TV's Tastiest Treats
The vast wasteland of television occasionally hits its mark and leaves us with some terrific characters. Sometimes it isn’t only the character that is memorable; some parts played by any other actor or actress just wouldn’t be the same or carry the same gravitas.
Women in television have many times left the world with iconic characters, largely in part due to the actress behind the on-screen personage.
A prime example of great casting concerned the 1990s’ UPN program, Star Trek: Voyager. The role of Voyager’s captain, Kathryn Janeway, was originally meant for film actress Genevieve Bujold. Bujold couldn’t hack the show’s shooting schedule, so she was replaced with Kate Mulgrew before it aired. Another legendary starship captain was born.
This role was, and forever will be, Kate’s; there can never be another Captain Janeway other than she. Bujold would not have brought the strength of character, dynamism, and the “take-no-prisoners” attitude to the part that Kate Mulgrew did. Kate owned it.
And just as in the world of cartoon women, we cavemen have our favorites in the world of fictional TV babes. We may like the actresses who play these memorable parts, but we truly love the characters they play week after week.
Any guy will tell you: Diana Rigg in the late 1960s’ series The Avengers as Emma Peel rocked. Nobody knew a thing about Diana Rigg nor did they care—it was Emma that stole our zippers.
Some guys point up to Marcia Brady (The Brady Bunch, 1969-1974) as their first boyhood crush. Not me—I couldn’t stand her thin, little cruel lips.
And for those shows featuring more than one babe, men argued over who was hotter. Dingbat bleach-blond Chrissy Snow or brainy brunette Janet Wood from Three’s Company? [Answer: Janet Wood. She’s cute and she has a fully functioning brain—smart is wayyyy sexier than stupid any day of the week.]Credit: Paramount Pictures
And, of course, there was the great Gilligan’s Island babe debate (1964-1967, 98 episodes). Who’s hotter, Ginger or Mary Ann?
The answer for me is neither. Ginger Grant is a one-dimensional gold digger (although she had a rockin’ bod). Mary Ann Summers’ uni-dimensional, saccharin sweet, wholesome, fresh-from-the-farm goodness does nothing for me (although she, too, had a rockin’ bod). I like my women a little more on the “adventurous” side of the spectrum.
However, in the contest between the actresses playing those parts (not what this is about, but let’s explore, shall we?) that’s a no-brainer. The hotter babe is most definitely Dawn Wells. She was a swarthy, sexy little package. Plus, I saw her on the tube a few years ago and although she’s gotta be a couple of years older than Allah’s parents by now, she was still a smokin’ little hottie. Also, Dawn Wells, the flesh-and-blood woman, had a bad girl streak in her.
In contrast, Tina Louise, unfortunately, looks like The Crypt Keeper these days. Plus she’s kind of a . . . you know . . . pick a word that begins with the letter “b” and rhymes with “aardvark”.
More than a few fictional women in television have transcended the real actresses who brought the character to life. Sometimes these characters can ruin a career. The actress is so heavily identified with the icon she can’t get other decent acting jobs. It’s sad, but true: ask Maureen McCormick (Marcia Brady) about that transcendence.
It isn’t certain how much of the characters these small-screen sirens portrayed were completely fleshed out by writers or envisioned by the show’s creators, but I believe most of these women added the depth (or in one particular case, lack of depth) to the character she played. Thus, we are left with a hybrid—part fiction, part reality, all classic, 100% pure (“and not a speck of cereal”) TV babes.
You know the rules for these little excursions by now: stop poking that, don’t lean over the velvet rope, and take that out of your mouth.
Let’s go visit some of television’s most bounteous, beautiful, bangin’est babes: a hausfrau, a sleazy teen queen, a lady of the law, a sexy scientist, and a wanton warrior princess.
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The Beave’s Mom
Leave it to June Cleaver to be the hottest TV mom of the 1950s and early 1960s.
Just admit it—you think there’s something about June, too.
Not too many TV moms ever fired me up. They’re just so “mom-like”, not particularly known for stirring of loins.
