The Anti-Heroine on TV
Ever since Tony Soprano began his reign on HBO nearly twenty years ago, one of the overriding trends in the new Golden Age of TV has been the rise of the antihero. Traditionally a middle-aged, usually white man, these figures had been dazzling television in almost every respect ever since The Sopranos became a smash. From Al Swearengen to Don Draper, from Jack Bauer to Dexter Morgan these ‘difficult men’ as one writer on the era referred to it have been the prominent figures in the medium and have done more to make this a truly great era.
But having watched TV, the argument that comes to mind: where are the similar kinds of women that have these kinds of roles? One can hardly argue that TV has been lacking for strong, female roles — particularly for actresses who have turned a certain age — over the last decade in particular. But strong women motivated by the same dark forces that have commanded the screen have not been nearly as prominent, or at least not as much for them to have changed the conversation. And the ones that do exist often are not referred to in the same laudatory terms as the men who dominate the screen.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this are the wives who have been the significant others of so many of the great characters of the past fifteen years. Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco), Betty Draper (January Jones), Skyler White on Breaking Bad (Anna Gunn) and to an extent Corinne Mackey from The Shield, (Catlin Ryan), have been among the most fascinating characters of their respective series. (And in the case of Falco and Gunn, they received more than their fair share of recognition from the Emmys). But a rather depressing trend that one found when one searched the Internet while their series were on the air was that they were often referred to as obscene and shrill characters, mainly because they were responsible for stopping their husband’s desires. Now, while its true that none of them were exactly innocent in the excesses of their husbands (Corinne comes the closest, ultimately turning against her husband in the final seasons), it doesn’t say a lot for the fact that so many people were hostile to them for getting involved in situations that they didn’t want to be a part of.
A more troubling fact is how few series over the years have centered around strong female characters who have had very dark sides. Most of them have come over the past decade — Carrie Matheson on Homeland, Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) on Bates Motel, Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) on House of Cards and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) on The Americans. Indeed, credit should be given to the writers of the latter two series in particular. Claire Underwood is, if anything, more ruthless then her husband, a man who was willing to walk over dead bodies to become President of the United States. And in The Americans, the writers have gone to a great deal of trouble to make Elizabeth the far more ideological double agent in comparison to Philip, who seems to become less devoted to the cause with each successive season.
But by far the most intriguing anti-heroine over the past decade or so have been on series that, while successful, were never quite given the same popularity as some on their own network. One was Patty Hewes, the ruthless corporate litigator, played by Glenn Close on Damages, the other was Oklahoma detective Grace Hanadarko, played by Holly Hunter, on Saving Grace.
Patty Hewes was a corporate shark who went after some of the most disreputable forces — corrupt industrialists, magnates manipulating the energy market, private military contractors. But it became very clear that Patty was willing to do far more diabolical things in order to win at any cost, even if the cost was her own family and in several cases, people she cared about. Damages mirrored this by introducing a younger version of Patty, Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), an attorney initially hired to help win a case, but who very quickly became someone who was a lot closer to Patty in temperament. After the fifth and final season aired, some said Patty was the villain and Ellen the hero. I thought that the argument was far grayer than most people were willing to acknowledge, that Ellen saw how close she was becoming to Patty, and at the last minute, turned away from it.
In Saving Grace, which was a far more confused series in tone and message, the title character was an promiscuous, hard-drinking, and hard-living homicide detective who after getting involved in a hit-and-run became involved with an angel. Its hard to know what kind of reforms they wanted Grace to make, as she pretty much stuck to her old habits for the bulk of the series. Perhaps they were trying to infer a religious message into the series, but it started hazily, and was never quite clear. What stood out was the sterling work of Hunter, playing a character that even now has never quite been matched on any TV series — she was as screwed up and dark as any male lead on TV, but she seemed to have a real purpose that so many of the antiheroes on TV were lacking.
Attention should also be paid to the female leads of the ‘dramedy’ , a genre that was Showtime’s great strength during its era of peak TV. Starting with Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker), a widowed mother selling marijuana to help raise her kids on Weeds (a series that looks more and more like a dress rehearsal for Breaking Bad), Showtime would run a host of energetic series powered by women battling demons, whether it was multiple personality disorder (United States of Tara’s Toni Collette), drug addiction (Nurse Jackie’s Edie Falco) or cancer (The Big C’s Laura Linney). All of them were dark, mesmerizing series that could also be very funny (the leads to the latter three shows all would win Emmys) and demonstrate that you didn’t have to be a true heavy to have appeal.
Now, those of you who have been fans of TV series know that while I have discussed many strong and powerful women, there are a few I’ve avoided mentioning. The ones connected to Shondaland. I have words them that you’re not going to like, but since I’ve expended so much energy so far, I think I’ll save myself from going into more detail until tomorrow.