What does it mean to be a man? No one really knows, but it makes for some damn good television.
In the first decade of the 21st century, a critical consensus formed that we’re currently living in the golden era of television. Just as trashy, CGI-dominated movies continue to own more screens at the cineplex, a renaissance in long-form dramatic story-telling has emerged on the small screen, but now hi-def screen. DVR and iTunes allowed viewers to follow intricate plotlines and nuanced character development, and smaller channels like HBO and AMC made a name for themselves by developing an artier level of TV drama. Chuck Klosterman accurately claimed that the four best shows of this renaissance were The Sopranos, Mad Men, The Wire, and Breaking Bad, and I’d add a second tier of critically acclaimed but less adulated shows such as Friday Night Lights, True Blood, The Shield, The Walking Dead, and Justified.
When you list out the great shows that make up this television renaissance, certain commonalities emerge: high production values, a greater investment in acting talent, and complex plotting that assumes an audience that never misses an episode. But with the sole exception of True Blood—which has camp enough to put it into a genre of its own—all these shows share something else. Every other non-vampire show centers around a modern man struggling with the limitations of his outlook in a world full of complexity and changes that prevent survival through simple reliance on old gender norms. If you want to make a critically acclaimed drama, you need to build up a patriarch, preferably in a highly masculine environment, and then start to peel away his certainty about the way the world works and what it means to be a man in this world.
The Sopranos kicked off the trend by creating a character right out of the cinematic tradition of gross masculinity, the Mafioso. Gangsters are such symbols of excessive patriarchy onscreen that the most famous movie of all time about the Mafia, The Godfather, directly invokes paternity, both real and symbolic, as the source of power. But The Sopranos played with this image by putting the focus on the feminine sphere of the home and putting Tony in the feminized position of the therapist’s couch, destabilizing the masculinity of this most masculine of filmic character types. After that, the mold was set. Americans can’t get enough of watching powerful men run into walls created by the limits of narrow, traditional masculinity.
The Wire riffed off similar themes, though as a verifiably protagonist-free show, its examination of masculinity often felt more abstract. Nonetheless, the creators delighted in undermining traditional masculinity, making the toughest character on the show, Omar, a gay man, and the nemesis for McNulty, Stringer Bell, a bookish striver with more of an eye toward a desk job than a life as a soldier. And in case McNulty’s masculine excesses that lead to his personal downfall weren’t pointed enough of their own, the character was foiled by the equally smart but more mature Lester Freamon, who spent his time away from work making dollhouses. It all underscored the larger themes of a show that portrayed the highly masculine worlds of cops and drug dealers as a Sisyphean hell from which escape is impossible.
The cascade of quality TV from there on out never strayed far from exploring powerful men in manly worlds facing the limits imposed by masculinity. Mad Men signals the theme from the very title and title sequence of a man in a suit starting off in an executive office, only to plunge into the abyss, surrounded by the ridiculous consumerist images he creates in his own bid to master the universe. The show delivers on the promise. Most of Don Draper’s problems stem directly from his inability to let go of the fantasy life of the executive: barking orders at underlings, using sex as a way to conquer women, basking in society’s admiration of his perfect nuclear family, and attempting to control the dream world of America through advertising.
During the fourth season of the show, we see how much the creators work the theme of toxic masculinity withdeliberation. Having lost his family and his firm and nearly his life, Don starts turning his life around by abandoning his attachment to old-fashioned notions of male power. He has a reckoning with his underling Peggy, finally seeing her as an equal. He stops dating women because they fit the mold of the compliant trophies, and instead finds some measure of peace dating an independent, challenging woman his own age. He’s happy for a brief moment of letting go his attachment to the role of the dominant male, but by the end of the season, the fantasy of patriarchal power grips him again, causing him to dump his psychologist girlfriend for a much younger secretary. Viewers fully expect season five to start with Don miserable again, in the grip of this masculine model and unable to find a path back to his true self.
Friday Night Lights tells a similar story, but in much more sympathetic terms, and with less misery and failure for the protagonist. At first, the show appeared to be a celebration of the codes of traditional masculinity—and its patriarch, Coach Eric Taylor. However, a close examination of the show demonstrates that it’s also a show about a man with old-fashioned values having to adapt to live a more fulfilling life. Eric’s masculine code gets him to the top of his field of high school football coaching, but soon his manly honor proves inadequate at protecting his job. (In seasons four and five, Taylor moves to a new high school in a much poorer district.) That, coupled with his wife’s and daughter’s increasing demands for more respect and independence, causes him to start stressing out more frequently, ratchets up his stress level as he finds himself facing problems where his strong-but-silent act doesn’t work anymore.
By FNL’s fifth and final season, Friday Night Lights had become, arguably, not just a examination of masculinity but a show with an overt feminist agenda. Coach Taylor is forced to accept, in quick succession, a female student demanding he mentor her in coaching, his daughter’s demands to be accepted as an adult who has to make her own mistakes, and his wife’s demands that he finally, after 20 years of her supporting him, turn around and start supporting her. Slowly, Eric begins to realize that there’s no real reason to fight them. When he comes around to their point of view, he’s rewarded with a happy ending: We see Eric on a field with his new rag-tag team of misfits—college students now—to build into a real team, and we have every reason to believe that his new, more mellow outlook in life will serve him well with his new project.
