Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: When was the first time you saw a TV character that you felt represented you or your experience? Who was it? How did you feel? (This is jumping on the #FirstTimeISawMe hashtag about representation.)
Eric Deggans (@deggans), NPR
This is a tough question, because I don’t think I’ve seen a character like me yet on television (black comics nerd who loves playing drums, has a thirst for pop culture, spent his teens grooving to Frank Zappa and Parliament/Funkadelic and has a passion for racial issues and opposing stereotypes in media. Nope, haven’t seen that character yet). But the first time I saw TV characters like the people around me, was when I turned on Norman Lear’s ‘70s sitcom “Good Times.”
Matriarch Florida Evans reminded me of all the hardworking black women in my neighborhood and family – my grandmother was a housekeeper for many years to a wealthy, white family in Pittsburgh – who worked their fingers raw during the day taking care of other’s homes, so they could provide for their own. Studious younger son Michael was the kid I always tried to be; well-read, good-mannered, with a respect for education, good grades and achievement that would get me out of the neighborhood someday. Daughter Thelma was my crush; knuckleheaded J.J. was the kind of guy I usually wound up handing out with at school, drawn together by our goofy senses of humor, artistic impulses and inability to fight or play sports. And James Evans was the best version of my friends’ dads – quick to anger and discipline, but fair, hardworking and occasionally willing to admit when he was wrong. That’s why it hurt so much when producers wrote James Evans off the show amid ongoing conflicts with star John Amos. Growing up without a dad in the house, “Good Times” was a place where I could see a black family, on the same level as my family, but intact with a dad who cared. Didn’t help that later, when I found out Amos was displaced because he and co-star Esther Rolle objected to how much screen time the coonish J.J. was getting, I pretty much agreed with them.
April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics
“Better Things.” Pamela Adlon’s character Sam Fox’s life is 100 percent relatable to me. .. minus the acting part. The stress of raising children with an MIA ex-husband, working overtime and keeping up a mortgage, dealing with the wildly different challenges and personalities of your in-house tribe and trying to maintain your own personal space and romantic life… been there, done that.
Getting older in a town where older is not so revered? Yup. Losing a parent suddenly and dealing with a quirky mother who is a handful and cannot figure out how to use the smart phone you got them or grasp cutting and pasting still? Mmm-hmm. Friends who are childless and connect with you on so many levels except the “being a responsible parent” part and who are overly needy of your time and don’t grasp why you aren’t as available as they would like you to be? Check.
It’s hard work and quite lonely at times too. “Better Things” captures all of those emotions, anxieties, fears, and especially the vexing and fantastic moments perfectly for me.
Damian Holbrook (@damianholbrook), TV Guide Magazine
I once replied to a past survey here about Norm Korpi on the original “Real World” being the first time I saw a gay man who was presented without shameful exploitation or a tragic narrative. But the first time I saw someone who most closely represented my experience as a gay man was Max Blum on “Happy Endings.” Even though Adam Pally was really only “Hollywood fat” (read: more than 117 pounds), the fact that Max was the chubby gay guy who didn’t adhere to most stereotypes thrilled me. As one of the worst gays I know, it was about damn time TV had one who didn’t listen to showtunes like it was his job, ate pizza in bed, was a slob with no filter and still enjoyed the friendship of the “stereotypically flamboyant, cartoonish ‘Sex and the City’ gay,” Derrick (drama!). In fact, when Max declared that he “was not at a point in my life where I can be taken seriously,” it was then that I found my TV spirit animal and #lifepartnergoal.
Allison Keene (@KeeneTV), Collider
Since TV is almost exclusively populated with white girls, I was certainly able to see plenty of characters I could identify with while growing up. But one stood out in terms of a certain kind of acceptance: I wasn’t allowed to watch “Sex and the City” when it was on, but I always found a way because I saw the first chick with crazy blonde curly hair on TV as a starring character. Suddenly my unruly locks became appreciated as “Carrie hair,” and it was so fantastic to see curls be embraced on a show that was so cool and culturally important.
