Poles on the Tube: Polish Representations on American & British TV
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small, Poles on the Tube: Polish Representations on American & British TV, Frank Sobotka from Season 2 of The Wire, photo: promo materials, the-wire-season-2-tv-show-image-frank-sobotka.jpg
Television provides many English speakers with their main source of Polish representation, as evident from these popular examples. But how does this contribute to the global view of the Poles? Time for a discussion...
This list truly is a mixed bag. You have main characters from dramas and comedic bit characters, all with varying degrees of Polishness represented in their demeanour and character description. Through last names, accents, decisions and personality types, the land of Poland appears to be represented. Or is it?
Let's take comedies, which have been and will continue to capitalise on the magnification of cultural stereotypes. Humour is created through a juxtaposition between characters and societies (often through the formula of straight dialogue leading to a punchline delivered by a bit character) but how does this contribute to a global view of the Poles? Does it damage the country's concept of accurate representation or does it promote a wider knowledge of Poland for better, albeit as a stereotype?
As for dramas, should a Polish character downplay their heritage so as to not fit into a Polish mould and box themselves in? Or is it possible for a nationality to be both present and not contribute to a general mass view of Polish people?
This list will not answer these questions, but it should start a dialogue. Please let us know what you think or if we missed any crucial Polish characters that could add to the conversation in the Facebook comments!
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Thomas Banacek from 'Banacek'
Arguably the most ‘Polish’ character on this list, Thomas Banacek from NBC’s Banacek, part of their rotating Wednesday Mystery Movie series, is a Polish-American investigator from Boston, Massachusetts. Characters on the show would often mispronounce Banacek’s Polish last name as a gag. However, Banacek’s shining moment for his nationality is his fondness for profound but often confusing proverbs that are supposedly Polish. Some notably silly examples are ‘Though the hippopotamus has no stinger in his tail, a wise man would rather be sat on by a bee’ and ‘When a wolf is chasing your sleigh, throw him a raisin cookie, but don't stop to bake a cake.’
The Sobotkas from Season 2 of 'The Wire'
HBO’s The Wire Season 2 sought to tackle the decline of the American working class and the influence of drug trades using a Polish-American family called the Sobotkas. Frank Sobotka, the main family member, is the secretary treasurer for the International Brotherhood of Dock Workers in Baltimore, Maryland. He ends up allowing European gangsters to smuggle drugs and prostitutes through his dock to help pay bribes and bring prosperity back to the docks, showing how decent individuals are brought down through institutional corruption.
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Polish solidiers in 'Dad's Army'
The super popular long-running British sitcom Dad's Army was about an inept squad of Home Guard soldiers during WWII protecting a small coastal town. It only featured Polish characters in a handful of its 80 episodes, possibly because they couldn't seem to find an actor who could do a decent Polish accent. In the very first season when the show was still in black and white, a Polish officer called Winogrodski shows the Walmington-on-Sea squad how to capture German parachutists when they come sneaking in, making the Home Guard look bad at the same time. The episode ends with Private Walker pretending Winogrodski is German so that he gets taken away too. The accent doesn't help his case. In a later colour episode, an entire prisoner of war camp is run by Polish soldiers who incarcerate Corporal Jones there in a case of mistaken identity. Again, the accent of the Polish Army Officer could be from anywhere, and the only thing distinguishing him as Polish is 'Poland' on his uniform and a single use of 'Do widzenia!' over the phone. But the scenes are pretty funny, as you can see in the clip above.
Dorota Kishlovsky from 'Gossip Girl'
Portrayed by Polish actress Zuzanna Szadkowski, Gossip Girl's Dorota Kishlovsky is the maternal maid for main character Blair Waldorf. She is often seen helping Blair with her schemes and giving her worthwhile advice. At one point in the series, Blair's mother sees Dorota as a larger mother figure in Blair's life than she was. Her nationality is a large part of her character, often speaking in Polish to other American characters and bringing in sayings from her former country (which are much more accurate than Banacek's).
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Stefan Kowolski from 'New Blood'
Stefan Kowolski is a second-generation Polish immigrant and a junior investigator with the United Kingdom Serious Fraud Office on the BBC crime drama New Blood. When he gets partnered with Arash Sayyad, another immigrant, for an undercover case, the duo work to solve crimes. And yes, there is often action and suspense in tow.
