There is an air of uncritical enthusiasm about American television drama these days. It is time for a reality check
Difficult men: Do shows as Mad Men, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad display an “aggressive and resentful masculinity”?
Earlier this year, the novelist Teju Cole logged into his Twitter account and decided to carry out a small experiment. He had been thinking about Gustave Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas, in which the great novelist laid out many of the French Empire’s most common clichés for ridicule (of the waltz, he wrote, “Wax indignant about. A lascivious, impure dance that should only be danced by old ladies.”) Cole decided to update Flaubert’s dictionary for the present day. “JAPAN,” he wrote: “Mysterious. Always ‘the Japanese.’ Mention Murakami.” Virginity was defined as “an obsession in Iran and in the olive oil industry.” There were about 70 of these tweets, and as his experiment began to wind down, Cole wrote, “TELEVISION. Much improved. Better than novels. If someone says ‘The Wire,’ say ‘The Sopranos,’ or vice versa.”
There are many other television dramas to mention, if that pair leaves you unmoved. Cole’s tweets followed the release of an advert for the final episodes of Breaking Bad that made use of the poem “Ozymandias,” putting industry reporters in the unfamiliar position of explaining Shelley on media blogs. It speaks to the truth of Cole’s tweet that the show’s publicists looked to 19th-century poetry to promote what is currently television’s most beloved show.
Over the last 15 years, many people have adopted the view that television has entered a “Golden Age.” This view first emerged in 1999, when The Sopranos made its darkly comedic debut on the subscription cable station HBO, and it gathered strength as The Wire enjoyed its five-series run on the same station. These shows became possible because of dramatic changes in the structure of the television industry, shifts in the character of white-collar work, and the increasing homogenisation of Hollywood films, which opened up exciting new space for artistic ambition on the small screen. On police dramas like The Wire and The Shield, the depiction of violence and moral ambiguity suggested that uncompromising realism had finally made a place for itself on TV, while violent fantasies like Dexter seemed to provide the medium with unprecedented psychological surrealism and depth. These fictional worlds, fleshed out in meticulous detail, populated by minor characters who proved to be as memorable as the protagonists, were immersive and multifaceted in a way that earlier shows, with their casts of rotating, disposable characters, could only dream of. Today, with Mad Men and the violent psychodrama, Breaking Bad, nearing their conclusion, television is widely regarded as the 21st century’s most exciting form of popular art.
Brett Martin’s new book, Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution is characteristic of the breathless enthusiasm that surrounds this new wave of TV drama. Martin approaches his subject not only as a journalist but also as a fan, a bias he admits in the book’s opening pages. He calls Sunday night, when most of the “Golden Age” shows aired every week, “something akin to a national, communal holiday.” He describes day-long binge-watching sessions, “compulsive orgies of consumption” during which one sat rapt, awed by these “astonishing” shows and their “startlingly consistent quality.”
Martin’s passion is shared by other historians of these new television dramas. Alan Sepinwall is a long-time American television reviewer, and his recent book, The Revolution Was Televised—well, you can tell from the title. Meanwhile Christopher Bigsby’s Viewing America: Twenty-First Century Television Drama, offers close-readings of ten critically-lauded dramas, and his affection for each of them seems nearly limitless. These books all put forward a story in which a universally loathed medium—“that insidious beast,” as Ray Bradbury described television—suddenly discovered psychological depth, narrative ambition, and a social and political conscience. The visionaries who imagined these shows into being, the story goes, had to overcome fierce scepticism from the network executives who held the purse strings, but the visionaries were eventually proved right, to the delight of the same executives.
This account of television’s rise appears in all three books. It also appears in hundreds of articles that have been published in magazines and online over the last 15 years. It is told with such consistency, with the same loving attention paid to the same significant details, that it has started to ring a little false.
