As a straight white male, I have to say that I’m increasingly disinterested in the problems of straight white males as the driving force of my televised entertainment.
A lot of this has crystalized for me over the past few weeks, but it’s been a long time coming. Copious words have been written in recent months about how the golden age of television was forged in the fires of “The Sopranos,” with the protagonist of that show, Tony, creating space for complex, multifaceted antiheroes to suddenly populate the small screen. And populate the small screen they did, darkening the landscape with multifaceted psychologies that nevertheless stemmed from a central source. To be certain, Tony Soprano wasn’t the source itself, but rather the figure that created the creative, critical, and economic conditions for such sagas to proliferate.
But as “Ray Donovan,” Showtime’s latest hourlong drama, approaches, I find myself longing to step out of this particular epoch of television and move into something, anything, different. It’s not that straight white males are no longer complex figures with the capacity for as much good as evil, as much warmth as anger, as much capacity for compassion as violence. It’s that I ALREADY KNOW THIS. Nothing about “Ray Donovan” feels remotely fresh. Five years ago, this may not have mattered, as “The Sopranos” still cast a long shadow a year after Tony, Carmela, and A.J. enjoyed some onion rings. But now? “Donovan” is a stale retread that doesn’t bring anything new to the table, and therefore feels like an antiquated, out-of-touch retread of once potent ideas. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the archetype established as the primary protagonist, but that towel has been presently wrung so dry that there’s nary a drop of new insight to be squeezed out of it.
A few things have truly jolted me out of my stupor in recent weeks. One was “Orphan Black,” a show that mixed identity, sexuality, and gender politics into a rich, meaty, moral stew. The second was “Hannibal,” a show I thought had many things going for it except the one thing it needed: a fresh take on the serial killer story through a new pair of eyes. But ultimately, what knocked me completely off my axis and reinforced thought that television simply is too narrow in its modern storytelling approach wasn’t on television at all. If you tried to find it on your dial, you would have been unable to do so. Cable news decided it wasn’t worth covering, or more likely didn’t have the resources to nimbly cover it. But the Internet did. This revolution wasn’t televised. But it WAS streamed.
The Wendy Davis filibuster, and the subsequent attempts to stop it, was the most riveting thing I’ve witnessed in quite some time. I’m not going to attempt to politicize the situation. All I can say is her efforts that day sparked an intense reaction from constituents that viscerally responded to her attempts to prevent the Texas state legislature from passing a bill that would have severely curtailed reproductive rights for women. Davis’ passion and courage is one thing. But what struck me wasn’t just Davis’ approach, but the way others reacted to it. It wasn’t just about filibustering a bill. It was about seeing an unspoken story suddenly given tongue, and others desperately seeking to augment that newfound voice.
This, to me, is the key component missing from most of scripted television right now. Studios often make shows that resemble ones that do exist or did exist. Writers are encouraged to draw within pre-existing lines. Audiences crave more of what they know they already love, even while complaining that things are rarely unique. But the reaction to Davis’ filibuster suggested an incredibly rich ecosystem of female-centric stories (or ones that at least stem from a female perspective) that simply aren’t being told in mass culture. We always knew that such stories were being underserved. This isn’t some earth-shattering realization. But it’s one thing to intuitively sense it and another to see so many people (primarily female, but also male) so overwhelmed to see their own issues suddenly and artfully articulated. Those cries of “Let her speak!” could easily be translated as “Let us be heard!”
I know enough to know I don’t know a lot. But I didn’t realize until watching the filibuster, and watching the reaction to it, the depths of that lack of knowledge. It’s a useful reminder once in a while to have the yawning chasm between yourself and your best self, especially if that measurement causes you to seek ways to shorten that distance. I was actually really excited for “The Mindy Project” before it started, since the idea of Mindy Kaling as an OB/GYN seemed like a pretty sneaky way to insert some perspective of reproductive health from one of this generation’s more famous female comedians. Alas, the show seemed to overtly shy away from the issues built into its very concept, which made the whole endeavor not only shallow but a damn shame. Making her a neurosurgeon who also loved Meg Ryan movies wouldn’t have fundamentally changed that show in any way. But it would have removed any expectation that “The Mindy Project” would be about anything meaningful. That might have been helpful, all things considered.
Instead, I scratch that itch with a show like “Parks And Recreation,” where April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) is currently on a unique and completely unexpected journey towards engagement with the world around her. It’s a journey inspired by Leslie Knope, a woman who constantly wrestles with changing the world before it changes her. Over on “Orphan Black,” I see a series of clones seek to define themselves both in relation to each other but the world itself, a move that creates a multifaceted approach towards being a female in the early 21st-century. “Hannibal” boasts two incredible lead performances, but the character I really cared about was Abigail Hobbes. The daughter of a serial killer who herself may have abetted his crimes, Abigail was a unique presence in a familiar world, containing as much possibility as tragedy inside young eyes that already had seen far too much.
To be certain, the next era of quality television won’t omit the straight white male, not should it. But my God, it needs to expand its vision beyond the narrow spectrum currently deployed. “Scandal” does a tremendous job offering insights into the primal minds
of all that come into the orbit of The White House, both male and female. “The Americans” does a great job offering up a very traditional story (a marriage in chaos) in ways unique and exciting (both the Cold War setting and its inversion of gender tropes). The upcoming FOX series “Enlisted” looks like “F-Troop” if you just go by its trailer, but the show has something interesting to say about PTSD and expectations of masculinity within a military setting. All of these shows are building upon familiar ground and staking out slightly new territory. Sometimes, that’s more than enough.
But not always. The seemingly spontaneous response to the Wendy Davis filibuster was anything but. Rather, it was a flashpoint for thousands upon thousands of people who descended upon a common point and revealed how deep (and for how long) those sentiments have run. There was (as is) a need for those stories to be told, and there was (and is) a need for those stories to be heard. I selfishly want to hear these stories since they not only make me a better critic, but they above all make me a better person. I know a lot about what makes men like Walter White, Don Draper, and Tony Soprano tick. It’s time I learned a little more about everyone else, and it’s time for TV to help that education. In the end, this is not about producing good entertainment. It’s about producing better citizens.