It's been a tough week for television. In between the deaths of Ed McMahon on Tuesday and Billy Mays on Sunday, both Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson left us on Thursday. Celebrity deaths tend to come in twos and threes, but the departure of this foursome was particularly dramatic because together they tell us a lot about how TV has evolved as a result of their influence.
Each was an innovator, although each represented a different corner of television -- late night, prime time, music videos and commercials. This past week's blow was especially devastating because it took four incredible legacies off the airwaves -- legacies that will be difficult to replace.
Ed McMahon kept Johnny Carson's goofball antics in line, playing it straight for over 30 years. He was just as much an on-screen staple as Carson was, proving to viewers that the dynamic duo could be trusted every night to entertain and inform. As the first late-night one-man support system, he set a precedent for current right-hand men like Andy Richter and Paul Schaffer, who are left to "Hey-o!" as best they can.
Farrah Fawcett gave us an endless smile and a reason to ignore stereotypes. She was one of the first "complete packages" -- and beauty and talent haven't combined so flawlessly since. Actresses like Charlize Theron and Natalie Portman, who often take roles that mask their classic good looks, will have an opportunity to step up and continue to smash the stereotype.
Billy Mays beamed with enthusiasm for every product he advertised. He was a believer in infomercials -- and in the booming but overlooked industry that sustained them. No one was quite like him, and even familiar faces like Ron Popeil (the Veg-O-Matic guy) and Vince Schlomi (the Sham-wow guy) will have to work hard to break away from their single-product association.
Michael Jackson was, quite simply, the musical icon of the century. Everything he sang, danced and produced turned to pop culture gold (or platinum, rather). He inspired artists like Justin Timberlake and Usher, but they have yet to invent a move as revolutionary as the Moonwalk.
With the passing of these four people, television is in for a drastic, immediate change. The legacies of McMahon, Mays, Fawcett and Jackson have left four pairs of shoes to fill. Let's see who tries on the first pair.