Of course, Carrie eventually flat-ironed those curls for the remainder of the show, and the series lost its cultural cachet (coincidence?). But for awhile it helped me want to embrace something I had always fought against (which not even “Felicity” could cure, since her hair was so quickly and controversially chopped). Even now, whenever I see a major character embracing her curls on a TV series — which remains exceedingly rare — I always watch.
Joyce Eng (@joyceeng61), TVGuide.com
I saw “The Joy Luck Club” when it came out when I was 8. Outside of Chinese movies my grandma always rented, I had never seen an American movie that was all or majority Asian that wasn’t martial arts-related. Sadly, that hasn’t changed in 24 years. When “ER” began a year later and Ming-Na Wen started recurring, I remember getting excited because that was the girl from “The Joy Luck Club”! I never wanted to be a doctor or an actress, but I was just happy to see her and wanted all good things for her. And then she was friggin’ “Mulan.” Also shout-out to Irene Ng — who was also in “The Joy Luck Club” — for making me think I could be a youth sleuth on “The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo.”
Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter
I think I felt close to Paul Pfeiffer on “The Wonder Years” because he seemed nerdy and Jewish in ways I could relate to, but it wasn’t like Paul was OVERTLY Jewish. He just read as vaguely Jewish. But let’s be honest: If you’re a young, white, straight male growing up watching TV, you’re so over-represented in broad strokes that you can start splitting hairs, because everywhere you look on TV there are characters who are at least vaguely representationally similar.
A better illustration of representation was taught to me by my classmates at the middle school I went to in Mississippi, a 90+ percent African-American public school. And my classmates called me “Bud Bundy.” Now I never looked anything like David Faustino and I never acted much like Bud Bundy, and Bud Bundy was almost nothing like me on any specific demographic level. Realistically, Bud Bundy was probably edgier and cooler (albeit dumber) than I was seeing myself if I saw myself in Paul Pfeiffer. But this was a moment in which Fox was trying to carve out its identity by programming to minority audiences, and for my classmates, Bud Bundy was the white male teen on the network they were watching. Whereas comparatively, I felt like I saw me wherever I looked on TV, they were watching the one place on TV where people like me weren’t over-indexed. Whereas I looked for versions of me on TV who might fit specifically with the layers of identity I wanted to explore, my classmates saw my age and whiteness (and lameness) and “Bud Bundy” was the only thing that fit. Anyway, this is a reading of pure privilege because I happened to live some portion of my life in which I felt like racial perspectives were inverted, while always being aware that I was in a weird little bubble and the anomaly wasn’t reality. This question and hashtag isn’t for cis white guys.
Gail Pennington (@gailpennington), St. Louis Post-Dispatch
I saw plenty of myself on TV as a kid. There was a bratty, annoying, chubby little sister or neighbor on almost every TV sitcom. But you could have knocked me over the first time I saw a woman reporting the news from Washington on network TV. That was Nancy Dickerson, and Walter Cronkite had given her his stamp of approval. I didn’t consciously think, wow, I could do that, but when I went into journalism, I never questioned whether any job was off limits.
Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire
Probably the first obvious character I identified with was Penny on “Inspector Gadget,” as she was a cool tech-savvy pre-teen and I was at least a few of those words. (Minus “cool.”) But she was one of many semi-empowered young women I was lucky enough to grow up with, even though the prevalence of “Smurfette syndrome” meant that we’d only get the one tough female for every collective of men.
The women of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” were a joy, though, as well as the girl squad at the core of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” I never straight-up saw myself as one specific character, but the ’90s featured a lot of women on screen who inspired me to be better.
Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall), UpRoxx
There’s a reason my blog is called What’s Alan Watching. In the late ‘80s, I was a teenager named Alan who was obsessed with television to the point that many of my older relatives fretted, “What’s he going to do with his life if he sits in front of that thing all day?” (Spoiler: I sure showed them.) So when I heard that CBS was going to air a TV show about a teenager named Alan (the proper spelling even) who was similarly obsessed with the small screen, well… let’s just say both our family VCRs were recording it that night, just to be safe.