June sure does, though. She’s like some bizarre sum of Betty Crocker and Grace Kelly. The irony is Leave It to Beaver (1957-1963) was a dopey little sitcom that no one thought much of in its beginning; over half a century later, though, June Cleaver, along with the entire cast of Leave It to Beaver,will probably live in the public consciousness for eternity.Credit: Universal/MCA
June had style. She had panache, and she was smart, sometimes sarcastic. The “sensible” 1950s’ dad, Ward Cleaver, just thought he was the boss—the reality is Barbara Billingsley’s June Cleaver really ran the show.
Say what you will about her domesticity, she was in charge. In almost every episode involving any kind of conflict in which she had to get involved, in the end everyone deferred to June, not because she was the mom but because she really was quietly dynamic.
June went to college. Most people would think she wasted her education by being a home body, and I tend to agree. However, college is good for the brain, and June uses her book learnin’ effectively, most particularly in the realm of subtle psychological manipulations against Ward, Wally, and the Beaver.
And when we were introduced to the beautiful June Cleaver, Barbara Billingsley was 42 years old!! Amazing—not a line on her face. I’ve seen women half her age that looked like old used-up dish towels. And when she appeared in a bit part in 1980's big-screen parody, Airplane!, she still looked fantastic.
Beyond June’s physical beauty, the other thing for which she is best known is her sense of style. Whatta clothes horse!! This woman looked as if she were put together in a Chanel factory, I know it. Her coif, her smartly starched and pressed dresses (which she wore like Athena herself, I’ll have you know) became iconic.
The thing that most people pick on about June’s couture, though, is the thing I love most: her pearl necklace. [And apparently the ubiquitous pearl necklace was not meant as a fashion statement. Barbara had a small indentation in her neck of which she was self-conscious: the necklace hid that from the camera.]
June wore a pearl necklace, I think, in almost every episode. [Including the pilot, there are 235 canned shows. I’ve seen them all multiple times and I don’t recall ever seeing her without it.] Even when she was doing yard work or scrubbing the toilets, she had that necklace on along with her beautifully tailored and pressed dresses.
I always have visions of her wearing nothing else but that pearl necklace – that’s hot!
And so was June Cleaver.
Kelly, Kelly, Kelly
This tarty teen trumps all others of her ilk.
Although the “dumb blond” sitcom character had been done to death, Kelly Bundy was so over the top as the young bimbo she actually managed to give that stereotype depth just by virtue of its complete vacuousness.Credit: Fox Broadcasting
Kelly Bundy featured as one of the two spawns of Satan . . . er . . . the Bundys in the epic Fox TV classic sitcom Married . . . with Children (1987-1997, a really down-’n’-dirty and funny hit sitcom for Fox TV). She was in her early teens when the show started. Over many seasons we watched Kelly grow into a glowing young woman of still-trashy virtue.
Credit: BMGKelly Bundy as realized by the equally intriguing (though not as nasty) Christina Applegate is the last word in TV trollops. Kelly was sort of like a baby Lita Ford minus the guitar—she was a bad girl all right, but she was “good” bad, not evil.
Despite her snotty sarcasm aimed at her brother and her rampant catting around, Kelly Bundy had a heart of gold. She did have attachments and tender feelings. The dynamic between Kelly and Al, her father (portrayed brilliantly by Ed O’Neill) seemed typical of father-daughter relationships in many ways—Al only wanted to see her as his darling little “Pumpkin” (his pet name); he really knew she was anything but. And Kelly played on daddy’s heart strings to great effect from time to time.
Kelly Bundy’s physicality cannot be denied. Her merely walking onto the set in one of her tight red mini-dresses, all sensual oozing, made her the equivalent of a legal-aged Lolita. Men couldn’t help but take notice.
As she matured during the 1990s, she lost the platinum bleach-blond look and went with a more natural honey blond, which was very sexy.
