Tag Archives: Kurtwood Smith

How I Came To Respect Red Foreman From “That ’70s Show”

Time, age, and hindsight have a way of changing how you see things. The attitudes and perspectives you have when you’re 35 are bound to be different than the ones you had when you were 15. It’s just part of life, as you get older. The world is such a different place through the mind of a teenager than it is to an adult.

This manifests in many ways, but the one I’ve found most revealing has to do with the way I see old TV shows that I watched in my youth. Some shows age better than others. I recently citedChuck” as one of those rare shows that seems to get better with age. Most shows don’t get that benefit. Some age so poorly that there’s no way they could ever air today.

Thanks to the joys of being quarantined, I’ve had a chance to re-watch and re-visit some of the shows I loved in my youth. Shows like “Chuck” have only reaffirmed why I loved it so much. Other shows evoke a different reaction. One such show is “That ’70s Show.”

When I was a teenager, this was one of my favorite shows. In terms of TV sitcoms, it checked all the right boxes. It didn’t try to revolutionize the genre. It kept things simple, using 70s aesthetics and proven sitcom tropes to make an entertaining show. It never got too extreme. It never tried to cross too many lines. It just tried to have fun with a certain time period and a cast of colorful characters.

Most of the characters were lovable in their own right. My personal favorite was Fez. Some of the best lines in the show came from him. However, one character often stood out even more. In many ways, he was the show’s primary antagonist. He was Red Forman and when he wasn’t threatening to put his foot in someone’s ass, he was a frequent obstacle to whatever scheme the kids had conjured.

In many respects, any sitcom that involves a cast of teenagers needs a character like Red. He embodies the hard-nosed, uncompromising, uncool authority figure. Most of his roles revolve around stopping the kids from doing what they’re doing or punishing them as soon as they get caught. In that context, he’s easy to root against most of the time.

I certainly did when I watched the show in my youth. In fact, Red was one of my least favorite characters in the show because he was just such a hardass. He didn’t have any of the charm or likability as other sitcom dads. Al Bundy might have been a lousy dad, but at least he was funny. Red was rarely funny, his foot-in-ass remarks notwithstanding.

Then, after watching a few episodes recently, I found myself looking at Red Forman differently. I also saw the teen cast differently. While there were certainly times when Red was an unambiguous asshole, those times were a lot less frequent than I remember. In fact, I came to appreciate Red a lot more as I watched the show from an adult perspective.

In hindsight, it’s easy to understand why. When you’re a teenager, authority figures are often barriers to all the things you want to do. They’re the reason you can’t stay out late at night, drink beer, smoke pot, or hook up with your significant other. They enforce the rules that keep you from having all the fun you want to have. They’ll rarely explain those rules. It usually comes down to them being the parent and you being their kid.

This certainly plays out in “That ’70s Show” throughout many plots. I remember watching those same plots as a teenager and rolling my eyes whenever Red Forman got involved. Then, after watching them again, I found myself siding with Red and not just with respect to who deserved a foot in the ass.

When Eric, Fez, Kelso, Jackie, and Donna do something stupid, it’s rarely because of the rules or the authority figures who enforce them. More often than not, they do what they do by choice. They don’t think things through. They think about the consequences to their actions. They are, after all, immature teenagers in the 1970s. They’re more inclined than most to do stupid things for stupid, selfish reasons.

Red Forman may not be the best when it comes to helping them mature, but he’s not wrong for calling them out on it. Most of the time, they are on the wrong side of the dumb-ass equation. Their efforts to eat, drink, have sex, and avoid responsibility are all products of their own immaturity. Someone like Red needs to be there to remind them of that.

Is he the best father figure for helping teenagers navigate their immaturity? No, he isn’t.

Is he better than most of the bumbling dads who tend to populate most TV shows? Yes, he is and he’d kick the asses of most of those dads.

As a teenager, I had a hard time relating to Red Forman. As an adult, I can’t help but respect him. He is surrounded by a lot of dumb-asses and a wife who’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown every other day. The fact he hasn’t put his foot in more asses is a testament to his restraint.

If you need more proof, please see this series of clips. If you haven’t seen the show in a while, then you may find yourself remembering Red more fondly than you thought.

Red Forman may be a hard-ass. He’ll never be father of the year or the first person you invite to a party. However, in a world of dumb-asses, he’s a beacon of order. For that, he deserves our respect.

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Filed under Celebrities and Celebrity Culture, media issues, philosophy, psychology, television

Profiles In Noble Masculinity: Robocop

robocop

Even in an era where masculinity has gained way too many negative connotations, there’s plenty of room for men who distinguish themselves in respectable, honorable ways. There are countless male characters in popular culture who attempt to set themselves apart. Sometimes, it brings out the worst in men. Sometimes, it brings out the best.

I’ve made a concerted effort to focus on the best aspects of masculinity. To date, I’ve profiled two characters, Joel from “The Last of Us” and Hank Hill from “King of the Hill.” I’ve cited both characters as examples of noble masculinity. It manifests in different forms, but it helps bring a unique strength to their characters.

They have a wide range of traits, some of which aren’t distinctly masculine. When those manly characteristics do emerge, though, they don’t just reveal the greater subtleties in who they are. They demonstrate just how powerful masculinity can be when it’s channeled. In that spirit, I’d like to highlight another character who channels that kind of masculinity in a way that’s compelling, memorable, and full of memorable one-liners.

