The premier of Showtime’s Ray Donovan seems to reveal our premium television saturation point on the “antihero.”
June Thomas of Slate recently wrote a great piece about her exhaustion with this archetype, and the guys over at Grantland described a similar fatigue in their recent podcast. The fact that this exhaustion comes on the heels of James Gandolfini’s death also seems particularly telling. Gandolfini’s performance as Tony Soprano will stand as one of the great achievements of modern television, and writers and commentators raced to describe the brilliance of the performance and the sadness of his untimely death. But (with the exception of Bryan Cranston on Breaking Bad and Ian McShane on Deadwood) no other antihero has been nearly as compelling, and the type has become so overused and overwrought that television audiences (or at least critics) have had enough.
At another point in history we might have simply called such men “assholes” and left it at that. But The Sopranos, and premium cable overall, gave such assholes a veneer of respectability, as well as the titillation audiences could experience seeing such men behave badly. With each new iteration, the premium cable antihero became more flat, less interesting, like an image that fades with each additional copy. Though I am in the minority, I find Don Draper a tedious bore and the only thing that holds my interest in Mad Men comes from the rest of the show, especially the female characters. And I find it hard to believe that playing such outlandish displays of male privilege, mixed with sociopathy, is really much of an acting achievement.
I have not read the recently published Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos to The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad, a text Thomas endorses in her article, but the title alone reveals just how much of our prestige television has relied on this type. And I too am sick of it. Yes, it has been done well in most of the shows named in Martin’s title, but it can’t be that difficult to produce or consume if we go back to such a well so often. And even as those shows ostensibly deconstruct such abhorrent men, they also rely heavily on the violence and sexism of such characters in ways that can feel more prurient than enlightening. In many instances they give audiences the titillation of traditional forms of violence and exploitation, while seeking cover under the “antihero” moniker to raise their shows and characters to the level of art. Sometimes this produces complexity; often it produces complicity. You might still see a portly Sopranos fan walking around in his faded “Bada Bing” t-shirt.
It’s summer, and that means their are fewer television options coming your way, and that’s good news for streaming services like Netflix and others. So let me take a moment to endorse two shows that satisfy many of the cravings we have for prestige drama that also move us away from brooding straight men in all their complexity: Top of the Lake and The Fall. Both shows are BBC co-productions. Both are police procedurals that feature female detectives and female crime victims. And each in their own way do something interesting with their genres and their attendant politics.
Top of the Lake is a miniseries directed by Jane Campion, about the disappearance of a young, pregnant Maori girl in New Zealand. Elizabeth Moss plays police inspector Robin Griffins, visiting her ill mother in New Zealand at the time the crime takes place. Moss takes charge of the investigation (which is odd, as she’s a police officer in Sydney Australia; no matter) and much of her early suspicion falls on the girl’s shady father, Matt Mitcham. But the most compelling and odd elements of the show is Holly Hunter as GJ, a woman who has recently moved to the community with a group of other women, forming a compound of shipping containers at the lake’s edge. GJ is a kind of guru to these women, all of whom have been broken by men and the world at large, and are creating a female-centered communal life together. Their commune produces friction with Mitcham and the other men in the town.
Top of the Lake bears some resemblance to Twin Peaks, the classic David Lynch/Mark Frost series with its own troubling gender politics, especially its fetishization of the dead body of young Laura Palmer and her secret sexual life. The missing girl in TOTL, Tui Mitcham, is also a young woman with her own sexual secrets–who impregnanted her?–but Campion refuses to play this in the traditional way. Instead, her victimization is a sad mystery, one that Griffins takes upon herself to solve while the rest of the community, including her father, seem almost troublingly uninterested in resolving.
The Fall is a more conventional serial killer narrative, hitting the predictable beats of the police procedural. In it, Gillian Anderson plays Stella Gibson, a detective called to Belfast to review a murder case. While there, the murder turns out to be part of a larger serial killing, in which beautiful brunettes, professional and in their 30s, are being ritualistically murdered and posed in erotic ways. The show plays Gibson’s detective work off of the movements of the serial killer.
Both shows feature female detectives who are outsiders to the communities in which they are working, and who face in various ways forms of sexism that make their jobs and lives more difficult. In a particularly telling scene from The Fall, Gibson reveals that she has had a one-night stand with another police officer, one that her colleagues feel might compromise her position on the case. But the men who question her are also more troubled by the nature of the affair, in which she instigated the encounter and to which she feels no particular remorse, even when later finding out the officer was married and had children. What makes this scene so compelling (despite some clunky dialogue meant to underline the scene’s feminism) is that the show does not use this moment to make her an “antihero.” Her sexual life has complicated her professional life in ways she could not anticipate, but the sex in not exploitative, she feels no regrets, and it does not reveal some inner dysfunction to her character. In fact, the way she both instigates the encounter and the fallout show just how hyper-professional she is. Though the show is tawdry, certainly more so than the ethereal Top of the Lake, it refuses to rest upon antihero dysfunction and the exploitative behaviors those men so often take part in–The Fall leaves that for the serial killer.