The key shows in this new wave have been collectively dubbed “prestige TV,” a term which neatly captures the importance of reputation and cultural cachet to their success. Prestige television’s supporters are fond of the idea that the morally complex protagonists of their favourite shows are unsympathetic, and that it is a testament to the shows’ writing that audiences have always managed to root for them. The typical protagonist of prestige shows is a middle-aged American man, almost always a father and husband, who carries out a semi-secret double life in crime or some other form of deviance, like serial adultery. For all their flaws, these characters have been admired, even loved. The Sopranos made James Gandolfini, with his hulking frame and reedy voice, into a sex symbol, and no amount of lies, alcohol, or moping seems to be able to dim Don Draper’s appeal in the eyes of Mad Men’s fans. The adulterous ad man, the cop who dips into the drug trade himself, the chemistry teacher who becomes a drug dealer—this kind of protagonist has become so popular that some networks now prefer “anti-heroes” to the more traditional kind.
These characters began to appear precisely when premium cable stations—for which viewers pay monthly “subscription” fees, as with magazines—stopped pursuing the largest possible audience. Instead, as Martin writes, “Networks now targeted specific demographics: rich, young, educated, male, and so on.” An audience that fit this profile could be attractive to advertisers despite its modest size, and so prestige television dramas have all been targeted at educated professionals. These are people who work long hours and invest much of their social identity in their careers. It is not surprising, then, that they have no trouble relating to television’s anti-heroes. These characters, after all, are defined by their intelligence and success at their jobs. Don Draper’s infidelities are forgiven on the grounds of his ability to sell an unconventional advertising slogan to a cigarette company. Breaking Bad’s wildly inaccurate portrayal of the drug trade is overlooked in exchange for the pleasures of watching a middle-class suburban male outsmart scores of adversaries. The truth is that prestige television actually makes its protagonists a little too easy to sympathise with.
But perhaps there is another reason why television’s anti-heroes have been such a hit. In a conversation recently published by the website Slate, Stephen Metcalf proposed a theory about our obsession with the middle class father living a double life in crime. The economic collapse of 2008, he argued, revealed the hollowness of the economic promises made to the middle class. A responsible life of white-collar work no longer guaranteed you a retirement or a house of your own (at least not a house with any value). What’s more, the middle class was destroyed by a group of plutocratic investment bankers whose behaviour is widely regarded as criminal in its own right. With the rules degraded to the point of cruel uselessness, why should it be any surprise that TV viewers find themselves hungry for shows in which middle class dads break the laws that were not really protecting them in the first place?
It’s a compelling argument, but it misses an important aspect of the genre, which is its aggressive and resentful masculinity. At a recent appearance in New York, the novelist Norman Rush observed that, over the last half-century, men have steadily lost many of their “prerogatives.” A man can no longer control his wife’s finances, for example, nor can he feel up the pretty secretaries who work for him, at least not without being sued. At the same time, men continue to dominate the legislatures of every country on earth, and they also control the vast majority of the world’s wealth. This dual phenomenon, Rush said—the loss of many smaller, everyday privileges, combined with continued possession of all the bigger ones—has enormous psychological consequences. Prestige television hints at what these consequences might be. Many of the genre’s flagship programs are organised around a man who remains angry and unhappy despite the power he wields over every other character in the show. Tony Soprano, the head of a criminal empire, sees a therapist because of family anxieties. Walter White, in becoming a drug kingpin, puts his family in extraordinary danger, and he justifies his actions on the grounds that he is simply trying to protect his family.
Viewers’ devotion to these characters has reached such a pitch that Anna Gunn, who plays Walter White’s wife on Breaking Bad, felt compelled to write an editorial this August about the vitriol directed at her character by fans of the show. “I have never hated a TV-show character as much as I hate her,” one fan wrote online. This is not a fringe view. It is, in fact, an unattractive premise of certain prestige television shows. In Difficult Men, Martin reports an early brainstorming session around The Sopranos. “Look at what’s going on in this country,” a colleague remembers David Chase saying. “Now, nobody’s taken care of. And marriage is the same thing: You go to work and everybody’s selling you out and you get home and your wife’s busting your balls.” (Alongside The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, shows like Homeland and Mad Men also present variations of the ball-busting wife, who is also usually blonde.) Although The Sopranos often made terrific use of humour and surrealism to poke fun at Tony’s sense of entitlement—its dream sequences, in particular, were highlights—male resentment is unfortunately baked into its DNA.
