The new fall TV season is getting under way. That's not as big a deal as it used to be, of course, back when three or four major networks dominated the entire medium. But it's bound to bring us some new characters who become pop culture icons.
If past seasons are any indication, we'll never see some of them.
One of the most sturdy tropes in television, and especially in sitcoms, is the regular or recurring character who's an integral part of the show but who never appears on screen.
They're often spouses of main characters: Maris, the wife of Niles Crane on "Frasier," so ghastly thin and ghostly pale that she probably could never have been portrayed by a living human being; Vera, Norm's wife on "Cheers," a constant presence in Norm's life whose physical presence in his hangout would have been unthinkable; Lars, Phyllis' henpecked husband on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" who eventually had an affair with Sue Ann Niven.
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It goes way back to the early days of television. "December Bride," in the early '50s, featured an unseen Gladys, the wife of next-door neighbor Pete (who was played by a very young Harry Morgan). Pete never stopped complaining about his wife, but when the couple spun off into their own series, "Pete and Gladys," she seemed pleasant enough.
Just a few years later, an unknown Mary Tyler Moore played Sam on "Richard Diamond, Private Detective," but fans only heard her voice and saw her legs.
What makes the conceit so successful that it never seems to grow old? Maybe allowing viewers to imagine what a character looks like is effective. (Though it's hard to believe any viewers of "Richard Diamond" could imagine a face prettier than that of 24-year-old Mary Tyler Moore). Some characters, like Ugly Naked Guy on "Friends," Mrs. Wolowitz on "The Big Bang Theory" or Orson on "Mork and Mindy," are simply unportrayable.
Sometimes there's no need for a physical presence: Sarah, Mayberry's telephone operator on "The Andy Griffith Show," who seemed to work 24/7 and to know where everyone in town
was at all times, or Marge, the switchboard operator on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" who gave the cast occasional chances for some '60s-era telephone comedy, or Sparky, to whom Radar often spoke to by radio on "M*A*S*H."
Sometimes showing the characters would simply seem out of place in the world of the show, like the parents in the "Peanuts" cartoons.
Other times it's nothing more than a gimmick, and the invisible characters have limited interaction with the series stars: the recorded voice that offered instructions on "Mission: Impossible," John Forsythe's speaker-phone performance of Charlie in "Charlie's Angels," Carlton Your Doorman on "Rhoda."
There are uncountable other examples -- Tino on "My So-Called Life," Enid Kelso on "Scrubs," Diane on "Twin Peaks."
There are probably almost as many reason the device works as there are characters.
It'll be fun to see (or rather, to not see) which great new characters fail to appear in the new TV season.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.