The zany redheads of "Suddenly Susan" and "NewsRadio" are just the latest addition to a great TV tradition that stretches back to Lucille Ball and Howdy Doody

Television tends to confirm cultural cliches, and all the ones about redheads — they’re hot-tempered, hot-blooded, unpredictable — are certainly reinforced by the crimson tresses we see on the small screen, from Lucille Ball to Melrose Place‘s Laura Leighton. Variety exists, of course; over the years, we’ve gravitated toward carrottops as dissimilar as Howdy Doody and Conan O’Brien, not to mention Carrot Top (and I won’t, ever again). Most of the time, the extremes that redheads are supposed to represent push them to the sidelines of a sitcom, but in the past couple of seasons, a few supporting henna-heads have brazenly taken central roles in their shows.

I refer specifically to a titanic struggle that will soon begin anew: Who’s the best feisty-second-banana redhead on television, Beth (Vicki Lewis) on NBC’s NewsRadio, or Vicki (Kathy Griffin) on Suddenly Susan, now returning to NBC’s powerhouse Thursday night line-up at its new 8:30-9 p.m. time slot?

Others have remarked upon the resemblance between these two characters, who serve the same function in their respective shows. It’s a sad fact that more people are probably familiar with Vicki, Brooke Shields’ raspy-voiced writer colleague, since Suddenly has posted higher ratings than NewsRadio this season. Vicki is a perpetually miffed, man-hungry wiseacre who wears absurdly tight, bright clothes and says things like ”You think I dress like this to get respect?” Griffin, who’s also a tough, jabbing stand-up comic, deserves credit for playing her with as much gusto as this accumulation of cliches will allow. But Griffin isn’t getting the quality of writing that Lewis is taking full advantage of.

NewsRadio is — as we’ve been telling you week after week, you adorable silly readers — much the better series, which also means that the character Beth is more three-dimensional. As the secretary at news station WNYX, she is every bit as sarcastic and blowsy and underdressed as her Suddenly Susan counterpart, but there’s a lot more going on beneath her mop of scarlet curls. Beth is at once cynical and naive; she’s an off-the-wall ditz who’s also very shrewd. Where Vicki is an appalling little joke machine, playing a vulgar Rhoda to Shields’ muscular Mary, Beth is an appealing go-getter who feigns a laid-back demeanor.

Each week, Lewis gives a performance that is sly and nuanced; she knows how to make Beth’s sarcastic lines carry the weight of melancholy — on some level, she’s a lonely person who wishes she was as happily dumb as Matthew (Andy Dick), as blithely arrogant as Bill (Phil Hartman), or as quietly confident as her boss, Dave (Dave Foley). The result is a rare redhead who’s as lovable as she is prickly and whose bohemian eccentricities transcend the usual standards of sexiness.

TV has had its redheaded sex symbols, of course; they’ve ranged from Tina Louise’s cooing Ginger on Gilligan’s Island to Marg Helgenberger’s tough-gal druggie-prostitute on China Beach to Gillian Anderson’s discreetly raincoated Scully on The X-Files. Crimson-tressed leading men are harder to come by: hmmm, let’s see — Timothy Busfield on thirtysomething? Naw, his Elliot was too miserable and weaselly to fit the bill. The most memorable recent example is probably David Caruso’s brooding John Kelly on NYPD Blue.

Common wisdom holds that redheads tend to be more passionate, more explosive, than blonds or brunets. But there’s a flip side to vulnerability. Part of it is the way the combination of hair tint and camera lighting can drain color from their faces (Caruso frequently looked as if someone was siphoning the lifeblood out of him). And then there’s the fact that a number of them are vulnerable: Melanie Mayron’s Melissa on thirtysomething was a jittery collection of insecurities and neuroses whose hair actually got progressively less red—sapped of color—as her woes increased. And (pre-blond) Lauren Holly’s cop Maxine on Picket Fences was the least dependable police officer I’ve ever seen on television, usually frazzled and easily conned.

In March, CBS will offer a new sitcom called Temporarily Yours that seems to offer nothing but redheads, including its red-tinged star, Debi Mazar; her boss, played by Joanna Gleason; and the boss’ assistant (Seth Green). This is almost certainly two too many; to work effectively, the redhead must be used as a pinch of strong spice—paprika?—in a sitcom recipe (think Agnes Moorehead’s Endora on Bewitched). In fact, the coexistence of Beth and Vicki is almost too much to bear. Let’s have a sweeps-period stunt in which they meet, instantly despise one another, and get in a hair-pulling brawl that leaves one of them bald. I know who my money’s on.

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