Why MacGyver?

It’s not news that the quality of a Saturday Night Live show can’t be predicted from just looking at the name of the host. Some of the worst shows this year have had reliable types like Hugh Laurie and Alec Baldwin, while the most recent show made very good use of The Rock. He does a much better Obama than Fred Armisen (even with the Hulk dialogue, he got Obama’s inflections and speech mannerisms and frequent “uh”s more accurately than Armisen).

They also had another MacGruber bit, this time with Richard Dean Anderson finally appearing on the show itself rather than in Pepsi commercials. You can watch it here before NBC pulls it off and restricts it to the U.S.-only Hulu.com site. This is something I’ve been thinking about ever since the MacGruber sketch started in 2007, but it’s surprising that MacGyver has had the kind of cultural impact that it’s had. When The Simpsons first introduced the idea that Patty and Selma were obsessed with MacGyver, it was either just before or just after that show went off the air, and the joke was that it was the last show you’d expect anyone to be obsessed with: a show that was on for years without anybody really paying much attention, and got canceled without much fanfare. A reliable placeholder show, not a memorable one.

But MacGyver has had a reach and a staying power beyond almost any other action-adventure show of its era. All the seasons were released on DVD, a sign of unusual popularity for a non-current show. (Most shows of that era don’t sell well enough to have every season released in a short period of time.) It inspired a successful Saturday Night Live sketch, a failed attempt to revive it for the WB network, a possible feature film, many commercials, and TV science shows that ask whether MacGyver’s science solutions could actually work in real life. MacGyver is one of those TV characters whose name has become instantly recognizable and resonant: if you say “MacGyver,” most people will not only know who you’re talking about, but what he can do — make live-saving inventions out of household materials. It was not the best show of its time, nor the most popular, but the name, the actor, the character and the formula all kind of fuse together in people’s minds and have become synonymous with the very idea of being able to make something out of nothing.

I wonder if there are any shows today that are like that — shows that aren’t huge hits or cultural signifiers now, but will eventually become culturally significant for some reason or another? I’m sure there are; I just don’t know what they are, because, well, that’s in the future.

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