TV—we watch so much of it, it’s only inevitable that eventually we’d want to be it too: time-traveling, crime-solving, vampire-slaying, endless-cheeseburgers-at-Luke’s-Diner-eating heroes. Once while on a particularly grueling rowing trip on the Hudson River, I motivated myself by picturing Pam Beesly’s walk across the hot coals on “The Office.” It worked. We asked a group of the small-screen-obsessed to tell us which TV characters they most wanted to be growing up and/or which ones they wished they could be now. Here’s what they said.
If you weren’t an 11-year-old boy in 1982, you probably have never heard of Phineas Bogg, or the show in which he existed, “Voyagers!” (NBC included an exclamation point in the title, ensuring it would last no more than a season. See also: ¡Rob! and Woops!). Bogg was a presumably immortal member of a secret society of time travelers who had devoted their lives to jumping through the centuries, trying to make right potential historic wrongs. (In one episode, FDR almost becomes a world-famous motion picture director instead of president!) The great thing about Bogg (as played by the late Jon-Erik Hexum) was that he never took his job too seriously. Hell, if anything, he was entirely too casual about his quantum leaps: He treated the fixing of potentially catastrophic wrinkles in time as no more important than fixing a leaky faucet. But that’s what was so great about Bogg. Most of us would probably freak out if we suddenly found ourselves charged with making sure the North still won the Civil War. Bogg? He was totally chill about the whole thing, and usually still found a way to hook up with Marie Antoinette or some other historical hottie. Anybody can time travel, but Phineas Bogg made it seem like the coolest job ever. Sadly, I’m still waiting for the Voyagers Society to respond to my application for employment.
In 1982, I wanted very badly to be Jeffrey Jones—Meeno Peluce’s character on “Voyagers!” Jeffrey Jones was a precocious smart-alecky orphan who is rescued from near death in the first episode by Phineas Bogg, a swashbuckling hunk who belonged to a society of time travelers called Voyagers—they would journey through time to ensure that history unfolded as we know it. Phineas Bogg was played by the the hottest guy who ever was on TV, ever, the late Jon-Erik Hexum. Pretty much the only reason I wanted to be Jeffrey Jones was because he traveled through time with this insanely hot stud. To my luck, I came of sexual age around the time of early 80s “beefcake,” when men were becoming as sexualized for their bodies as women on television. Hexum would wear revealing International Male-style poet shirts, vests with nothing underneath, and sometimes (if the historical era called for it) little gladiator outfits. I yearned to be lost in time with Hexum in a man-boy relationship.
For someone who watches virtually all TV there is, this is a tough question to answer. I considered Leslie Knope of “Parks & Recreation”—a proud feminist, admirable public servant, excellent friend, and waffle enthusiast—but she works really, really hard. Tami Taylor of “Friday Night Lights” is certainly one of my very favorite TV characters of all time, and though she is gorgeous and perfect, I don’t think I’d want to be her; a career in academia is a thankless grind, plus she has kids: no thank you. So I had to go with Malcolm Tucker of the British sitcom “The Thick Of It”. Though he works a lot harder than I care to, and lives in England where the weather and food are terrible (I hear), he has managed something I admire and envy: his main professional duty (as a highly placed aide to the PM) is yelling at whomever he feels like, using as many expletives as he deems necessary, and suffering no negative consequences whatsoever. Is he probably going to die young, of a rage-induced stroke? Maybe. But until then, he will have lived his best, angriest life. Plus in one episode we get to see his flat and it is super-nice.
The only answer anyone should give you is Arya Stark.
The obvious answer for me right now is Tami Taylor, who is my barometer, my lodestar, my moon and my sun in all things parental, marital, professional. But, really, my hair is not nearly good enough.
I think that the televisual ur-me, the fantasy I still hold inside of me somewhere, is Melissa Gilbert’s Laura Ingalls. Less for her endearing spunk and more for her off-putting earnestness, the way she took things real hard in a vaguely narcissistic way. Like when she thought she was responsible for her baby brother’s death and ran away up the mountain where she was cared for and psychoanalyzed by… God, it would seem? Like, God came down to tell her, specifically, that she was good and not at all selfish. That’s kind of my childhood fantasy in a nutshell.
