October 6, 2015

The Help: Ranking TV’s 10 Best Maids, Butlers and Nannies

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Tony MicelliAccording to TV, every American household, from the 1950s to the 1980s, had a live-in domestic servant. It’s one of classic television’s most called-upon tropes. The function of these domestic caretakers is always the same: to grant the audience access to the show’s plot and/or main characters--no more, no less.
It doesn’t sit well with me either, but it’s true. Whether it’s a small-town sheriff coming home from yet another harrowing day of chasing an escaped convict, another escaped convict or three female escaped convicts to one of his aunt’s apple pies or a Philadelphia teenager cracking wise to his London-born, Oxford-educated butler, these characters provide a conduit from our real world of normalcy to a TV world where a mother—in perfectly sound health—sends her son clear across the country to live with an aunt and uncle he’s never met because he got in “one little fight.”

I’m here to sing their unsung song, and it goes like this.

10. Lurch

The Addams Family
You may think it’s a stretch to claim that Lurch made the Addams Family more relatable. What exactly was he supposed to be, you may be wondering. A man-giant? A frankenguy? A zombie-fella? Yep. He was. Lurch added to the carnival. You thought Gomez and Morticia were weird? Check out their manservant. Now who’s weird?

Oh, but wait. He talks, too!

Lurch’s “You rang” became one of TV’s most iconic catchphrases. Plus, height has to count for something, right?

9. Fran Fine

The Nanny
Trope Subversion Alert! Instead of relegating Fran Fine to the margins, The Nanny gives us a show about the help. No, this isn’t the first program to do this, to focus on the misadventures of an every(wo)man, made more relatable by the success and/or wealth around her, but it’s one of the most popular. Fran Drescher’s voice, for better or worse, has become one of the most recognizable in television history, and her role as Fran Fine continues to define her career, which is more distinguished than you may think. While Fran the Actress may call it typecasting, we call Fran the Nanny one of TV’s most enduring characters.

8. Mr. Belvedere

Mr. Belvedere
The eponymous Mr. Belvedere’s path to the Owens family was never quite clear to me. According to the opening credits he hitchhiked from London to Pittsburgh via Egypt. From there, he came into the employ of a middle-class family despite objections from the patriarch, although I may be making that last part up. It seems like I remember a lot of tension between Bob Uecker (current play-by-play man for the Milwaukee Brewers, and hero, Harry Doyle, of the fictional 1989 Cleveland Indians in Major League) for the sake of story. He’s the only character on this list I can honestly say wasn’t my cup of tea, but I acquiesce to his popularity.

7. Alfred Pennyworth

There’s something to be said for a butler who’s willing to guard even a small portion of the Wayne family fortune with his life. If I had to construct a butler for myself (and, god willing, one day I will), I’d just point to Alfred and say “That one.” I’m only ranking him seventh because I couldn’t justify bumping anyone ahead of him, but the margins here are razor thin. Watch him match wits with the Joker.

A lesser butler may have wondered what the Dark Knight and Boy Wonder had been up to while he singlehandedly outsmarted and outdueled Batman’s archenemy in Batman’s own parlor. Not Alfred Pennyworth, though, to use his own words, “We Anglo finks have a long memory.”

6. Geoffrey Butler

Fresh Prince of Bel Air
London-born, Oxford-educated, Geoffrey Butler (I mean) managed to stand out on a show with one of the most charismatic actors of the last twenty years. He also managed to stand out in a house where this was a regular occurrence:

His dry British sarcasm and rapier wit managed to ground a show with larger than life characters, allowing them to ascend in ways they otherwise might not have. When I decided to write this as a first post, Geoffrey immediately came to mind, for the following reasons:

5. Daphne Moon

One of TV’s greatest spinoffs (in fact, were it not for the Andy Griffith Show, perhaps TV’s greatest spinoff) gave us one of the genre’s best domestic caretakers. Hired as Martin Crane’s live-in physical therapist, Daphne also doubled as the Cranes’ housekeeper and Niles Crane’s eventual love interest. I don’t know if the character was written to play such a central role in the show or if Jane Leeves’s screen presence demanded it, but as the seasons of Frasier wore on, Daphne’s screen time steadily increased. Smart, confident yet relatably disorganized, Daphne served as the window through which we could access Frasier’s and Niles’s over-the-top snobbery. In other words, without Daphne, Frasier is just a show about two stuffy psychiatrists and their troubles trying to procure opera tickets because who hasn’t been there? Me, and probably you.