Christina Applegate’s Kelly Bundy was informed by Christina herself. She actually modeled the character on a particular girl she’d seen in a documentary about metal music, and on some Hollywood types she knew. [She first worked in show-biz while still in diapers. She appeared on the soap Days of Our Lives when she was three months old.] By the time she came to mold Kelly Bundy, Christina Applegate was a wizened veteran.
Despite her tough-girl street smarts Kelly Bundy was hopelessly naïve in many ways, and it was an endearing little quality. She was much smarter than she pretended to be (occasionally we got glimpses of her real potential), but her sexual charisma is what she thought would get her by.
It might. It made me stand by her as one of TV’s all-time greatest sex kittens after all these years.
“I Want to Believe”
The X-Files (1993-2002) still reigns as the greatest supernatural/paranormal-themed drama in television. Yes, it was even better than the holiest of holies, The Twilight Zone. It was also the best show of the 1990s.
Credit: 20th Centruy Fox/Chris CarterAgain, for the fetus-y, The X-Files followed the exploits of two FBI agents assigned to work on cases that generally fell outside the scope of police work, cases involving the unexplained or paranormal phenomena.
The main character, portrayed by David Duchovny, was Special Agent Fox Mulder. He was the resident “believer” in all things odd: UFOs, Bigfoot, and sinister government conspiracies. He was the caretaker of what the show called “X” files, unsolvable cases usually with a paranormal set of circumstances that led to a crime.
Set on his tail in the pilot episode as a mole (to discredit Fox Mulder and his work on the X-Files) was a glorious auburn-haired, hazel eyed porcelain doll, Special Agent Dana Scully.
This was my queen of Fox television’s Sunday nights for years.
Dr. Dana Scully (yes, she was a medical doctor in addition to being a first-rate forensic examiner) was every woman I could ever possibly have wanted rolled into one subtly seductive package. I say “subtly” because there was nothing overt about Dana Scully—she was emotionally reserved to the point of perhaps bordering on being an ice queen. Although not humorless, she was slow to laugh, and she was fiercely dedicated to her reality (which was not Mulder’s reality). She was highly intelligent, motivated, had a killer job, plus she packed heat (dames with guns, right after women wearing tool belts, are the sexiest things . . . ).
I loved her right from the start.
This alabaster beauty (and the actress, Gillian Anderson, is almost as pale as paper) was riveting. What made me love Dana Scully even more was once I started learning about Gillian Anderson, the woman behind Scully. Gillian, it turns out, is nothing like the cold-fish Dana Scully at all, except for her hair and eye color. Gillian was a wild child! She got into stuff as a teen and young adult. It was refreshing to hear.Credit: 20th Century Fox/Chris Carter
I love Dana Scully so much I named my daughter after Gillian Anderson. And, yeah, it’s tough for a girl named “Anderson”. [I really named her “Gillian”—I’m not a complete idiot! My wife of that week didn’t like it, but I finally had to tell her the truth: I cheated on her, so it really wasn’t her baby, so she didn’t have any say in the matter, so there!]
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Diggin’ Up Bones
This is a new-found love of a few years ago, and she offers up more questions than answers for me.
Credit: Fox BroadcastingDr. Temperance Brennan, nicknamed “Bones”, as portrayed in the Fox TV forensic science crime show Bones (premiered 2005), is a forensic anthropologist who gets involved in murder mysteries. The cases are usually solved by her meticulous and insightful forensic lab work on the bones of corpses. She works in a mythical place in Washington, D.C., called the Jeffersonian Institute (a poorly veiled reference to the Smithsonian, which really does have a forensic anthropology group who actually do help the FBI and other law enforcement with criminal cases).
Emily Deschanel (big sister of singer/actress Zooey Deschanel) plays the title role. However, the character as Emily plays her is considerably different from the one in the book series written by real-life forensic anthropologist/criminologist Kathy Reichs.
Here’s where it gets fun.
Kathy Reichs did all this kind of murder investigation work for real on the East Coast and in Canada for several years. I have no idea what she is like as a person, but when she started writing her Bones series of crime novels, the character in the book also worked a lot in the southeast US and had business ties to Canada. Temperance Brennan in the books is a middle-aged divorced woman with a daughter in her late teens. She is a recovering alcoholic. She is not an emotional closed-door.