I didn’t know it then, but as a 7-year-old recent immigrant living in Los Angeles, I was learning how to be a good, postmodern American by watching “Wild Wild West” on TV. James West was everything I wanted to be: a secret agent cowboy playing cat-and-mouse with the most diabolical b-movie character actor villains ever assembled. Each week, on a surreal western tableau, West and his trusty proto-vaudevillian sidekick Artemus Gordon would do battle with the kind of steampunk bad guys that would design ultimate weapons controlled by pipe-organ pitch, or imprison you in a giant birdcage that had been nicked from the set of “The Prisoner”.
Looking back, the appeal was all about being genre-bending. It’s like Bakhtin and Foucault were let loose on the Screen Gems backlot. James West was like a trickster god putting one over on dim evil henchmen with his James Bondian gadgets and anachronistic expertise in “kara-tay,” or with the help of celebrity guest stars rounded up from the bar at Trader Vic’s.
In reality I’m probably as insufferable as Frasier or Niles Crane, but I really strive to be more like Eddie the dog.
I’m a total TV baby. My first memories are of TV, and I shudder to think how many hours I spent sitting way too close to that screen. So naturally there was a healthy amount of TV hero worship growing up. Johnny Gage from “Emergency!”, T.J. from “S.W.A.T.” , Kolchak from “The Night Stalker”, and of course Fonzie. Everyone loved Fonzie.
But the character that I was most fixated on was the Bill Murray character from “Saturday Night Live”. My folks would play bridge with another couple on Saturdays, so we kids would get to stay up late (late!), which included the obligatory viewing of “SNL” by parents and kids alike. And I remember it all being funny (and no doubt much of it over my head), but that Bill Murray fellow? He really made an impression on little kid me. Sure, the roles he played were different—Nick the Lounge Singer, Todd DiMaLuca (with Gilda as Wendy), Niko in the Greek diner sketches—but behind them all there was this Bill Murray character: blithe yet open, cocksure as if that was the default position, bemused but totally present. I was too young to identify any of those qualities (“He’s really funny,” I would’ve said), but it was not long until I knew that I wanted to be that Bill Murray character when I grew up. (Still do.)
No question about it, I wanted to be Angela Chase from “My So-Called Life.” Angela had that perfect blend of brooding insouciance and sweet, genuine awkwardness that made her the standard bearer for the Manic Panicked among us. I’ll never forget how touched I was by the episode in which Jordan Catalano and Brian Krakow simultaneously realize why they love her (she’s, like, real!) after their English teacher reads Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 aloud. Angela Chase was real—well, not really real, but real enough for me.
I wanted to be Veronica Mars, or, at least, to possess her crime-solving diligence, bravery, smarts, internal moral compass, and sheer awesomeness. I have a great fondness for pretty much any woman who solves crimes and mysteries (including Mariska Hargitay’s character in “Law and Order SVU”, Emily Deschanel’s character in “Bones”, and all the female DAs on “L&O”) but I especially love Veronica because she is so very indefatigable and badass—and also, right about nearly everything. Terrible things happen to her: She loses her best friend, she loses her popularity (by choice, to stand by her dad), she gets into scrape after scrape (and they’re not really scrapes but near-death experiences—she’s the victim of violence repeatedly), but despite everything she perseveres. She is a survivor, and not only that, but she’ll get those who done her wrong back, oh yes she will. You do not mess with Veronica Mars, if you know what’s good for you. After all, she’s smarter than pretty much anyone else in her town. And she can hang with the boys.
Other characters I loved were Pacey Witter of “Dawson’s Creek”, who lived a charmed life even when it didn’t seem like it and had a quip ready for every situation. Pacey, the faux tough with the heart of gold… Or maybe I just wanted to date Pacey Witter. Tell no one! I also loved-while-I-hated Brenda Walsh, and who didn’t sort of want to be her and, at the same time, her FOIL, the ever-so-popular-and-pretty Kelly Taylor—at least in the first couple of seasons of the show? And while we’re talking about Shannen Doherty, I know it’s terribly, terribly cheesy, but I would have given a lot, and maybe still would, to be any of the Halliwell girls in “Charmed”, like, just for an evening, perhaps? Spells. Ah, to have spells at my disposal.