Starting off as male-centric and then allowing the female characters to bloom and take over more of the show—if only as a counterpoint to the main character’s struggles with masculinity—happens routinely in these shows. Friday Night Lights starts off as a show about a man with a housewife and a football team, and by the third season, it would be better described as a show about a married couple tackling the world as a team, with Tammi Taylor’s career getting nearly as much screen time as Eric’s. Fans routinely joke about how it is that a show called Mad Men beats the rest of dramatic television in crafting fully drawn, fascinating female characters, including characters who are beginning to make overtly feminist demands (and will probably be dropping the F-word before the show is over).
And, of course, you have Breaking Bad, whose main female character, Walt’s wife, Skylar, spent the first two seasons carrying the idiot ball, existing solely as someone from whom to keep secrets. But once she dropped the idiot ball, wised up to what was going on in her life, and started making decisions of her own, the show kicked into another gear, competing with Mad Men for the best show currently on television.
The critique of toxic masculinity on Breaking Bad may be even more stinging and compelling than on Mad Men. Unlike Don Draper, Walter White does not start off the show a cutting figure of dominant manhood. On the contrary, Walt is portrayed as a weak, emasculated schoolteacher, whose sole source of power, his scientific genius, buys him nothing in a hyper-masculine capitalist world. On the contrary, his smarts appear to have rendered him to the role of the quisling nerd his whole life. Even his choice to enter the world of making and dealing meth is coming from weakness; Walt believes he’s going to die of cancer before he has to deal with the consequences, either from law enforcement or the gangsters that control the drug market.
But as time churns on and Walt’s cancer goes into remission, he becomes more and more obsessed with the idea that his genius at making meth makes him a real badass, the opposite of the nerdy dork that the world sees. The more obsessed he becomes with proving his ability to dominate and control, the more he drifts away from his friends and family, turning in on himself to be eaten alive by his own obsession. Don Draper could be seen as the Hamlet of high-quality TV, drawn to idealized fantasies and unable to deal with reality. But Walter White is Macbeth, eaten alive by boundless ambition and pride. Or, as my boyfriend and I say at least three times per episode during the ongoing fourth season, “Christ, what an asshole.”
Shows like Justified, The Shield, and The Walking Dead don’t interrogate masculinity as closely as Mad Men, Breaking Bad, or even Friday Night Lights, but they still work some of the tropes of troubled manhood to get audiences addicted. The main characters of all three of these shows come from the world of law enforcement, and much of the tension of these shows comes from the main characters facing personal limits stemming from their own views of manhood. Men keep finding more trouble than not from the belief that men should be in control, able to act decisively without help, and able to lead without anyone questioning their authority. The result is addictive, entertaining TV.
But if TV producers stray away from the magic formula of building a show around a powerful man grappling with the limits of traditional masculinity? So far, no dice. The irony is that these new shows about men mine territory familiar to feminism, and could even be described in many cases as explicitly feminist. But for all the feminism on TV, high quality dramas about women haven’t taken off. Women get plenty of meaty, complex roles in these top tier shows, but only as supporting characters in shows centered around men’s gender drama. AMC’s one attempt to build a show around a female character to complement the slate of male-centered shows, The Killing, turned out to be nonsensical and criminally boring. Part of the problem was that the main character, Sarah Linden, didn’t bring any of the internal drama to the table that we get with our troubled patriarchs (or even their complicated female friends). It didn’t help matters when the show tried to raise the stakes for Sarah by making her a workaholic with a whining son and fiancé; audiences have long grown weary of stories portraying women as incapable of having a work life when home life calls, especially when said women have teenage children who can feed themselves.
Other upcoming female-centered dramas that aim to get a chunk of the audience for quality dramas don’t look any more interesting. Pan Am, a drama about stewardesses in the ’60s, seems like it’s trying to be Mad Men without any of the smarts. The Playboy Club looks like it was created by people who are sick of the actresses on Mad Men getting away with wearing ordinary clothes that have zero animal tails stuck on their asses. The non-’60s female-centered drama Smash looks less like a compelling drama and more like it’s a retelling of All About Eve that casts Eve as a sweet-minded ingénue instead of a backstabbing monster.
I blame the nation’s inability to deal directly with women engaged in complex, dramatic struggles that call gender roles into question. We are, after all, a country where people can go on TV and call Sarah Palin a feminist without choking on their own tongue. Perhaps the absurdities of being female in this modern era don’t lend themselves well to drama, but have to be approached sideways, through comedy. Women do very well heading up some of the best comedy on TV: 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, The Sarah Silverman Show.
In the meantime, this feminist won’t feel guilty about watching a parade of fascinating men with power issues butt up against a world where the old, clear-cut rules of manhood don’t apply any longer. In the real world, strongly defined gender roles have started to fail men, and the men who thrive in the changing world are the ones who have the flexibility to get past the straightjacket of traditional masculinity. It’s marvelous to have shows reflects these men’s struggles and victories, and to build audience loyalty and critical acclaim while they do it.
Main Photo srqpix/Flickr
The Wire Photo mariosundar/Flickr
Mad Men Photo mawphoto.com/Flickr
Friday Night Lights Photo Jeff Moss/Flickr