and a big extended family and lots and lots of brogues. Brogues straight out of "Darby O'Gill and the Little People." And make sure that they drink. Irish people drink a lot. Maybe throw in a priest or a firefighter or an old ward politician. Now, there's some characters people will recognize. And I better hear me some fiddles and pipes pronto, mister!
You can't really blame the producers and writers for fetching one too many buckets of water from the ol' stereotype well. Time spent sweating bullets over character development is that much more time taken away from cozying up to network executives, thinking of Sweeps week stunts and bedding those fabulous, large-breasted starlets. And why even get into the TV business in the first place, if not for the large-breasted starlets? Besides providing the thrill of giving solace to the joyless masses, I mean?
So it is in this spirit of understanding -- of kinship -- that I offer a few cliche-laden TV series ideas of my own. Because by next fall -- when the gilt is off the wild Irish rose, when the corned beef and cabbage has gone bad, when Irish eyes are no longer smiling but filled with tears of shame and regret -- that's when network programmers will need a whole new set of shows featuring typecast ethnics to fill the dead air between ads.
All I ask in return is a kind thought from you network programmers every now and again. That, and a couple of them large-breasted starlets. I hope I'm being very explicit on that point.
A SHOT OF SCOTCH
MY SON, THE INFIDEL
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