I grew up on 80s comedies, looking up to fast-talking schemers like Ferris Bueller, Axel Foley, and Peter Venkman, but there was always one quick-witted Reagan-era smartass who stood above the rest in my book: John Winger, Bill Murray’s character from Stripes. While John Winger was the screen character I always wanted to be as a tween, the closest thing I have to that as an adult is Jeff Winger from NBC’s “Community”, who was named after and patterned after Murray’s Stripes character by “Community” creator Dan Harmon. Both Wingers are quick with a lie when they need to get out of a jam and even quicker with a joke, always prepared to rally the underdogs with a funny and moving halftime speech.
Jeff Winger differs from these 80s movie heroes, though, in that living in the real modern world is forcing him to grow up and leave behind his arrogant ways while still retaining the qualities that make him someone that others want to follow. In real life, we can’t be as bulletproof as guys like Ferris Bueller or Axel Foley because, let’s face it, they’re kind of assholes. What’s fascinating about Jeff Winger is that he’s one of these stock 80s movie blowhards, but he’s learning to mature into a caring human being. Winger is discovering how to be confident without being cocky, how to be a strong leader without being an egomaniac, and that delivering a speech to rally the troops is much more rewarding than doing so because he loves the sound of his own voice. He’s emulating John Winger and Ferris Bueller’s good qualities and shedding away the bad ones. As a kid, movies like Beverly Hills Cop, Ferris Bueller, and Stripes always made me wish I was the main character, but “Community” has taught me there’s more value in being a human being.
I wanna be like a million TV characters. One is Raven Baxter, for her psychic powers and cool attic room. Also, Diane, the person Cooper is always talking to in his tape recorder on “Twin Peaks.” Also, I wouldn’t want to ever be Topanga or Winnie Cooper, but a Savage brother as a love interest would be nice.
Like most people, I’ve never been interested in any career that would prevent me from insulting people to their faces or saying “cocksucker” a lot. For this reason, Al Swearengen has always been something of a hero to me. On “Deadwood” the man proved, time and time again, that it is possible to run a small business and rally the people around a cause, all the while drinking to excess, intimidating strangers, sleeping with prostitutes, and wriggling out from under the thumb of The Man. In fact, if our politicians were free to make ample rhetorical use of sodomy metaphors, we’d be sure to attract a much livelier, more entertaining pool of candidates. In urging us to stand together against another terrorist menace, wouldn’t it be refreshing to hear Obama ask, “Will we of the United States be more than targets for ass-fucking?” And conjuring Swearengen could help Obama to efficiently address everything from North Korea’s empty diplomatic gestures (“He must think I’m a fucking dog, forgives the blow first friendly scratch at the ear.”) to the ethicality of drone strikes on foreign targets (“You can’t cut the throat of every cocksucker whose character it would improve.”) Best of all, instead of playing the “Star-Spangled Banner” before major events, someone could simply shout, “Open the fucking canned peaches!”
Funny that you’re asking this, as I was asking myself this same question just recently. What I came up with is that probably the only television character I could ever be is Graham Chase from “My So-Called Life.” I think when I was younger I’d have said I wanted to be someone like Jordan Catalano, some brooding, artistic loner who all the girls love. But then you get older and you’re like, “Oh, yeah, Jordan Catalano was a selfish illiterate who never knew what day it was!” Nowadays I like Graham: Just a dude trying to figure out what in this life fulfills him while also trying to do right by his wife and kids. I could get down with that.