The Temperance Brennan on TV is a whole different ball of wax from the Bones of the books, though. I’m also presuming she is considerably far removed from Kathy Reichs herself (Reichs is one of the executive producers of the show). Emily’s Dr. Brennan is a strange combination of super intelligence (she is a certified genius with multiple college degrees), an overachiever of extraordinary accomplishments, she is not an alcoholic, and she is as coldly logical as Star Trek’s Mr. Spock.
This is where I’m always interested in how these characters are developed. This Bones is not the one of the books. Is this how Emily sees the real woman, Kathy Reichs? I know nothing of Reichs as a person (though I have read many of her books). Or is this portrayal based on Emily herself? I have no idea if Emily is emotionally distant or she just made the choice to make the TV version that frigid. And by “frigid” I mean emotionally inaccessible, not asexual (Bones has heterosexual sex as she sees fit, and according to her she is “quite good at it”.)
The woman is almost superhuman in every way (she can kick your protruding buttocks with Ninja-quality martial arts self–defense), but as with all superhuman fictional characters, she has a weakness. Bones’ fatal flaw is the simplest thing—she is completely and utterly socially retarded. She has no tact or sense of diplomacy. She says exactly what is on her mind and she does not respond to normal small talk as most people do.
References to pop culture or current slang are beyond her grasp. Greet her with “What’s up?”, and she’ll raise an eyebrow and through barely moving lips (another fun character trait) she’ll reply in all sincerity, “Are you asking me if something is elevated?” Having known a couple of very intelligent people who have Asperger’s syndrome (a very mild form of autism that manifests itself almost exactly as Emily plays Temperance Brennan) it makes me wonder: is Dr. Brennan mildly autistic? Reichs never says anything about it in her books, and the book Bones displays none of the social faux pas TV Bones does. The show never mentions Asperger’s either. It is a mystery.
Bones is frank to the point of brutal honesty, and it is something her coworkers try to coach her on from time to time. I know this is done mostly for comedic effect, and it is pretty funny when she speaks of New Jersey Guidos as if they are some anthropological discovery akin to a primitive Amazonian tribe (“This is the part where the Guido male approaches the female with flexed muscles”). She says this with the objective eye of the scientist and with the uninflected tone of the impassive observer. It’s one of the best characters ever developed for television.
But you didn’t think I was just gonna talk about Bones’ brains only did you? She’s fluffy, and lumpy, and curvy, and pretty, and yeah . . . all that stuff. And from personal experience I can say with a great degree of satisfaction such brainy/sexy women are wildcats where it counts (ask Dr. Frasier Crane about his ex-wife, Dr. Lilith Sternan Crane).
My favorite episode is when Bones and her FBI buddy go undercover as circus performers. They pretend to be a Russian knife-throwing act. In the script Bones gets a minor eye injury and has to wear an eyepatch. Not just any eyepatch, either—it’s made of red sateen. And, I kid you not, when it came time for Emily to do their circus act the show’s wardrobe department went nuts on her: tight fitting, deep burgundy one-piece with black and gold trim and a strapless bustier (accentuating extra fluffy goodness), that sexy eyepatch, gold lamé opera gloves, sheer black hose, heels, and a gold cape! It was one of the craziest sexy things I’d ever seen. And Emily Deschanel can so do this; she’s built for it.
Just to prove Emily is also a good sport and that the fictional Bones (Asperger’s or not) has no qualms about showing off, the series did a Halloween several years ago, and the characters all dressed in costume. Emily did her Bones portrayal for most of that episode in a Wonder Woman outfit (Emily even did “The Spin”). I’m tellin’ ya she did some serious Justice League justice to that get up. Don’t believe me? See for yourself:Credit: Fox Broadcasting
And now we’re home!!!
Xena: Warrior Princess. I even love the way the word “Xena” feels coming out of my mouth when I say it out loud: “Xeeee-naaaaa”.
