Over the past decade or so, there’s been an undeniable shift in the cultural power balance between TV and film. The movies, especially summer movies designed for maximum box office potential, have moved ever further toward brainless commercial entertainment. Sequels and franchises and superheroes and explosions as far as your 3D glasses can see. Meanwhile TV, which for decades was derided as the “boob tube” for dumb-dumbs, has matured into a rich novelistic medium, rewarding sustained attention to years of character-driven interaction with deep and nuanced payoffs. The defining aspect of TV’s recent renaissance has been a focus on complicated, charismatic but morally challenged anti-heroes. The pre-Sopranos assumption that audiences wouldn’t be interested in following low-lifes and cads has been upended so drastically that it's become unusual to see a new protagonist living a purely virtuous life. But now, with Mad Men and Breaking Bad quickly moving toward end points, and Tony Soprano literally in addition to fictionally dead, it feels like that era might be ending.
Newer shows built on that model, occasionally entertaining as they might be, aren’t feeling very fresh. House of Cards has a charismatic, unreliable protagonist as Washington power player. Ray Donovan has the charismatic, unreliable protagonist as underhanded law firm fixer. The permutations are getting slighter, more familiar. Hannibal is the charismatic, unreliable protagonist as serial killer (Dexter with a pre-existing brand, so doubly repetitive). Boardwalk Empire is The Sopranos as period costume drama. What once felt radical is now slipping into cliche.
Critical fatigue won’t stop networks from continuing to find new shades of pitch black to depict. (A hitman! A black market organ dealer! A pimp!) The anti-hero genre will likely limp along, joining the police procedural, the medical drama, the lawyer show, and the teen soap among evergreen examples of “what works on TV” for decades to come. Some of these shows will be good, some awful, but it’ll be increasingly hard for them to feel truly new or legitimately surprising. Whatever ground there is to break making audiences sympathize with shitty dudes has been well broken by now. Two of this year’s best shows might suggest the next phase for TV’s modern Golden Age.
Top of the Lake, director Jane Campion’s thrilling noir mini-series from earlier this year, is a familiar police procedural on its surface. A detective (played by Elizabeth Moss, aka Peggy Olsen) goes home to her small, spectacularly beautiful New Zealand town and gets caught up in a sordid mystery, beginning to personally unravel as she’s forced to face some dark trauma from her past. The show is saturated in stifling mysoginist dread, its female focal points in perpetual threat from male characters who are lightly sketchy at best, flatly sexist at medium, and frighteningly vicious at worst. Its most unusual, memorable scenes take place in a pastoral box-car cult for dazed, wounded women tended to by Holly Hunter’s regal, gray-haired leader. They act as a dramatic balance of sorts against local criminal Matt Mitcham, the sort of virile, charismatic bully who’s played lead in all these quality cable dramas for years. The women support each other by proximity mostly, troubled characters tired of being idle wreckage on the margins of someone else’s story. There’ a collective will to their physical togetherness that’s ultimately stronger than the force of one anti-hero.
Netflix’s new women’s prison show Orange is the New Black is a current beneficiary of concentrated critical focus in a slow summer down turn for original scripted programming. The comedy drama about a yuppyish Brooklynite artisinal soap-maker whose youthful indiscretions land her in minimum security prison has drawn rave reviews. Having already binged on the all the first season episodes in the week they've been available, I can confirm that it’s mostly terrific and much weightier and more humane than show-runner Jenji Kohan’s previous Showtime hit, Weeds. As with Top of the Lake, female togetherness and the protective community among broken individuals emerges a major theme. Male characters are secondary, and not portrayed in a particularly flattering light. Shitty guards, nebbish boyfriends, ghosts of fuck ups past who pop up to shed light on how these women were led to their current troubles.
While the past few decades have seen a steady rise in shows centered around women, few have felt distinctly feminine in tone and view point. Late 90s/early 00s shows like Buffy, Veronica Mars, and Alias might be considered well-done, post-modern executions of old 1970s lady action show embarrassments like The Bionic Woman or Charlie’s Angels. More recent offerings like Homeland or FX’s new border saga The Bridge, substitute in a brilliant, troubled anti-heroine, but don’t mess too much with the way modern quality TV tells its stories. That two female creators in Campion and Kohan should be responsible for a deeper shift in perspective seems appropriate. Letting more voices and viewpoint on to the air can only help us avoid storytelling ruts. Orange has been rightly for praised for its big cast of women, all ages and colors and shapes. There are more meaty parts here for talented but non-physically idealized actresses than on five typical shows combined.
In a summer where nearly every movie released has failed the Blechdel Test, the show proves the allure of writing that’s not aimed at international audiences of 14 year old boys. For the record, I was wildly entertained by giant monsters fighting giant robots, but not everything ever made should feature the decimation of a major metropolitan area with only square jawed hunks standing in the way of further destruction. Fresh and funny as it is, Orange Is the New Black is near-perfect counter programming.
Of course, counting on TV drama as an oasis for mature storytelling ignores the real chance that prestige TV moves forward in the direction of blockbuster filmmaking instead of providing sprawling, empathetic character studies. The wild success of Games of Thrones’ epic storytelling might prompt a few more networks to go even bigger, even bloodier. As convincing special effects get ever cheaper, who’s to say that adolescent action and summer spectacle won’t begin to dominate small screens too? I feel like a convincing long-form superhero epic is right around the corner (As a sign of things to come, Joss Whedon’s upcoming Marvel show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has a pretty low chance of crashing and burning, I’d guess.) But full emersion into ratings-grabbing monsters and ’splosions fests might take a while. The meantime could be kind of great.