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Can women break the antihero's hold on TV?

Critic's Notebook: Artful comedies like Netflix's new series 'Orange is the New Black' show there's a world of dramatic possibilities beyond the troubled-man template, and women can lead the way.

August 16, 2013|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Taylor Schilling in "Orange is the New Black."
Taylor Schilling in "Orange is the New Black." (Jessica Miglio, Netflix )

The marketing of AMC's new drama, "Low Winter Sun," revolves around a moody black-and-white photo of lead actor Mark Strong and the show's tagline: "Good Man. Cop. Killer."

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."

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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. (Sundance recently debuted "The Writers' Room," a television show about making television shows, which is more than a little snake-eats-tail alarming.) TV is the new quiche, the new black, the new hit single.

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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 "Orange Is the New Black" are increasingly acknowledged as being art as well as entertainment, the power-soap appeal of "Scandal" is gaining critical admirers along with Twitter followers, while the mad buoyancy of "Bates Motel" offers a bridge between the cynicism of cable and the guarded romanticism of broadcast networks.

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.

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It's "Mad Men's" opening credits of a man falling through space, it's Walter White's more literal descent into darkness on "Breaking Bad." It's the essential goodness but self-loathing eyes of Peter Dinklage's Tyrion Lannister ("Game of Thrones") and Andrew Lincoln's Rick Grimes ("The Walking Dead"). It's the black humor of Timothy Olyphant's Raylan Givens ("Justified") and Kevin Spacey's Francis Underwood ("House of Cards"), the self-righteous moral dexterity of Michael C. Hall's "Dexter," Steve Buscemi's Nucky Thompson ("Boardwalk Empire") and the entire cast of "Sons of Anarchy." It's even the psycho-sadomasochistic relationships that drew Kevin Bacon ("The Following") and Hugh Dancy ("Hannibal") to TV.

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?

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The short answer is the day David Chase brought Tony Soprano into the world. The long answer is when "Moby-Dick" began topping all those "greatest American novel" lists.

Many forces have contributed to the renaissance of television but none more than HBO's decision to get into the original content business. "Sex and the City" was premium cable's first hit, a show that launched a thousand voice-overs and the post-feminist female — candid, ambitious, sexually adventuresome but still lovable — who would quickly infiltrate traditional broadcast TV. Without "Sex and the City," it's difficult to imagine the prolific and influential career of Shonda Rhimes.

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," "The Sopranos," "The Wire" quickly spread their grim world view far and wide; for years, Hugh Laurie's damaged doctor on "House" was the only recurrent broadcast star in his Emmy category.

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This year, of the Emmy's six drama contenders, only "Downton Abbey" (which has a rich vein of "pity the poor rich white folk" running through it) does not fit the broken-white-guy-breaking-things template. "Homeland" has a female co-lead but meets all the other requirements — mental illness, moral ambiguity, gun — quite nicely.

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