This article first appeared in the Irish Times.
By Alan Glynn
The phrase ‘golden age’ is thrown about fairly loosely these days when we talk about television, but while it is a bit of a generalization (will anyone ever look back on this as the ‘golden age’ of reality TV?), there are more shows on now than ever before that people are rushing to claim as the ‘greatest achievement in the history of television’. And I think there are several that you could certainly make a case for. People will argue with great passion, vehemence even, over which ones, but after a certain point it simply comes down to personal preference. Do you like the subtle, adult and Martini-cool drama of Mad Men, or are you more drawn to the black humour and sunkissed violence of Breaking Bad? Personally, I love them both, and am glad I’m not under some (absurd) obligation to choose one over the other. I also love The Sopranos, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, Deadwood and Boardwalk Empire. And I’m partial to a bit of Boss, Homeland and House of Cards. And then, of course, from Denmark, there is the original The Killing, and Borgen. And Spiral from France. And from the UK – traditionally no slouch in this department – the recent Utopia and Broadchurch, as well as many more.
So okay then, it is a golden age, no contest. Because from what other era in the history of television could you generate a list of titles as rich and exciting as the one above? It has also been called a revolution, and in many ways this is correct. A new book documenting the changes that have taken place over the last fifteen years in American television, Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised, explains how the mass audience that had been catered to for fifty years almost exclusively by the broadcast networks – ABC, CBS and NBC – was broken up and eventually atomized by the new subscription and cable channels. Traditionally, the TV business was built on a “big tent philosophy, where you succeeded with the broadest, most palatable, least challenging work,” but now, with the fragmentation of this audience, there has been a welcome surge in creativity. Alan Yentob’s recent series on BBC 2, The United States of Television: America in Primetime, also noted this change, and documented the evolving nature of certain character archetypes familiar to viewers over the decades.
But to my mind one of the most interesting aspects of this revolution – and a key factor in making the last fifteen years a golden age – has been what I will call, for convenience, the Death of Nice. But remember, this is confined to television. In mainstream American cinema what might be called the Tyranny of Nice continues unabated. For any A-list actor in Hollywood these days – and apart from a glorious few years in the 1970s, this has always been the case – it would be considered career suicide, or at least career self-harm, to play an “unsympathetic” character, someone whom audiences might find it hard to like . . . whom they might think wasn’t very, er, nice.
But who decides this? Who does the considering? Usually, the process starts with a studio executive armed with binders full of test screening results, and then it rapidly seeps its way into, and paralyses, the entire creative endeavour. If a character has a dark side, or does some bad shit in the course of a movie, then there’d better be a big hot bowl of redemption waiting for him at the end. Or else the focus groups won’t be happy. And no one in their right mind would want that.
And this business of likeability isn’t just confined to movies or television. Book publishers and editors have been known to give the dreaded note, as well: the characters, they’ll say, aren’t likeable enough. Almost as if there’s an official quotient, and you haven’t reached it yet. But have these people never read Macbeth, say, or Lolita?
The problem here is that likeability is simply too narrow a bandwidth. You don’t have to like a character to empathise with them. You don’t have to consider a character nice to be utterly transfixed or seduced by them. You don’t have to want to share a beer with a character in order to be emotionally invested in their story. Readers, moviegoers and TV viewers know this instinctively, but in the skewed and inexact science of test screening no allowance ever seems to be made for the possibility of nuance or subtlety in an audience response.
So for years, decades, primetime TV characters were likeable, nice, relatable, avuncular, “crusty but benign” (Sepinwall quotes Network on this). They were all hewn from the same boulder of righteousness and moral rectitude, they were all the same man, really – from Joe Friday to Perry Mason, from “Big” John Cannon to James T. Kirk, from Richard Kimble to Marcus Welby, from Theo Kojak to Ben Matlock, from Sonny Crockett to Jean-Luc Picard.
From Fox Mulder to Jed Bartlet.
And then along came Tony.
The Sopranos broke new ground in ways that have been widely discussed elsewhere, but its most profound innovation was the quantum leap it took in terms of psychological complexity – the portrayal of its central character was simply unlike anything that had ever been seen on TV before. And for a while there Tony Soprano tried to conform to the archtype. He was a modern “Big” John Cannon of The High Chaparral, albeit with a twist.
He was a businessman, a father, a protector, a rugged individualist (“you know, the strong, silent type”). But then, in the fifth episode of Season One (“College”), Tony did something radical. He committed a vicious and brutal murder – it wasn’t self-defence or protecting his family, it was just what he does. In the great mob flick, Goodfellas, Henry Hill never kills anyone, the worst thing he does is beat up a creep, and I always felt slightly manipulatated by this. He was the movie’s niceness-quotient delivery system. But by 1999 – and even though he was warned that Tony’s action would make people hate the character – The Sopranos creator David Chase understood something important. He understood that niceness was no longer a requirement, that the victim here wasn’t just Witness Protection Program alumnus Febby Petrulio, what Tony was strangling in that still-shocking scene (check out the look on Tony’s face) was likeability itself.
David Chase crossed the Rubicon, and we all followed.
The result is that today we have a broad range of psychologically complex, morally ambivalent, not-very-nice lead characters on our TV screens that simply wouldn’t have been possible in the earlier era. Don Draper is cruel, insincere, a cheat, a philanderer, and his whole life is based on a lie. Walter White, also an inveterate liar, cooks crystal meth on an industrial scale, and has his own Tony moment in Season Two when he allows Jesse’s girlfriend, Jane, to choke on her own vomit. Nucky Thompson, another liar, is ruthless, corrupt and vain. Carrie “Cryface” Mathison is obnoxious, scheming, reckless, and just ever so slightly bag-of-cats crazy. Dr Gregory House is arrogant, heartless and manipulative. Tom Kane and Francis Underwood are both monsters. Dexter Morgan is a serial killer, and now we have Hannibal Lecter, too. This is just a selection. You can make your own list.
Some will probably argue that the tide has gone too far in the other direction, but isn’t that what tides are supposed to do? The point is that while none of these characters may be nice in any traditional sense, we LOVE them. We can’t get enough of them. And the reason why isn’t very hard to see. Complex, rounded characters make for better drama. Complex, rounded characters that are allowed to breathe and develop over the arc of four or five seasons of storytelling – potentially, at least – make for even better drama.
At a time when cinema is really struggling (read Steven Soderbergh’s keynote address at the recent San Francisco International Film Festival), it’s heartening to have such an embarrassment of riches on the smaller screen. But golden ages don’t last forever. So wouldn’t this be nice? What if, just as TV has learned from movies in the past, movies now learned something from TV, and finally got their storytelling mojo back?