Beyond typecasting, new origins


Via Wikipedia, Steve Urkel.

Though they’re always around in reruns or some other form, two pop culture phenomenons from the early nineties have made a recent, trend-worthy resurgence: Steve Urkel and The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  I was pretty young when both of these properties emerged, and I enjoyed them in different ways—much more as a spectator of Urkel than the vicarious living done through the turtles.  Now I find them most notable  for the way that the things that gave them depth can be discarded in favor of one-dimensionality, though, when it came to Steve Urkel,  such was often the case.


When it was announced a week or two ago by a bunch of entertainment reporters that Jaleel White would be on “Dancing with the Stars” (Hey, those people talk so fast you can’t pass over a station without hearing one relatively complete idea), White’s name was referenced so secondarily that someone low on cynicism might think the character he became infamous for playing, Steve Urkel, was being resurrected without him.  Most actors typecast in one role don’t so heavily become the cart before the horse, but enough people have always liked ‘Urkel’ as someone whose complete lack of cool  meant that they were better than him.  Maybe it’s because the character so good-naturedly and wholeheartedly embraced being uncool that Jaleel White has been labeled ‘Urkel’ since the character emerged on “Family Matters.”   In him, there was someone who could be perpetually dismissed.  (And yet, do note that most people in the alternative vein dress like that character now–seriously.)

Originally a spin-off vehicle for Harriet Winslow, a scene-stealing supporting character on another sitcom, “Family Matters” was a show about a black middle-class family in Chicago.  Like most sitcoms, it was in the “cue heart-warming moment” vein.  Put together after “The Cosby Show” had been a hit for five years, “Family Matters” featured a cast that was boldly a little less TV-friendly than some of the Huxtables and somehow dealt with race even less than that show did.  “Family Matters” was close to cancellation until the introduction of Steve Urkel, the kid next door who had a crush on the family’s oldest daughter, Laura.  With a high-pitched voice, flood-pants held up by suspenders, and a buffoonish-yet-hyper-intelligent persona, Steve’s appeal was very broad.  From slapstick to J.J.-like catchphrases to the trope of playing his character’s female cousin, Steve was a whirlwind of energy capable of everything but being cool.  Ironically, this is also where the character’s redeeming and positive qualities stem from.  Take away all the slapstick, and in Urkel, you basically have a good-natured genius whom happens to be black.  Such shouldn’t be trivial.

I don’t watch “Dancing with the Stars,” but, in pressing ahead after his stint as pop culture’s least cool character, I certainly wish Jaleel White the best.


So we also have the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—whom are getting a new feature film in which producer Michael Bay purports that they may be alien instead of mutated.  This possible change  caused a pretty big uproar that boiled down to:

“But mutant is in their brand name!”

A lot of the characters’ biggest fans feel that making them aliens would, as a starting point, change/invalidate the idea of the property.  When I was young, the fact that they were all humanoid turtles who were also martial artists had the key appeal, but as I got older, the thing that was interesting was the limitations that not being regular turtles and not being quite human enough put on their lives.  As four brothers that were a race unto themselves, all they had was each other.  Raphael, the only brother whose relationship to this dynamic could be outright maladjustment, was the most dramatic example of these perennial outsiders.  Beyond their Master Splinter’s martial arts training, as teenagers they naturally devoured pop culture and wanted to be a part of the world around them.  And they accomplish this in, well, a pretty comic book fashion—by being good ninjas.  I’m not sure how that dynamic comes about quite so meaningfully with a whole ‘nother planet of turtles just like them.   But at least the mutant ones already exist (albeit fictionally, of course), and that world can be revisited.


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