For all of HBO and AMC’s flawed protagonists, it is only reality TV, a genre Martin dismisses in a single paragraph, that consistently features protagonists that viewers actually don’t like. Walter White has never been the object of the kind of widespread social derision that is inevitably directed toward anyone who appears on reality TV, and yet the producers of The Hills and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills are not followed around by journalists praising them for the audacity of their casting decisions. By taking producers’ claims for the difficulty of their protagonists at face value, Martin inadvertently repeats their most common error, which is to mistake the problems of a certain group of professional men for the problems of America as a whole. Breaking Bad is a compulsively entertaining dramatization of an American male’s mid-life crisis, but about the drug trade, morality, and the economic recession in general, it has much less to say.
Alongside the myth of the unlikeable protagonist, there is a second widely-repeated mantra about prestige television: that nothing like it has been previously seen on air. The idea is that this new television, this better television, does not come from earlier television—its true antecedents are highbrow art. David Simon has said that The Wire took no inspiration from earlier police procedurals, that his real influences came primarily from Greek tragedy. In Difficult Men, Martin pays close attention to the way that the men behind television’s most celebrated shows have modelled themselves on auteur American filmmakers, such as Martin Scorsese and William Friedkin. For his part, Christopher Bigsby sees television’s current situation as analogous to that of the theatre in mid-century America. His book mentions Arthur Miller more than 20 times.
But again, in the interest of appealing to educated viewers, these claims of unprecedented innovations have been overstated. For instance, one of the most important innovations of the prestige era was the introduction of multiple long storylines into prime-time television. Until the early 1980s, long-running American dramas had been almost entirely episodic, each storyline introduced and resolved over the course of a single episode. Then, beginning in 1981, Hill Street Blues began to stretch out stories over multiple episodes, and every subsequent prestige drama has done the same. This wasn’t entirely new, however: daytime soap operas had been doing the same thing for decades.
None of this is to deny the sophistication and ingenuity of some of these shows. They have drawn many talented writers away from the stage and from creative writing MA courses, and the best of recent television dramas (The Wire, especially) are sustained exercises in brilliant conversational invention. In order to take these shows seriously, however, critics need to recognize both the narrowness of their ambitions and the comparative strengths of other television genres. Reality television, for example, has had an enormous aesthetic and visual influence on other art forms, including literature. Tao Lin’s novel Taipei has picked up on the kind of sublime boredom that is reality television’s signature emotional experience; in the film Spring Breakers, James Franco’s performance was modelled on the rapper and reality TV star Riff Raff; Sofia Coppola shot parts of her most recent film, The Bling Ring, at Paris Hilton’s house. Reality television has also done a better job than prestige dramas of drawing attention to one of the key political developments of the last 30 years: the sharp increase in income inequality. MTV’s True Life series of hour-long documentaries, as well as the show Teen Mom, have paid sensitive attention to the dynamics of lower- and working-class life in America, and even when reality TV depicts money (or the lack of money) in an exploitative manner, there is still something to be said for knowing what the vulgar rich look and sound like.
A serious treatment of prestige television would have to start from the premise that these sophisticated, moving, and narrow shows are just one part of a larger television universe. Towards the end of Difficult Men, Martin describes Breaking Bad’s long and uncertain journey to the small screen. One problem, he writes, is that AMC’s executives had no idea how to categorise the show: “Breaking Bad fit no discernible genre at all—except quality.” A little more scepticism would help keep appreciation for these shows from curdling into self-congratulation.
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