The actual “What’s Alan Watching?” starred a pre-“Parker Lewis” Corin Nemec as my more telegenic doppelgänger, and was directed by Tommy Schlamme, of all people. It was an unsold pilot that CBS was airing because Eddie Murphy (who was producing) cameoed in several of Alan’s fantasy sequences, including a chance for him to riff on James Brown again. It wasn’t my exact life, nor my exact taste in TV, but the self referential nature of the thing cast its spell on me and showed that there were other people out there who thought as deeply about “Mr. Ed” reruns and other ephemera that our families called a waste of time. Later shows like “Freaks and Geeks” offered more accurate – and at times painful – mirrors of my own adolescence, but this was the first time I felt I saw “me” on screen.
And Tommy Schlamme still occasionally gives me a hard time about borrowing the name.
June Thomas (@junethomas), Slate
Britain’s North-South divide is shockingly persistent, and while the nation grapples with class in a way that America rarely does, it’s still all too easy to find ugly attitudes toward working-class Brits on display. Growing up in Manchester, England, television allowed me to imagine myself in America, which felt like a magical land across the sea, but I rarely saw the kind of working-class community I lived in, and characters never seemed to do any of the things that kept people busy in my home town. “Coronation Street” was a wonderful exception — a prime-time soap opera that followed the lives of ordinary Northerners who had accents just like mine. It’s now been on the air for 57 years, and the current incarnation bears very little resemblance to the original version (though, amazingly, at least one actor from the very first episodes still has a regular role in the show), but I still watch on Hulu from time to time just to hear accents like the one I grew up with, and because a show about people who work in factories and run back-street cafes and hang out in the local pub feels more important than ever right now.
Pilot Viruet (@pilotbacon), Vice
The thing about growing up when I did (and primarily watching only UPN/WB and Nickelodeon) is that I feel like I had a lot more racial representation in those children’s shows that I do now with current programming. (Queer and gender identity is a whole other issue, but let’s just say I’m forever grateful for “Degrassi.”) But I remember the first time I really connected to a character was Tia Landry (Tia Mowry) on “Sister, Sister.” Not only was she black, but she was such a nerd – someone who prided herself on academics and honor roll, but who wasn’t mean about it. It was just who she was, and she rolled her eyes when people made fun of her, but she didn’t change. It was great for someone like me – nerdy, but super ashamed of it to the point where I was scared to raise my hand to answer questions, especially because I was in mostly-white schools – because I felt understood, and felt like my academic interests were OK. (And even outside of that: there is one episode, “Hair Today,” where Tia tries to straighten her hair into submission to fit in with the cool girls that has been burned in my brain for so long, and so strongly, that it’s part of why I stopped putting chemicals in my own.)
Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire
As a straight, white, Midwestern male who was privileged enough to go to the movies on a regular basis (with popcorn, mind you, as my mother always pointed out since she never got any as a kid), it was pretty darn easy to find multiple versions of myself in mass entertainment. The only underrepresented characteristic from Hollywood’s limited perspective was my rural Illinois roots. So while I was always drawn to leads very different from myself — an Australian wallaby in “Rocko’s Modern Life,” a teenage girl in “Clarissa Explains It All,” or an animated misanthrope like “Daria” — the only comparison point lacking in my life was a non-romanticized, non-antagonistic interpretation of small town life in the MidWest.
Enter “Parks and Recreation.” For six seasons (the seventh remains problematic in this regard), Michael Schur and Greg Daniels’ deeply funny and deeply personal encapsulation of the draws and drawbacks to Pawnee, IN connected in all the right spots. The allure of peace, tranquility, and caring citizens never overwhelmed the annoying idiosyncrasies of townsfolk who often didn’t know what was best for them. There was acknowledgement without insult, and insight without ignorance. Though the town grew considerably as the dreams of its inhabitants got bigger — the blimp shot of the Harvest Festival depicts an impossibly large gathering for the town I imagined — “Parks and Recreation” captured every facet of small town life I hadn’t seen on TV until then.
Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*
A: “Game of Thrones” (four votes)
Other contenders: “Insecure,” “Twin Peaks” (two votes), “Claws,” “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” “The Lowe Files,” “Rick and Morty” (one vote each)
*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.