Looking To The Future
A more intriguing question that comes into play as we consider the future of television. Can there be a successful series centered around an anti-heroine? I have no doubt the fans of Game of Thrones would argue stridently for that position, but as I have never watched that series and never intend to, I’ll take a fifth in this case. There are certainly a growth of anti-heroines in TV, but strangely enough, more seem to be found on comedy. One could make a strong argument that Eleanor (Kirsten Bell) on The Good Place, Maya DeMeo (Minnie Driver) on Speechless, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and especially politician Selina Meyer (Julia-Louis Dreyfus) are anti-heroines, though I imagine the audience would be more inclined to see them as women behaving badly. However, the difficulty of writing any kind of series around a anti-heroine is clearer when we consider two relatively recent series.
In TNT’s Animal Kingdom, I have repeatedly expressed admiration for the work of Ellen Barkin as Smurf, the matriarch of the Cody clan. An argument could certainly be made that she is the most powerful force in this criminal family. But through the second season, as even the possibility of losing control mounting, she dug in and became excessively stubborn. She tried to act as a mentor to grandson J, but one couldn’t look at what she did with each successive episode as an effort to hold onto her power through the next generation. It also became increasingly clear that even when past problems came back to bite her, she refused to take responsibility for any of it. Never was this more clear when her eldest son Pope, who spent all of Season 2 torment by murdering Catherine, a woman he had once loved, under Smurf’s orders finally confronted her on a lie that she had used to convince him. She didn’t feel the slightest need to defend herself. One could under when surrogate son Baz turned on her halfway through the season, framing her for a murder that she orchestrated. In the final episode, she tried to turn Pope on Baz, who in the biggest shock of the episode, was forgiven for his crime, but there is still a very good possibility that she nevertheless ordered a hit on him that was carried out, and leaves him clinging to life. One is reminded of something of one of her victims said : “She’ll climb over her family to survive.”
Another series where it’s not yet clear the role the lead female plays is at the center of yet another Showtime dramedy I’m Dying Up Here. Melissa Leo plays Goldie, the head of the biggest standup club in 1970s Hollywood. I believe the creators meant to have her serve as this surrogate mother figure to all of the struggling comics who come into her auspice. But all the time I watched this series, I couldn’t help but see another side. Goldie forever promised that she was trying to help make all of these comics by giving them eventually slots on Carson. But the fact is, she seemed to constantly use that as a carrot to prevent herself from actually having to pay anybody who worked for her. When another nightclub came up and offered them a hand up, she turned on her comics saying that “Money is your enemy.” Which seemed to be a big excuse the longer the season lasted. She also refused to negotiate with some of the bigger player when CBS offered some of her comics a shot. Again, we were no doubt supposed to see a women trying to standout in a male dominated industry; all I saw was someone who wouldn’t bend even though she had nothing to negotiate with. The season finale seemed to give her a moment of power when she got one of her comics on Carson. But it also ended with the strong possibility that she arranged to have a rival nightclub burnt down.
Now, I’m not certain whether this is intentional, or merely a case of Showtime adding darkness into everything. But it does make you wonder if they were trying to play her as the hero, why portray her as the entertainment equivalent of a sweatshop owner?
The bottom line as we head ever forward into the new golden age: can the anti-heroine find support on TV? One can hardly argue about the lack of good roles for women on television for the last twenty years, and one can only assume that more will slowly emerge. Even having roles for women at the level of Skyler White and Jackie Peyton can hardly be considered steps backwards. And perhaps given the increased number of female showrunner, particularly on Netflix and Amazon, more subtle and measured female roles will probably emerge. (One need only look at Jenji Kohan’s GLOW, a series devoted to a TV female wrestling league, to know that the roles are out there.) The anti-heroine may be a new concept, but if we are to have full equality on TV, we need more women to start breaking bad as well.