Favorite TV Bit Characters

When you’re talking about bit characters (and I know this is something we all do with some frequency), it’s worth noting that not all bit characters play crucial roles in a series. They’re more like assistants, in some sense, advancing the plot by occasionally playing the part of a foil or delivering a key speech that you’d never hear from the main character or an extra. So, basically, these characters are to be defined on a case by case basis. Like that one judge once said about pornography, you can’t define it, but you know it when you see it.

Or something.

Anyway, as they come to me, here are some of my favorite bit characters in all the pop cultural world.

The Lone Gunmen, The X-Files

Rarely is there a character on The X-Files that I don’t like at least a little, or enjoy hating, though I am told this might change when I meet Agent Reyes (Annabeth Gish). And while I wouldn’t necessarily call them my favorite characters, the Lone Gunmen are some of the ones I enjoy most. Melvin Frohike (Tom Braidwood), John Byers (Bruce Hardwood), and Richard Langly (Dean Haglund) are the best kind of conspiracy theorists. Though Frohike and Langly have their lecherous moments, and Byers may be a touch too sentimental, they play the worthwhile role of supporting Agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) in any case, even when his ideas are so far fetched that Agent Dana Scully’s (Gillian Anderson) eyes almost fall out due to too much rolling. Their origin story, “Unusual Suspects,” is a favorite episode of mine, and some of their best work comes in the somewhat uneven first season.

Harley & Co., Boy Meets World

Again, Harvey Keiner (Danny McNulty), Griff Hawkins (Adam Scott), Joey Epstein (Blake Soper), and Frankie Stechino (Ethan Suplee) were by no means my favorite characters on Boy Meets World. But they were certainly the ones that made me laugh the most. The personalities of these particular guys–Harley the leader, Griff the worthy replacement, Joey the rat, and Frankie the surprisingly sensitive–meshed so well and came off so authentically that you almost forgot how ridiculous the “bullies in leather jackets” concept is. Almost.

Clem, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

The only demon ever allowed to babysit Dawn Summers (Michelle Tratchenberg), Clem (James Charles Leary) provides some much needed lightness in Buffy’s final seasons. Clem, first introduced as a poker buddy of Spike’s (James Marsters), goes from faceless demon to a Scooby Gang ally and a source of some of Buffy’s better comic moments. Even his debut–playing poker for kittens–is a high point.

Grizz and Dotcom, 30 Rock

I’m not sure how accurate it is to describe Grizz (Grizz Chapman) and Dotcom (Kevin Brown) as “bit characters.” But since they’re not often the focal point of any given A-, B-, or C-plot, I think it’s fair. And even if it’s not, well, they’re still great characters on what is sometimes a great show. Both too bright for the profession of Tracy Jordan’s (Tracy Morgan) bodyguard, their asides and pleasant conversations with NBC/Kabletown employees make for some of the series’ better comic moments, especially recently.

Margaret, The West Wing

The West Wing is a show populated with fantastic characters, main, supporting, bit, and one-off alike. (Except for Mandy. No one likes Mandy.) There’s any number of bit characters I could point out as favorites, but I’m going to have to go with Margaret Hooper (Nicole Robinson), White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry’s (John Spencer) secretary. Whether she’s bogging down the email server with urgent messages about the carb content in bran muffins or simply listening to Leo’s conversations at the door, Margaret is always good for a laugh.

The Irresistible Quality of Saved by the Bell

I suppose this was inevitable.

For years, nearly decades now, my siblings and I have held Saved by the Bell near and dear to our hearts. I’ll be the first to admit this is not a stellar example of television’s potential for quality. There is little about it that isn’t wholly formulaic, the performances are unremarkable, and the source material could’ve been pulled from any 9th grader’s creative writing notebook.

Yet I can’t help loving Saved by the Bell. Thanks to the Internet, my brothers and I can get into quote-athons on any given day, recalling our favorite Zack Morris (Mark Paul Gosselaar, which I spelled correctly on my first try) zingers and cherished AC Slater (Mario Lopez) comebacks. That time Gosselaar went on Jimmy Fallon’s show in character and agreed to a reunion filled us with great hope. And just to emphasize the extent of this love, I will freely admit that my brother Scott and I have discussed the possibility of a Saved by the Bell fantasy camp.

What I have a hard time articulating is why I love this Saturday morning/forever syndicated show. I understand why I loved the subversive Animaniacs, the slyly brilliant Boy Meets World, and the absurd comedy of early 90s Nickelodeon fare. But Saved by the Bell is worse than all of these. Now, let me break down my affection, for my sake and yours, in a few simple steps.

1. It had its moments of honesty. Late in the initial series’ run, Zack kisses Lisa Turtle (Lark Voorhies), a longtime friend of his with whom he has never been romantically paired. Throughout the entire run of the high school-focused show, Zack’s best friend Samuel “Screech” Powers (Dustin Diamond) has had an obsessive crush on Lisa; obviously, Zack making any move on Lisa is a major blow. So it makes sense when Screech exposes Zack’s disloyalty in front of a crowd at an inexplicable fashion show in the Max, which is kind of like Arnold’s on Happy Days, but much less cool.

