They Don’t Let Ugly People on TV Anymore

By Ryan Uytdewilligen

Bea Arthur on cover of TV guide #1204 used under CC license
Bea Arthur on cover of TV guide #1204 used under CC license

Imagine it’s the 1950’s and your father returns home with a television set. Just one for the entire family and there are only three channels. When you turn it on, the most wholesome, sweet, and plain couple named Ozzie and Harriet Nelson are staring back at you. There’s nothing special about them, but they’re a joy to watch, along with the Cleavers, the Kramdens, and the Ricardos. Yes, television was an invention that certainly changed how we look at things, especially ourselves. I can tell you there are quite a few men in my home town who look (and act) just like Jackie Gleason and that old pictures of my grandmother’s family remind me of Lucille Ball. But when I look at myself and my friends, I always thought we were a good looking, typical group of people. After watching a lifetime’s worth of television, I don’t think I’ve seen us anywhere. The times have changed where slick producers and advertisers determine who we see. It just seems in this day and age, they don’t let ugly people on TV anymore.

After the candy coated television in the 1960’s, viewers said goodbye to Batman and Bewitched and embraced realism. The truth hungry youth fought for peace, love, and change in this radical time and television was no exemption. Brilliant producers like Norman Lear saw what the people wanted and fought to bring “real” families to the small screen. In 1971, people got a hard taste with All in the Family. Archie Bunker was overweight, cantankerous, racist, and yet somehow lovable. His wife and son in law were no exception and certainly no eye candy. Jean Stapleton and Rob Reiner were instead two immensely talented comedians who fought with Bunker every episode about typical political and ideological views. The family was raw, rude, and most importantly real. They looked like every day people because that’s what they were and that’s what the audience loved.

After a two episode guest role on All in the Family, Bea Arthur landed her own show, Maude, which lasted for six seasons. At this point in her career, Bea was fifty years old, grey haired, and stood taller than most of her costars. She looked like a typical grandmother, but because of her talent and strong overbearing character, the show was a hit, remaining in the top 30 television Nielson list for most of its run. It’s tough to come up with present day shows that have a female star over thirty, but according to Nielson one of the top ten watched shows was Mom, starring fifty-five year old Alison Janney. So it would be unfair to say people watch a show because of age, but comparing Alison Janney to Bea Arthur is, well, a little difficult.

Back in television’s heyday, the regular average Joe ranked supreme. Audiences watched a rag tag crew hang around a garage in Taxi, or spend all day in a bar in Cheers. Norm and Cliff were about as average as you could get but audiences loved them. As for Taxi, hunky 1970’s Tony Danza was one of the stars, but let’s face it, who watched Taxi for Tony Danza? Andy Kaufman and Danny DeVito were quirky looking goofballs who stole every show. Sitcoms gravitated around odd characters who could make you laugh, no matter their look and background.

But tastes changed as the 1990’s rolled around after the flashy and exaggerated eighties ended. Yes, Seinfeld might have been watched for its humor, but families and protagonists seemed a little more polished, just look at all the beautiful stars of Friends. At the same time, cable took off like a rocket and blurred the lines of what you could show when it came to sex, nudity, and violence. With new technology like the internet, it was easier for fashion designers and advertisers to show people what models looked like in their products, and people bought it.

Today it seems shows tend to have better looking leads while the goofier, unconventional people are supporting characters like in 30 Rock and The Office. Or you’ll have unnaturally appealing people across the board. Look at just how different Mary Richards’s co-workers are in Mary Tyler Moore compared with Mindy’s co-workers in The Mindy Project. A few shows like Rosanne and more currently Mike and Molly went for laughs and center around average people, but storylines tended to focus on the fact they were overweight.

So now most of what we find on our televisions is beautiful women in beautiful apartments. HBO dramas have more sex than a porno, and so naturally need good looking casts to get viewers. People seem young, vibrant, and happy or part of a fictional and non-relatable world. So what happened to average married people hanging out in bars or going to work every day to make ends meet? Did that idea just get stale to the point where audiences wanted gorgeous flesh and eye candy, much like the sixties? British audiences enjoy comedy for comedy with stars like Ricky Gervais leading the tube so it might just be Americans showcasing unrealistic and unnatural looks. Thing is, most people watch American television.

This little box that came into our homes over sixty years ago acts like a little window into someone else’s life. We watch it for entertainment or some kind of emotion, but also, according to this study by the University of Rhode Island, we watch television to compare our lives with others. And so how can people compete with Don Draper’s style, Lena Dunham attitude, or Piper Chapman looks? Everyone’s having more sex on TV, making more money, and putting in little effort to look and feel good. The pressure is on and people can feel it no matter how old they are. Product placement is now utilized so commonly that in order to be like the people on TV, the only solution is to have the goods. The bottom line is that TV no longer reflects on life as it’s lived, instead it shapes how people live their lives.

If television keeps on the route it’s going, there’s no doubt we’ll get innovative and never before told stories, but people won’t even be in them. CGI will easily be able to take the place of actors to create the most stunningly beautiful people that will certainly attract viewers. And beautiful apartments or unknown worlds will look flawless without any speck of dust. But the thing is beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Everyone has one of those boxes in almost every room now where broadcasters beam thousands of shows that they think you should enjoy…, but you have the choice. Maybe if enough of us go back and rediscover some of the old classics, broadcasters would take the hint and bring back shows about regular people and a simpler time. Okay, maybe times aren’t so simple anymore and life never really has been either way, but the only certainty is that life is a beautiful thing and there really is no such thing as an ugly person, just the ugly view from your living room couch.

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