Tons of virtual ink have been spilt about the end of TV’s “Golden Age.”(For a brief rundown, check out the always verbose and whipsmart Andy Greenwald at : http://grantland.com/features/andy-greenwald-don-draper-mad-men-twilight-golden-age-television/) It isn’t just Breaking Bad’s exit that has kicked off the haranguing. A brief look at the critical darlings of the past points to an undeniable fact – nearly every one of these is still responding to, critiquing, or reflecting The Soprano’s titanic strides over a decade ago.
The white male anti-hero stands alone, ready to lash out at the world that he thinks has wronged him. These shows may feature an ensemble, but our White Male Protector dominates the proceedings. His name is Tony Soprano, Walter White, Vic Mackey, Dr. House, Frank Underwood, Al Swearengen, and Don Draper… and his wives and girlfriends and the rest of the female cast must always play second fiddle.
This is not to discredit the incredible work by Edie Falco, Robin Wright, January Jones etc. Carmela Soprano’s overnight discussions with Father Phil were an early series highlight, and I could never properly qualify how well-written Mad Men’s several female characters are. And yet they must always yield to the gravity, the sheer weight of the Charismatic Male.
I mean this not as a sleight – I’m a white dude whose own work is usually obsessed with issues of modern masculinity. But at times, TV can feel a bit too close to an echochamber than a sounding board.
Vulture and other outlets have seized on the perceived gap within the industry and have eagerly pronounced this the era of “The Female Antihero.” And certainly, shows like Scandal prove that there’s an argument there.
But you can’t simply copy the male model, switch the genders and presto-change-o out comes the shiny new product. The White Male AntiHero shows often argued that women like Carmela played a secondary role in The Sopranos because women are so often forced to play secondary roles in their own lives. Art reflects culture, and all that jazz.
Instead, I started to notice a pattern last year. Females hadn’t arrived to wrest control of “The Protagonist” from the establishment. Instead, these new shows showcase the ways men and women relate to one another – with two characters sharing the spotlight.
Way back in the dregs of my undergraduate beginnings, I remember a statistics teacher droning on about “Two is a coincidence, three is a pattern.” Apparently, he watched a LOT of cop dramas that year. But at the moment there isn’t just one show that pinged on my radar. At the moment, there are four shows on-air that fit this model.
Showtime’s Homeland aired its first episode in October 2011. Although Mandy Patinkin’s Saul Berensen proved an apt ensemble player, the show’s narrative gravitated towards the ever-twisting relationship between CIA analyst Carrie Matheson and War Hero-Turned-Maybe-Terrorist Nicholas Brody. A year later, the Emmy’s handed out the holy trifecta of awards to Homeland – Best Drama, Lead Actor, and Lead Actress. It was impossible to know at the beginning of an episode if Carrie or Brody would receive more time. It was even a coin toss to figure out who would drive the events of a given episode; who would remain still and who would crank the gear to the next act.
Still, it was easy to write off Homeland as an aberration. Most critics saw the show as a sort of apology from members of 24’s creative team, a more nuanced portrait of the War on Terror now that the embers of 9/11 faded. The show never quite abandoned its pulpy roots – precariously balancing between heightened reality and outright 24-esque cartoon insanity. (Spoiler alert: Though everyone disagrees on when they lost that balance, this last season was not appointment television). Fine, there was a single data point on the board – a single female protagonist with an equally wiley partner. So what?
Then FX joined the fray, first with The Americans. First airing in early 2013, The Americans took the “male and female centre” and pushed it to new heights. “Married Spies” has always been a yuck-worthy concept (Mr and Mrs Smith etc.), but The Americans absolutely roared out of the gate. The pilot opens with a mission gone awry – Elizabeth and Phillip grabbed the target but their partner is bleeding out. Our leads argue over what to do with him – except this time the roles are reversed. Elizabeth argues compassionately that he’s already a dead man, while Matthew Rhys stews in self-loathing before they reach a belated compromise.
Yet again, the male and female take turns anchoring the primary plot each episode – oftentimes working in concert (to protect their kids, their covers, or their home country) so that you might as well arbitrarily fling a dart to determine who actually “owns” the episode. Of the two, Keri Russell’s performance and character is the absolute standout. The latter half of the season features an ever-rising rivalry between her and Margot Martindale (imported from Justified) that gives each woman an agency never quite seen on television. Matthew Rhys’ performance is a much subtler and delicate act, often focusing on his bouts of nostalgia and his role as a much more-present Parent than Elizabeth. Rhys’ character isn’t just the dreamer – he’s also the caretaker.
And yet again, The Americans was largely seen as another iteration of our current love for espionage. The Americans also takes place in the eighties, and it was easy to label the show as a “Great period drama” and move on.
And then FX reached into the bag and pulled out a very similar rabbit. The Bridge premiered in summer 2013 to an avalanche of press and critical ravings. A month before the show came out, multiple critics asked “Is this the next Wire?” (Spoiler: No, no it is not.) FX’s marketing strategy has always appealed most to male swagger. This is after all the house that Vic Mackey and Rescue Me built. Yet something strange happened around the edges – although the men still dominated, women were allowed to grab shotguns and do more than whinge about marriage. FX’s sublime Justified was once summed up by a friend by asking me, “Has there every been a show where so many women have kicked so much ass?” I initially wrote off The Americans as a tepid step into the waters of a world where women were allowed to be unequivocal equals. (Alyysa Rosenberg hit upon this far earlier than anyone, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/books-and-arts/111569/fx-feminism-men-sons-of-anarchy-justified) And then the Bridge used the same damn formula.
Based on a much superior Swedish/Danish show, The Bridge is a buddy cop show featuring a female cop in El Paso and her male counterpart in Juarez. Though they’ve traded in Carrie Matheson’s bipolar disorder for Sonya’s aspergers, its hard not to draw comparisons. Blonde, slim, socially awkward women working in male-dominated fields who have the ONE TRUE CORRECT THEORY on the latest crime du jour. For me, the first season of The Bridge is largely one of untapped potential. No matter how well-written the ole “cops chase serial killers” tropes were, I had seen the rhythms before. Even the injection of Demian Bichir’s Last Honest Cop in Mexico barely kept me tuning in. Bichir’s performance is a revelation, but its also derivative. When he inevitably cheats on his wife I rolled my eyes, because we’ve all seen it before. And yet, the show kept me watching largely because of the interplay between these two partners from opposite genders and opposite countries.
Finally, Showtime launched Masters of Sex. The lives of science researchers Dr. Jonathan Masters and his assistant-turned-partner-turned-lover Virginia Johnson anchor the show’s interest in intimacy. Above all else, Masters of Sex is fascinated by how sexuality both defines, limits, and liberates us. Sheen’s Masters is an enigma, a cold and repressed man finding himself pushing at boundaries he knows may wreak utter havoc. Lizzy Caplan’s Virginia is our window into the shows’ world, and her ideas about intimacy fit better with 2014 than 1954. Their attraction and interplay are yet again the central attraction. It is easy to imagine a Tony Soprano without Carmela, or a version of Mad Men that is just the male characters swilling drinks at the latest fancy pub. They’d be worse shows, but they could exist.
All four of these show could not exist without the relatonship between the leads. Sometime these work relationships turn romantic, at other points the opposite may be true. They are complex, and spin the narrative into new and different places. We’re never quite sure who will own a scene, own a story, own a season. But it’s not a tug of war. It’s a relationship – at once utterly symbiotic and alluring.