What I’m getting at here is there is depth, and even darkness, to these characters. Zack sometimes treats his friends in a way that can be described as cruel at best and near unforgivable at worst. And he wasn’t the only one. As my brother put it, “Everyone was really mean to Screech at times. If you actually think about what they say rather than just laughing uproariously as his face in response, it’s quite cruel.” And then, I find that it falls flat when they forgive and forget, and they do so often. But still, there are sincerely sad moments here. And it can be worth watching for them.

2. It presented hilariously improbable scenarios. On more than one occasion, the entire school banded together to play a prank on Zack and Zack alone. One of those times involved subliminal messages, and another involved Zack in drag. In fact, Zack and Screech dressed in drag multiple times, usually in a situation where it couldn’t really be justified. Actually attending high school looks nothing like this. And this side of Tiny Toons, there was no kid-targeted programming so escapist as Saved by the Bell, the home of the smash hit rock band the Zack Attack, a school play themed around a hip hop version of the Snow White fairy tale, and the most well attended chess tournament anyone has ever seen.

3. It taught you what you already knew. There are shows targeted toward the younger set that attempt to show their audience something new, to introduce them to a wealth of knowledge they may never otherwise tap into. Fortunately for us, Saved by the Bell is not one of them. Over the course of four seasons, it taught us that drugs and alcohol are bad, you shouldn’t lie to your parents, and friends are generally an OK thing to keep around. Never once did the show try something new with its Very Special or morality-based episodes–and that’s fine, because sometimes, it’s nice to be reminded of what you already knew through the stale humor of a photogenic prankster and his friends.

4. It aged poorly in the best possible way. Here’s an experiment: mention Saved by the Bell in casual conversation. If the person with whom you’re speaking doesn’t turn on their heel and walk away, time how long it takes them to mention Zack’s larger than life portable phone. Looking back, I’m sure the producers knew they’d be dating themselves with that phone, and those outfits, and the way the aforementioned subliminal messages were copied to cassette tapes, some of which were purchased at the Spinning Lizard. But it’s part of what the makes the show so fun to watch, the thought that hey, these kids once seemed totally cool. And personally, that’s good enough for me.

5. It doesn’t actually require validation. You could call Saved by the Bell a guilty pleasure of mine, but I feel no guilt for it. The show is unreal in all the right ways. It’s sincere in a way that isn’t painful, the jokes are just bad enough that they become good again, and Dennis Haskins, AKA Mr. Belding, once gave me a call to wish me a happy birthday. (My brother set that up for me through … you know what? Never mind.) I like that I like Saved by the Bell. And, to reiterate, that on its own is justification enough for me.

When This Girl Meets Boy Meets World

Or, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Part of Myself that I Probably Shouldn’t Mention Out Loud”

As you’ve probably noticed by now, my life and pop culture are inextricably linked. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I live and breathe the stuff, but it’s certainly part of my everyday experience. It seems sensible, then, that I would associate certain media with specific moments or periods in my life–Rushmore with my freshman year of high school, Damien Rice with a broken relationship in 2005, Coldplay with the war against depression throughout my post-adolescence, et cetera, et cetera. It’s usually media of some depth, with some goal. For Rushmore, it’s minimalism and finding beauty in simplicity. For Damien Rice, it’s about heartbreak and where we go when we find it. And for Coldplay, it’s a reminder that really, truly, no matter what the circumstance, everything’s not lost.

So why, then, is Boy Meets World such an important part of my relationship with pop culture?

On surface level, Boy Meets World is just like any other family friendly sitcom that aired in the mid to late 90s. It’s an extended coming of age story with just enough heart to touch you without making you feel sick. There are laughs, and obligatory lessons, and cute boys and pretty girls to keep the older kids interested. And at the end of the day, there’s a mentor who knows everything, understands everything, and will guide you through everything.

But think about it. Really, really think about it. This show wasn’t so squeaky clean in the end. The Scream parody genuinely horrified me as a junior high school student, and I know it did the same to other kids my age. The episode in which Cory (Ben Savage) and Topanga (Danielle Fishel) very nearly have sex before getting married pissed off my parents, though I couldn’t understand why. (I get it now, guys.) Shawn (Rider Strong) clearly endures abuse from multiple parties, Savage’s older brother Fred guest stars as a lecherous professor, and don’t even get me started about the cult episode.

This is going to sound weird, maybe maudlin, even stupid. But the reason I appreciate Boy Meets World now more than ever is simply this: it grew with its audience. When the show began, I was only in elementary school; by the time it drew to a close, I was entering adolescence and scared to death. The show was there, every Friday night, to remind me that any given kid has what it takes to handle being bullied, rejected, ignored, or disrespected. Cory wasn’t suave, Shawn wasn’t stable, Eric wasn’t smart, and Topanga was strange. But somehow, they made it. So why couldn’t I?

This was a show you watched with your parents and siblings, then took to school with you on Monday morning. These were characters you felt you intimately knew. This was a place where you thought you could thrive because they did. The environment was warm, the people were friendly, and the stakes were never too high. Even now, as an adult, re-watching favorite episodes, I know all of this is true. And so does everybody else I know. So why shouldn’t it figure into our collective consciousness, our recollections of our collective adolescence? It does. And it deserves to.