That character’s name is Alex J. Murphy of the Detroit Police Department, but most know him as Robocop. He’s not just a cop who got caught up in a greedy corporation’s agenda. He’s not just a man in a machine carrying out the duties of a cop. When you take in the entirety of Robocop’s story, including the Jesus connotations, you find a character whose masculinity shines even in the R-rated violence that is Detroit.

Now, before I go any further, I want to establish that the version of “Robocop” I’m citing here is the original 1987 version played by Peter Weller. This profile will not draw from the 2014 “Robocop” played by Joel Kinnaman. I’m not saying that version of the character is without merit. I enjoyed that movie. However, it did not come close to demonstrating the level of noble masculinity that the original conveyed.

On the surface, the original “Robocop” wasn’t that groundbreaking for its time. Stories about urban decay and dystopian cities were already popular thanks to movies like “The Terminator” and “Blade Runner.” In terms of substance, though, “Robocop” achieved something profound in terms of crafting a memorable male character.

The core of Alex Murphy’s character, even before he became Robocop, is that he’s a good, honorable man in a city that doesn’t have many of them. This version of Detroit, which is sadly very similar to the real-world version, is full of deviant criminals and corrupt business types. The very company that creates Robocop, Omni Consumer Products, is full of ruthless individuals who see crime only as a hindrance to profits.

A man like Alex Murphy is a precious rarity in that world. As such, it doesn’t take long for it to get snuffed out. On Murphy’s first day on the job, he’s callously killed by a gang of sociopath criminals led by Clarence Boddicker. All that innate nobility and idealism Murphy had was literally shot to death within the first twenty minutes of the movie.

However, that was not the end of Alex Murphy’s story. It was only the beginning. When he’s turned into Robocop by OCP, who see him only as a means to further their business plan, the extent of the noble masculinity he portrays only grows. The fact it does so while he cleans up Detroit’s rampant crime is a nice bonus as well.

From the moment he awakens as Robocop, we see what looks to be only a shell of a man. In fact, OCP goes out of their way to remove as much of the man as possible, not bothering to salvage his hand or anything below the neck. The only part of Alex Murphy they keep is his brain and part of his face.

It’s a total deconstruction of a man, ripping away the very flesh that makes him masculine and yes, that includes his genitals. To OCP, he’s a machine who just happens to run on human parts. They try to filter out the humanity in hopes of creating an obedient commodity that they can then mass produce, market, and utilize for profit.

It’s dehumanization to an extreme, more so than what characters like Wolverine endured. For a brief while, it looks like OCP succeeds. Initially, Robocop carries himself like a machine, confronting Detroit’s worst criminals with an efficiency that wasn’t possible as Alex Murphy. He could’ve become a perfect example of reducing all men to machines, devoid of emotion and focused only on a task at hand.

Then, the story takes a more human turn and Robocop suddenly becomes more man than machine. Despite everything OCP took from him, including his body and his free will, Alex Murphy still emerged. Even after everything that made him a man was deconstructed, literally in some cases, he fought to regain control.

In the process, we get to see Robocop learn about the man he used to be. We see glimpses of his life as a father and a husband. We find out just how good a man he was to his wife and his son. It contrasts heavily to the ruthless criminals and callous business people that affect much of the story. That’s critical in terms of establishing Robocop as someone who conveys a heroic brand of masculinity.

From the outside perspective of the audience, Alex Murphy’s home life seems mundane and even a little corny. However, when put into the context of a crime-ridden urban dystopia, it becomes instrumental in elevating Robocop’s sense of duty. They make his prime directives more than just base programming. By adding Murphy’s humanity into the mix, they gain greater meaning.

It’s an inherently masculine trait, protecting those who cannot otherwise protect themselves. Murphy already embodied that trait because he was a cop and a family man. However, he could only accomplish so much on his own, as his fatal encounter with Boddicker proved.

By becoming Robocop, that role is elevated because technically speaking, he’s better equipped than any man has ever been. He’s got a human mind, but he has a robot body, complete with bullet-proof skin and the ability to shoot with inhuman accuracy. Instead of stripping him of his masculinity and his humanity, becoming a robot actually enhanced it.

That, more than anything, is what elevates Robocop’s noble masculinity to another level. An act that should’ve utterly dehumanized him ended up making his humanity even stronger. It had to be in order to overcome OCP’s control and uncover the plot to exploit him as just another product. The fact that OCP tries and fails in the sequel to recreate him further reinforces just how unique Robocop is.

Through that journey from utter masculine deconstruction to total reaffirmation of his identity, the line between Robocop and Alex Murphy blurs. The line between carrying out noble acts and following basic programming blurs as well. In the end, Robocop isn’t just a machine following a program. He’s a man inside a machine, doing the same job he did as a man, but with much better weapons and more memorable catch phrases.

Robocop” is hailed as a classic for many reasons. Robocop, as a character, continues to be an icon, despite sub-par sequels and a failed reboot. I think a big part of that appeal comes directly from how the first movie managed to portray the best traits of masculinity within a setting where the worst often thrived.

Even in a contemporary context, beyond the current state of Detroit, Robocop conveys a powerful message that men and women alike can appreciate. You can put a good man in the worst situation, destroying and deconstructing him at every level. That same man will find a way to re-emerge and do what needs to be done.

It’s a testament to the strength of manhood and our willingness to protect innocents in an unjust world. Robocop combines the spirit of a man with the power of a machine. One need not subvert the other. In fact, one can supplement the other and, dead or alive, the criminal element of any gender doesn’t stand a chance.

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