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Tony Soprano and those other tough guys are muscled out
Somewhere, in a prop warehouse owned by HBO, there is a big pile of guns. Dusty, unused, bewildered perhaps by their strange and sudden obsolescence, they can only wait and wonder why premium subscriber television, a business they created, built by God out of nothing, has simply abandoned them.
Where once Tony Soprano, "Deadwood's" Al Swearengen and " The Wire's" Jimmy McNulty ruled their hellish fiefdoms with a righteous love of the f-word and a fistful of bullets, now a sweet-voiced Botswanan lady detective solves crimes without a cellphone much less a weapon, a sassy Southern gal explores the nature of love with a very sad and sensitive vampire and the once-rough-and-tumble hunk Gabriel Byrne sits around listening to a bunch of neurotic New Yorkers talk about their feelings.
The only characters in recent months who seemed to appreciate the importance of violence in the culture was a group of off-the-grid polygamists, and most of their show is dedicated to exploring topics like love and faith and the meaning of family.
These are shows that redefine the concept of adult television. Somehow, over the years, "mature" has become synonymous with profanity, sexual explicitness and graphic violence. None of which, by the way, are necessarily a bad thing. But "mature themes" don't begin and end with adultery and murder. While the networks are still trawling for the elusive youth vote with shows like "90210" and " Harper's Island," HBO is unapologetically making television for grown-ups.
And it isn't just HBO forgoing blood and guts. At Showtime, "Brotherhood," the only traditionally he-man show still standing, is on the bubble. "Dexter" may have a very high body count, but he's more criminal mastermind than cowboy (and he's pretty domestic for a serial killer).
"The Tudors" has plenty of megalomanic violence (the time period, of course, precludes real firepower), but at its heart it's a costume drama, with as many heaving bosoms and hitched-up velvet skirts as a supermarket bodice-ripper.
Otherwise, we're looking at a crazy mom, a pot mom, a London call girl, Tracey Ullman and " Californication," in which David Duchovny plays what is essentially the anti-"real man." No, that most definitely isn't a gun in his pocket.
Take a quick trip over network way, and though there are still plenty of blood and "drop-your-weapon" moments, there is also the new and continually cloning cerebral detective. On " The Mentalist," " Eleventh Hour," "Lie to Me" and "Castle," the brains behind the operation are not authorized to pack any heat. Meanwhile, " Life on Mars," which returned viewers to the pre-"Serpico" days, when men were men and police officially brutal, just got the ax.
On FX, "The Shield" is gone, leaving Patty Hewes, the calculating central character of "Damages"; she may be a mob boss in her own way, but she does all her best work with words. NBC's "Southland" shows gritty promise, but the closest thing we have to the old-fashioned drunk and disorderly, weapon-wielding hero is Grace Hanadarko on TNT's " Saving Grace."
Those who feel that television has gotten too violent, too predictable, too dumb, should revisit their subscriber services.
It's almost as if the gun-control lobby or women, to whom many of these new shows are clearly skewed (possibly because more women watch television than men), have secretly taken over television.
Except of course it isn't and they haven't. The pendulum swings one way and then it swings another, and the world in which "The Sopranos" and "The Wire" and "Deadwood" were revolutionary television has changed, mostly because of the existence of "The Sopranos," "The Wire" and "Deadwood."
Though no one can replicate the greatness of such shows, their tone and their envelope-pushing sex, violence and beyond black humor have been replicated over the years into nonexistence -- even the best photocopier will wind up with only shadows at a certain point.
So those looking to continue or reestablish their reputations as industry innovators are taking another tack -- the psychological over the physical, the lush over the gritty, the adult over the sophomoric, the feminine over the masculine.
It's a big gamble, particularly that last. Yes, women are still a slight majority, but conventional wisdom, buttressed by market analysis, has always held that though women will watch and read stories about both genders, most men limit themselves to stories about other men. In other words, male-dominated shows provide a two-fer, and when you have the right writers and actors, even a balding fat mob leader can become a sex symbol.
Which brings us back to HBO, which recently launched the most improbable television series ever conceived. Critical raves not withstanding, "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" is, by industry standards, a primer for how to make a show guaranteed to not succeed.
It not only has no guns, no sex, no f-bombs but a slow and steady pace and a large and cheerful black woman as a main character who drinks only bush tea and is motivated by a need to do good. Jill Scott's Precious may have pain and loss in her background, but that is neither her primary motivator nor an excuse for bad behavior because Precious doesn't behave badly.
Although the lack of more typical detective-show props may take a little getting used to, "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency," like "In Treatment" and " Big Love," are honest-to-God unique shows in a too-often homogenized screen-scape. And in an industry dominated by 31 flavors of broken heroes, so drenched in male-dominated violence that a show in which the serial killer is the hero actually makes sense, this is what innovation looks like. If you want a video game, go buy a video game.
HBO and the networks previously known as cable came into being by breaching the walls of television, and as others followed, many of those walls came down.
Now it seems they are rebuilding, not walls but new images of human drama: a sweet-natured but persistent female detective, an unusually configured family in sincere prayer, an empathetic shrink admitting his life is broken too, a mother with personality disorders trying to find a self in all her many selves. A gun introduced in the first act still should go off in the third, but sometimes you can have great drama without a gun at all.