Credit: NBC/Universal promoI savor those syllables, much as I savor the fondest of memories of this campy action/adventure syndicated television series. It made TV fun, and brought a half-psychotic Amazonian death machine into my home every week (from 1995 till the series shut down in 2001).
The series was set in Ancient Greece and employed much Greek mythology in its story lines. It also played very fast and loose, and anachronistically, with those story lines and timelines so don’t try to write a term paper using any episode of Xena as source material.
In the earliest episodes Xena is weary of her “badness” so she takes off to find inner peace and atonement. She picks up a little strawberry blond sidekick (the truly adorable Renée O’ Connor), and the show goes on from there.
This screaming warrior woman debuted in the ultra-campy and less interesting Hercules, The Legendary Journeys for a few episodes as a minor character. She was supposed to be killed off, but she was so popular executive producer Sam Raimi green-lighted her own series. Thus, Xena: Warrior Princess was born, and she went on to become a hugely popular cult figure and now a mainstream icon.
No woman like Xena, a ruthless mercenary, had ever successfully been brought to the small screen as eloquently as she. This was not high art, mind you, but for what it was, it was the best.
Xena was a character never televised before. She was dirty. I mean literally dirty, not just a metaphoric bad girl (although Xena is a true bad girl). But most of the time she looked as if she hadn’t had a bath in months, at least earlier in the series. She was completely independent (even the mighty Wonder Woman kowtowed to Steve Trevor as her alter ego, Diana Prince). Xena had sex with men as she felt like it. [Later she would begin playing for the other team, and in the end she’d be portrayed as a full-on lesbian. Don’t care. Still have much love. For Xena. Turning stoopid . . . must stop . . . thinking . . . ]
Xena: Warrior Princess could never have survived as long as it did without Lucy Lawless and her biggest attractions, though. Yeah, I used the plural “attractions”. But by that I mean Lucy’s eyes (she is not particularly heavy breasted if that’s where you think I was going with that, potty brain).
Lucy Lawless’ gaze can shrivel a testicle at one hundred yards. Her ice-blue eyes convey that chilling sense of “I’m dead inside so I might as well kill you, too” zeitgeist better than any woman I’ve ever seen. It’s hypnotic. Lucy looks like what she is supposed to be in the show—a battle-hardened, cold-blooded, clinically-detached merciless mercenary whose missions and loyalties change whichever way the wind blows. It does not mean Xena is without honor—she is extremely honorable and loyal if she is on your side. But woe to thee if she is not!Credit: NBC/Universal poster and action shot
How Sam Raimi found this gem of an actress is tough to say. She was an unknown. The original actress tapped for the part took ill, so to meet scheduling demands a casting call went out. Four other actresses auditioned before Lucy got the role.
Lucy Lawless is from New Zealand. I did not know that particular little tidbit of information until I’d seen her on Letterman early in Xena’s run. I was drooling—Lucy settled in for her interview with Dave, and all of a sudden she’s spewing the Kiwi talk. It floored me! I never suspected she was a foreign goddess, I thought she was one of us. [How do Lucy and the limey Hugh Laurie—Dr. House—do this? Sound more American than Americans?]
Credit: NBC/UniversalLucy’s pale blue eyes, her chiseled cheekbones, and that hardened, unsmiling countenance: Xena is scary looking. And thrilling. And beautiful. And sexy. And back to scary, but you can’t look away.
This woman is a relentless killer—Xena sets ’em up and mows ’em down on an as-needed basis. She has a sword as her main weapon, but she also carries a throwing ring (called a “chakram” in the show), sort of like a boomerang that’ll take your head right off, and it comes back to her.
She butchered people in this show, and when it wasn’t being corny with goofy humorous scenes Xena’s all-over-the map fighting style made for some killer action over the course of 134 episodes.
But it is Lucy Lawless that I love as much as Xena because without her there would have been no Xena. Her sardonic smirk. That frosty stare: Xena is calculating not when she is going to slice you to ribbons but how.
In the same way staring over a cliff’s edge is thrilling.
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