MacGyver The stakes are never as high, but I like to think of myself as having MacGyver-like skills when it comes to home repairs. So to actually be MacGyver would take things to the next level. With his skills I could surely dazzle my kids by making explosives out of toothpaste or some such thing
When I was 10, I would have answered with a resounding Lisa Simpson, then gone back to practicing my saxophone, which I totally started playing because of her. The subsequent 18 seasons of “The Simpsons” and puberty have relieved me of that ambition, however. So speaking as Adult Me, I’d have to say Veronica Mars. The idea of having access to the tools of a private investigator appeals to the nosy know-it-all in me, and I’ve always wanted to take someone out with a stun gun. (Let’s just leave out the whole “acquaintance rape” and “in constant mortal peril” aspects, though, shall we?)
If I could be any TV character, I’d want to be Ralph Wiggum. I’d have a cat named Mittens whose breath smells like cat food. I wouldn’t be allowed in the deep end of the sandbox, which, honestly, is something that’s always freaked me out, anyway. I’d have a pre-packaged collection of Star Wars characters, still in their original display boxes (but I’d take better care of my Wookie). I’d have an imaginary Leprechaun to keep me company. I’d play a mean George Washington. I’m Idaho. Best of all, I’d be blissfully unaware of, well, everything, and that sounds pretty great sometimes. In other words: I choo-choo-choose Ralph Wiggum.
Embarrassingly, I kinda wanted to be Seth Cohen from “The O.C.”, nerdy and wiry and a little weird, but still cool and sexy. I think I wanted to be Dana Scully from “The X-Files” for a while, and probably Buffy at some point too. Mostly though, and I know she’s not technically a TV character, but I want to be Samantha Brown from the Travel Channel because she has the best job of any American working today.
Alex P. Keaton, of course. A nerdy, too-smart-for-his-own-good white dork who overcame all of that to be charming, popular and attractive to girls? He was everything I could possibly aspire to be. Even if I never understood all the references to trickle-down economics.
All the shows I currently adore feature people who are insanely flawed and/or living in hellish Medieval warscapes. I don’t want to be Tyrion or Kalinda or River Song, even though I love those characters.
I suppose I’ll pick Leslie Knope, although I could not resemble her less. She’s a role model for humanity without being totally obnoxious, plus she’s dating Adam Scott. Alternately, maybe Max on “Happy Endings”, but not during his yearly hibernation.
As a child of the 70s and 80s, this presents a huge challenge for me. TV in my formative years was chock full of enviable roles. I went as Underdog like three Halloweens in a row. In my 30s. I mean, the smart money’s gonna pick Thomas Magnum (the Ferrari, the shorts), Jack Tripper (the innuendo) or ALF (the cat-eating), right? Or the guys from Riptide? That helicopter!
In the end, though, it’s gotta be Hawkeye Pierce. My father was a huge fan of “M*A*S*H”, so I grew up watching Alan Alda play Hawkeye long before I was old enough to discover the movie. His character was urbane but irreverent, professional but anti-authority; a womanizer, boozer and prankster who also seemed to care a lot about helping war casualties regardless of uniform. He appealed to me as a kid because he got to play Army, and as a pre-teen because he refused to play Army by the rules. His character got a bit preachy in the later seasons, but he had already taught me to put beer in my breakfast cereal, so it’s all good.
Nowadays, as an adult, I’m less envious of the lives of fictional characters like Don Draper or Pauly D. In my rich fantasy life, I would love to be one of the “Mythbusters” or “Top Gear” guys. Boys will be boys.
The first TV character I remember looking up to (who wasn’t a cartoon) was Albert Rosenfeld, the acerbic FBI agent played by Miguel Ferrer on “Twin Peaks”. He came off as a cynical jerk, which was funny, but it was a strange, wonderful scene in which he revealed the deep principles beneath that cynicism that made him admirable to my 17-year-old-self, who was looking for a way out of the unearned cynicism my friends and I had cultivated as a way of life in high school. These days, now that I’ve aged into the role of a crusty editor, I most look up to Lou Grant from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”. That’s in part because he and I have roughly the same sort of job, but mostly because he possesses a more complex version of Albert Rosenfeld’s outer toughness and inner idealism, a combination that, in my experience, you need if you want to make it in the world while still holding onto your soul. I’d happily be Lou minus the obvious alcoholism and failing marriage (and, well, without Ed Asner’s build and back hair).