Andy Sipowicz from 'NYPD Blue'
Andy Sipowicz has been described as the ‘moral core’ of the ABC hit series NYPD Blue. Sipowicz was raised by two Polish blue-collar parents until his mother was killed in a robbery and his father developed a drinking problem. From there, Sipowicz became very prejudiced and violent but slowly reformed his problematic beliefs and practices over the course of the popular series’ twelve seasons. He is best known for his short-sleeve dress shirt and tie combo, now known as ‘The Sipowicz’ in modern pop culture.
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Barney Gumble from 'The Simpsons'
The most notable barfly at Moe’s tavern, Barney Gumble has been a regular on The Simpsons from the very beginning of the show. In the Halloween-themed ‘Treehouse of Horror XVII’ episode, Barney finally confirmed his Polish heritage. In the clip above, Barney’s love of Duff beer is put to the test as he reluctantly agrees to be the designated driver for the rest of the tavern’s crew.
Magda from 'Lead Balloon'
Often puzzled by British quirks and characteristics, Magda from BBC’s Lead Balloon sees the British as being too soft. Her blunt, sharp views and criticisms of common niceties really hit home through her thick Polish accent. For example, Magda is perfectly okay with calling another person’s newborn baby ugly if she thinks so. Straightforward, and to the point.
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Mickey Doyle from Boardwalk Empire
The name Mickey Doyle does not give off many Polish vibes but what makes this comic-relief character from HBO’s Boardwalk Empire so funny is his moniker. Early in the show, Mickey decides to change his real Polish name (Mieczysław Kuzik) to Doyle to sound more Irish in the alcohol-peddling business. His trademark has to be his distinctive, nasal giggle, though that isn’t necessarily a Polish thing per say.
Aldona from 'People Just Do Nothing'
People Just Do Nothing, the BBC show about a pirate radio station in west London features Aldona, Chabuddy G’s Polish and unloving wife. She treats her husband and his outlandish entrepreneurial schemes with a sense of extreme disdain. In the episode ‘Weed Drought’, Chabuddy joyously looks forward for Aldona to return after she ran away back to Poland but when she does, along with a man she claims is her brother, she simply robs her husband and leaves!
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Sophie Kaczynski from 'Two Broke Girls'
Sophie Kaczynski’s humour on CBS’s Two Broke Girls often comes from her thick Polish accent and her stories about her Polish homeland, which are usually morbid but delivered with a nostalgic and happy demeanor. She lives directly above the main characters Max and Caroline and dresses very elegantly for a woman who owns a cleaning business, ironically named ‘Sophie’s Choice.’
Katya from 'Count Arthur Strong'
Featured in the scene above, Katya from Count Arthur Strong on BBC is the main character Arthur’s biggest fan. Although her time on the show is short-lived, her Polish heritage shines through.
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Joanna Krupa from 'The Real Housewives of Miami'
Although Joanna Krupa is a real person and has appeared on many different Polish and American shows like Dancing with the Stars and the Polish version of Top Model, her appearance as a main character on The Real Housewives of Miami brought her Polish roots into the limelight.
Abed Nadir from ‘Community’
This Palestinian-Polish-American Greendale Community College student is the true star of the quirky American sitcom Community – even though the show is supposed to revolve around cool guy and ex-fake-lawyer Jeff Winger, it is Abed who steals the show and runs with it. Abed is a true cinephile (although that might be a bit of an understatement), deeply (deeeeply) immersed in pop-culture, who is practically joined at the hip with his best friend Troy, and likely has Asperger’s syndrome, or is on the Autism spectrum. It is his extraordinary and outrageous imagination that drives each off-the-wall episode.
During the show’s six-year run (‘Six seasons & a movie!’), Abed addresses his Polish heritage numerous times (his mom was Polish) and does not shy away from using Polish words and phrases. It’s doubtful that anyone would even think to look further into this minor plotline for being so random, seeing as how the whole show is a festival of randomness, but this, of course, caught our attention. Why Polish? And how is it that Abed speaks Polish so well? As it turns out, the actor Danny Pudi who portrays Abed on screen is actually half-Polish in real life! Check out some of his favourite Polish words from his childhood:
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So, whether you enjoy these characters or not, do you feel they are representative of the Polish community? Do they even have to be? Are there any others we've missed that you feel are better representatives? Let us know in the comments!
Written by Matt Harmon, Jun 2017, updated by AZ & NR, Aug 2020