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Hey, Micks, You're So Fine

So I was sitting in the pub last week, having a wee nip of the Killian's and swapping blarney with the lads, when wouldn't you know that the new CBS television series Turks came on.

"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.

Plot: All around Dover, Delaware, there's few families as tight-knit as the kilt-wearing MacGregor clan. Patriarch Angus (Colm Meaney), a retired fisherman who knows the value of a dollar, tries to hold his family together with old-style values in a world that's trying to tear them apart. Eldest son Ian (Aidan Quinn), who tours on the professional caber toss circuit, hasn't spoken to his coal miner brother, Ewan (Robert Carlye), in years after Ewan refused to pay back a $20 loan. Youngest son Colin (Jason Priestly) is the black sheep of the family, spending as much as $38 on meals and loaning money out to strangers without a thought as to whether they'll ever pay him back. It's a tense household... but these four Scotsmen can stretch their love as far they're willing to stretch a dollar. And that's very far, indeed.
Ugly Stereotype To Be Reinforced: Scotsmen are well known for their frugality and parsimoniousness.
Cliched Background Music: Bagpipes.

Plot: Cultures collide in this hilarious comedy, when Iraqi militant Aziz (Casey Kasem) comes to live in the U.S. Aziz wants his son, Aziz Jr. (Joey Lawrence), to take over the family business -- namely, wreaking havoc upon the Great Satan. But all Junior wants to do is rock 'n roll every night and party every day, with his outrageous American girlfriend, Christie (Tina Yothers). You'll be bowing down to Mecca five times a day, too -- doubled over in laughter, that is!
Ugly Stereotype To Be Reinforced: Aziz is an inherently funny name.
Cliched Background Music: Sitar

Plot: The Herliheys have just made the long and difficult move from Windsor, Ontario, to a posh suburb outside of Detroit. But even though they find themselves in a strange new world, they still haven't forgotten their Canadian roots. In the riveting pilot episode, Guy Herlihey (Alan Thicke) must explain to incredulous neighbors that his first name rhymes with "whee," not "why," while his wife (Catherine O'Hara) searches in vain for a butcher's shop that stocks Canadian bacon.
Ugly Stereotype To Be Reinforced: Shows featuring Canadians just aren't terribly interesting.
Cliched Background Music: Something by Neil Young

Plot: Sven Oglethorpe (Garrison Keillor) runs the best smoked cheese house in all of Duluth. But all is not well in Sven's life. His old world father, Gustav (Jonathan Winters), is locking horns with the town's irreverent Lutheran minister (Donald Sutherland), who scandalizes the town by occasionally cracking a smile during services. And Sven's wife, Heidi (Mary Kay Place), is having an affair with his bowling buddy, Ole (Arn Andersen).
Ugly Stereotype To Be Reinforced: Lutherans are a plain-speaking, taciturn folk who go crazy for the smoked cheeses.
Cliched Background Music: A couple of hymns from the Lutheran Book of Worship

Plot: In the tight-knit French section of Cleveland, Jean-Paul Marceau (Jean Reno) is a man about town. A snooty waiter at the best bistro around, Jean-Paul is at the top of his profession. But his personal life is a shambles. His lover, Marie (Celine Dion), has betrayed him by taking up with a striking dock worker (Gerard Depardieu), a maid (Geena Davis) and a street mime (Robin Williams). His brother (Roberto Benigni) has joined the communist underground. And Jean-Paul's locked in a blood feud with an angry Jerry Lewis (himself). But with the help of his other lover, (Jewel), there's no crisis that Jean-Paul can't face without becoming even snootier.
Ugly Stereotype To Be Reinforced: Everyone hates the French.
Cliched Background Music: Maurice Chevalier tunes


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