A trope is defined as a device that has become common to the point of being overutilized. In the world of television, many tropes exist. Some have risen to the state of standard and then fell completely out of favor. Other devices are tropes in the making that just haven’t quite had the exposure and repetition necessary. Some television tropes are ridiculously easy to spot while others gain power through the subtlety with which they encroach upon the consciousness. Once you learn about an existing television trope, part of the fun of rifling through your 300 channels is identifying which shows use them and how well or badly they are integrated into the broadcast.
Fat Husband, Thin Wife
This popular television trope dates back to the 1950s and possibly even before that. The iconic example of a fat husband with a thin wife is The Honeymooners. It was sometimes very difficult to understand what wife Alice saw in her oversized husband because in addition to a weight problem, he was deceptive, overbearing, jealous, prone to fits of anger and bad with money. This television trope remains steadfast more than half a century later in the form of shows like According to Jim and the King of Queens.
In the beginning, television dads were the repository of all that was good and admirable. Shows from Father Knows Best to Bonanza to the Brady Bunch all featured wise fathers handing out useful advice to admiring sons. Something happened along the way, however, and the television trope in place now is the dad who is essentially an idiot who can be fooled by even the youngest member of the family. Ray Barone is for the most part a fairly intelligent person, but his wife Debra has a constant refrain used to boil down his personality into one descriptive term: idiot. Then there’s Homer Simpson who actually manages to make most dads in TV commercials look like a combination of Stephen Hawking, Voltaire and Da Vinci.
Special Appearance by Celebrity Athlete
There should be a rule prohibiting actors from trying to be athletes and athletes from trying to be actors. In 99 cases out of 100, athletes are horrifically bad actors. For some reason, however, an amazing number of shows have invited the celebrities onto the set to pump up ratings without regard to discomfort their wooden delivery promotes in the viewers at home. Like “A Very Special Episode,” this television trope needs to die.
Weddings Gone Awry
Can you count how many times you’ve seen a TV wedding take place that went smoothly and romantically? The TV wedding is usually an excuse for a two-parter or hour-long episode in which the most ridiculous events conspire to make wedded bliss a seeming impossibility. We all know the couple is going to end up tying the knot and the awkwardly plotted maze of events is going to disappear faster than watery beer down a toilet during halftime.
Special Appearance by Musical Group
You may come up with your own particular memory of a special appearance by a musical group on a TV show based on your particular taste for music and TV. For me, the iconic utilization of his trope has to be the appearance of the Doobie Brothers on “What’s Happening!” Why? Because I could never stop wondering why so many economically underprivileged young urban Africa-Americans were such big fans of a band that never seem to have a particularly large black fan base at their real concerts. That episode of “What’s Happening!” also gave us the legendary line of dialogue: “Which Doobie you be? ” The commonality herein has to do with how superfluous the musical appearance is. Most TV shows that bring on a band as part of the plot could get by perfectly well without the little musical interlude. It’s usually quite obvious that the singers are lip synching and the less famous members of the band always get pushed to the background. TV writers have yet to figure out how to integrate the appearance of a band or singing group into the plot of the show with the exception of the King of the Hill episode where Hank goes all ultra-conservative after attending a boy band concert in which the nice teenage boys turn into crotch-pumping maniacs.
I am thrilled to give you the news that this particular television trope appears to be all but dead. The heyday of the reunion movie was the 1980s when all those shows from the 1960s and 1970s got their cast back together to update us on what went before. The seminal example here is the TV movie that finally rescued the castaways from Gilligan’s Island. The success of this movie in turn inspired Sherwood Schwartz to bring the Brady Bunch back from the dead so that we could find watch find could out Greg became a doctor (what!!) and Bobby became a race car driver (well, his name is Bobby.) We returned to Mayberry only to discover that Barney wasn’t as funny without a laugh track and we went to perhaps the last place on earth an industry so obsessed with weight should have sent those schoolgirls still learning the facts of life: France. In the place of lost reunion movies, of course, we now can find big-budget theatrical remakes.
As one television trope is placed in critical condition, another is bounding out of the hospital with a brand new heart. Viewers who grew up watching TV pre-1990s can tell you all about how their favorite shows featured generic products. Generic products used by TV characters has gone the way of fiscal conservatism, compassionate conservatism and intelligent conservatism. Today’s TV actors not only use brand name products, but must attend classes on how to act without blocking the logo of the product in question. TV shows used to be sponsored by a particular company and the actors would appear-often in character-before, during the commercial break and after to hawk the products of that company. It was anything but subtle, but at least it wasn’t sneaky. I’d rather be told I’m watching a commercial than be told I’m watching a creative endeavor that is really nothing but a commercial for a dozen or two products.