I am sufficiently inadequate as a person that I don’t think I can narrow it down to just one, but if I’ve got to pick: Coach Eric Taylor of “Friday Night Lights”. As I wrote in my review of the series finale, he basically spent the five seasons of the show teaching a seminar in How to Be a Goddamn Man. Stick to your principles. Be loyal but not blind. Pull other people up, not down. Have faith. Give a shit. I could stand to improve on any of those qualities, plus I wouldn’t mind better chin definition and to be able to hold a conversation about sports.
When I was younger, I would always identify with/aspire to be the sidekick characters. None of the responsibility of the leads, who always had to do stuff, save stuff, and put their lives and hearts at risk, but close enough to get some of that reflected glory or the sweet perks that come with being a Very Interesting Person’s best friend. Then Joss Whedon went and poked Xander’s eye out in the waning episodes of “Buffy,” and while I can’t say I ever wanted to be Xander (nerd-surrogate was never my bag), it certainly opened my eyes (ugh, I tried to avoid it, you guys) to the folly of sidekick superiority.
These days, I can’t imagine anyone would want to pass up the life of a Leslie Knope, who manages to be wildly successful in her personal and professional lives without having to do anything mean or morally compromising and who enjoys the unfailing support of a street team who sometimes seem to exist only to see her achieve her dreams. Would I be willing to relocate to Pawnee, Indiana in order to reap such unfathomable benefits? Umm… (Just kidding! I’d be whisked to Washington D.C. within two years anyway!)
Honorable mention: if you’re looking for all of that dogged friend propping-up without the pressure of actual success, you could do worse than Nick from “New Girl”.
Andy Rooney: Growing up a fundamentalist Christian, I wasn’t allowed to watch much TV, but every Sunday night my family gathered around “60 Minutes”. I loved the show, and got teased by my classmates for listing it as my “favorite TV show” in my 8th grade yearbook. But I always shushed my siblings and sat close to the screen at the end when it was time for my favorite segment, “A few minutes with Andy Rooney.””
In retrospect, I was probably just getting observational comedy and a sense of the absurd from any source, but Andy’s annoyance at the things that didn’t make sense about the world appealed to me. I was in awe less of Andy himself than of his job. Many years later, after I wrote some rant on a blog about a topic I’ve forgotten (but possibly about the Charlotte airport, my eternal geographical nemesis), an anonymous commenter, intending malice, wrote, “Move over, Andy Rooney!” I took it as a compliment. I still never miss “60 Minutes”, but it’s not the same without Andy.
As a boy, I wanted to be Buck Rogers on “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century”—the 1978 Gil Gerard character, the guy in the jumpsuit—because he got into cool adventures, had a Mr. Spock-like half hawkman as a best friend, and had Wilma Deering as a girlfriend but could have easily shagged the voluptuous Princess Ardala if he wanted. When I got slightly older I wanted to be Frank Furillo on “Hill Street Blues” because he seemed like the best-case scenario of what a heterosexual male adult could be. While far from perfect (he was a recovering alcoholic and could let his pride get the better of him) he was a great human being: tough but not stupidly macho, blunt but not cruel, and ultimately compassionate. He owned up to every part of himself, including his mistakes. And his girlfriend Joyce Davenport was as cool, sexy and smart as he was.
Summer Roberts (“The O.C.”): Fast-talking,
quippy best friend of town lush Mischa Barton with not
insignificant—though consciously recognized!—daddy issues who,
despite her initial fixation with high-school popularity eventually
lands the equally fast-talking, quippy nebbish. The scene in which
she and Seth stop at a diner on the way to Mexico and read the
paper and butter each other’s toast and pour each other’s coffee
without even looking up—oh my gosh! Its importance to my
understanding of how ideal relationships should work cannot be
overstated. Also she looked bomb in a Superwoman costume that she
rented to make Seth swoon! I love a girl who appreciates the (dark)
art of a well-timed costume!
Related: What’s Your Most Played Song?, What Movies Make You Ignore Everything Else? and What Books Make You Cringe To Remember
Nadia Chaudhury wants to be a mix of Rory Gilmore, Peggy Olson, and Mrs. Coach.