4. Florence Johnston

The Jeffersons
I wrestled with where to put Florence. As this list goes, she’s my personal favorite. She came into each scene like a thunderbolt, and her interactions with George provided the essence of what made the Jeffersons sofa king hilarious. Like, for real LOL funny. In fact, I’m thinking about it, and I don’t know if two TV characters have ever had more onscreen chemistry. Most historic comedy duos are comprised of the straight man and the funny man. The straight man tees it up, the funny man knocks it out of the park. Think Andy Taylor and Barney Fife, Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton, Archie Bunker and anyone. But with George and Florence, both gave as much as they took. I could go on and on trying to wax lyrical about what made Florence outstanding, but I could never do her justice. Instead, this:

3. Alice Nelson

The Brady Bunch
Alice Nelson was another of the characters that came immediately to mind when I started compiling this list. And the image I thought of was pretty specific:

Amid all the ridiculousness of the Brady clan, Alice provided the show’s only common sense. Of course, now we know that wasn’t a coincidence; it was meant to amplify the drama by comparison. Over here, Alice is dutifully cooking a gourmet meal for eight, while over there Greg is having funny thoughts about his stepsister, the school dance is coming up and Jan is plotting everyone’s demise. All while Mike contemplates his T-square and Carol relaxes after a long day of stay-at-home mothering despite having kids who are gone eight hours a day and a housekeeper/cook who does all the domestic chores. Seriously, Carol.

I like to think Alice is the showrunners’ way of winking to us, saying, “Of course this is ridiculous. A football couldn’t do that much damage to a nose is if it was shot out of an F-16 Tomahawk.” Thanks for keeping it real, Alice.

2. Bee Taylor

The Andy Griffith Show
For personal reasons, Aunt Bee was the first person I thought of when I decided to write this post. There is not a black and white episode of The Andy Griffith Show I haven’t seen at least 50 times, and that’s not even close to an exaggeration. If anything, it’s conservative. It’s my favorite television show despite my being born 20 full years after it first came on the air. So, I don’t say cavalierly that it’s acenine how much crime and civic drama befell the sleepy town of Mayberry on a weekly basis. On top of the epidemic of escaped convicts who inexplicably always went on the lam through Mayberry, the temporary prisoners Barney invariably let out of their cells (the State police couldn’t ever leave a couple of their own men behind?), the operational moonshine stills that speckled the bordering mountains, Mayberry was rife with jaywalkers, illegal parkers, gambling rings and would-be bank robbers, all of whom were somehow foiled by a police force that split one squad car between its two officers.

While Aunt Bee was aided by Floyd, Gomer (Hey to Goober), Otis and others, she was the one person in Andy’s life besides Opie (who himself had to deal with not one but two bullies in a town of, from what I can gather, about 50 people) who bothered with anything as pedestrian as cooking, cleaning or shopping. She could be seen doing these things just often enough to round out Andy’s character and remind us that he was a “real” person, not just the commanding officer of a police department that had, at any given time, access to only one bullet—via shirt pocket. The show’s pilot was, in fact, dedicated to her arrival after their old housekeeper, Rose, got married and left. So, from day one, Aunt Bee’s presence has been the glue that kept together not only the Taylor household, but the fabric of the series. Just don’t eat any of her pickles. #kerosenecucumbers

1. Tony Micelli

Who’s the Boss?
Remember way back at number nine when I was all Trope Subversion Alert!? Well, that was kinda child’s play. Here’s the show’s premise, straight from Wikipedia: “[Who’s the Boss?] starred Tony Danza as a retired major league baseball player who relocates to Fairfield, Connecticut to work as a live-in housekeeper for a divorced advertising executive.” I gotta tell ya, I don’t know what Andy Van Slyke is up to these days, but I’ll eat my hat if he moved to Fairfield, Connecticut to become an ad exec’s manny. Because it’s not a real-life career path. But that’s why Tony Micelli is number one. This show, with that premise, ran fornine years. That’s a huge number for a scripted non-cartoon network sitcom. Cheers, MASH, Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond—those are the types of shows that run for 9+ years. And this was a show about the help.

You can tell I’m super serious about this one because of all the italicizing. As a character, Tony Micelli was a gimmick. But this was such a role reversal (the successful female executive and the single dad trying to scrape together a nice life for his daughter), such a subversion of the trope, that it resonated with people, and had a major run despite never breaking the top five in the ratings. In that sense, this show is kind of like the band Pixies. It was never huge commercially (although, several ratings top tens is nothing to sneeze at), but it influenced so much that came after it—as hyperbolic as that may sound because it definitely felt like hyperbole when I was typing it; I never dreamed I’d dive this deep into Who’s the Boss. The only thing I haven’t answered for you is who, in fact, was the boss, but I thought I’d let Abed do that for us:

Here are a few honorable mentions:
Hop Sing, Bonanza
Florida, Maude
Rosie, The Jetsons
Mrs. Garrett, Diff'rent Strokes
Charles, Charles In Charge

That’s my top ten. What’s yours? Who did I leave off? Who did I misrank? Use the comments section to let us know!
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