The marketing of
Just another player in the crowded genre of "Gee, it's tough to be a straight white man." Or, as it has come to be known, "prestige television."
FOR THE RECORD:
Antihero on TV: An Aug. 18 Critic's Notebook about the tyranny of the antihero on television said that the series "Top of the Lake" was on IFC. It was on Sundance Channel. —
The blooming of high-quality serialized fiction on television has hit critical mass, luring writers, directors and stars from the screen formerly known as big and generally driving cocktail and cultural conversation in every medium and demographic. (
Yet even as the tone, structure and delivery system of the medium diversify, the industry definition of Good Television, as in important, award-winning television, remains infuriatingly narrow. Drama trumps comedy, male trumps female, most everyone is white and someone needs to get killed or commit adultery by the second scene at least.
Thankfully, glimmers of change flicker here and there. Comedies such as "Louie" and
Still, most dramas striving for A-list credibility (and some that aren't) inevitably revolve around a driven yet unhappy male lead suffering from illness/dysfunction plagued by a moral ambiguity born of a troubled history and the lonely void all that entails.
And now it's Strong's killer cop (seen previously, it must be added, in a British version of the show) with a tear rolling down his face.
The appeal of such characters is obvious — male viewers identify with the inevitable midlife frustrations writ large and female viewers want to save them (it helps that the actors playing these guys are usually pretty attractive). Less appealing is their tyrannical hold on the gold standard. When did the problematic protagonist become the necessary ingredient for dramatic excellence?
The short answer is the day
Many forces have contributed to the renaissance of television but none more than HBO's decision to get into the original content business.
But the pedigree of HBO, and eventually television itself, rose on the shoulders of the antihero — the torn, angry and often ill-shaven fellow waving a gun and/or a bottle around, troubled, oh, so troubled but still smarter than anyone else in the room. "Oz,"
This year, of the Emmy's six drama contenders, only
Success inevitably breeds imitation, so not surprisingly any network entering the high-end original programming business these days does so with similarly themed shows: "Copper" on
And Chase certainly didn't invent the antihero. American literature is littered with men in varying states of fracture, from the hypocritical Arthur Dimmesdale ("The Scarlet Letter") and "Moby-Dick's" obsessive Ahab to Bret
At this summer's TV critics meetings, there was talk about the high testosterone count of prestige shows. HBO's Michael Lombardo was asked why there weren't more female-centric dramas, while Chris Albrecht touted the new period miniseries "The White Queen" as a chance for Starz to court "an underserved audience."
Never mind the rather insulting and wrong-headed insinuation that only women would benefit from more diverse lead characters, the real issue is not so much better serving the female audience — women love Dexter and Don Draper as much as the next guy — as it is broadening the definition of Important Story. The reliance on violence and vice to establish a show as deep and fearless all but requires male leads; with the exception of, perhaps, Patty Hewes on
Female leads, or so conventional wisdom tells us, can be complicated but they must be likable. The recent American remake of "Prime Suspect" softened the British antiheroine Jane Tennison to the point that she wore a kicky hat (and sank like a stone), while the bipolar reactions to HBO's
Sundance Channel took baby steps away from the haunted hero model last year with Jane Campion's "Top of the Lake." Though bearing certain hallmarks of the Prestige in a Box (cops, dirt, violence against women), the show revolved around a woman with a more open-ended sensibility and often wandered into an amusing and insightful B-plot about a group of women literally fleeing the world of men. And though the latest antihero offerings — Showtime's "Ray Donovan" and "Low Winter Sun" — met with much ennui, comedies including "Girls,"
Along with a few police procedurals, these dark, almost borderline unfunny comedies have become the female equivalent of Important Television. Good shows, some even great shows, but not granted the same social respect as their dramatic peers. Which is why
"Orange Is the New Black," however, may change the world. Or at least help end the tyranny of the self-absorbed antihero.
Jenji Kohan's adaptation of Piper Kerman's tale of serving time in a women's prison is an epic of a whole different stripe. On one level it is the female equivalent of "Oz," comedic where "Oz" was grim, focused on the delicate piecework of negotiation rather than the blinding fear of power.
It all requires the most auspicious cavalcade of socially, economically, sexually and racially diverse female characters ever seen on any screen, and none of them are lovable in the traditional sense. Prison has stripped them of their accessories, both literal and narrative; a premium is put on action, on ability rather than personality. "Orange Is the New Black" proves that women don't have to be likable or sexually alluring or deliciously catty to hold our interest, that multi-faceted female angst and enlightenment are just as compelling as the male variety.
"Orange Is the New Black" proves that the Second Wave of televisionism is upon us. It may remain hard to be a straight white guy in today's big bad world, but prestige, like suffrage, needs to become universal.