one good revolution deserves another
Well, guys, it’s over. We had a good run. We had Tony Soprano, Don Draper (back when he was fun), McNulty and Barksdale and Stringer (oh my), Al Swearengen, Hank Moody (back when he was fun), Vincent Chase, Homer Simpson, J.D. and Turk, three generations of Bluth men, two versions of The Office, and assorted male vampires. It was all about us and our troubled male identities. I mean, sure, we had the money, the power, and the upper hand in relationships, but what did it all mean? Because you can still feel lonely in the middle of a penthouse, you know.
Really, isn’t the perfect metaphor for the decline and fall of masculinity on television what happened with Luck? Nary a woman in sight, and still the men sit around, waiting to get paid for doing nothing, until finally three horses die and the show gets canceled.
Now a majority of the best shows, beyond a doubt, are powered by women: Girls, Smash, Cougar Town, Nurse Jackie, Enlightened, Web Therapy, New Girl, The United States of Tara, The Secret Circle, Revenge. This is not the fake girl power of Alias or Chuck, or the hollow regime of Nancy Botwin on Weeds. (Or the fake girl power of Joss Whedon’s shows; they were all great, but none of them were especially pro-woman, including Buffy.) It’s a real passing of the torch.
The shows that are trying, despite everything, to hang onto the old gender roles just don’t stay interesting: for example, Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy, and The Vampire Diaries. Meanwhile, I am certain that Mallory Archer, Jessica Pearson, Lisa Cuddy, and Nan Flanagan get together to unwind over G&Ts.
Similarly, the thing that bugs me about Community right now has everything to do with its critiques of egotism, but perhaps not in the way you’d expect: the problem with its critiques of egotism is that it treats Joel McHale’s ego as if it is still the most important thing in the universe. It’s way more troubled and concerned about Jeff’s problems than it is about Britta or Annie, but there’s really nothing all that special about Jeff. Once upon a time, back in Season 1, he was a hotshot lawyer, but he hasn’t shown many signs of brains or charisma lately.
In fact, there are only a few viable forms of male identity right now: the whipped-but-beloved guy, the gay guy, the rich guy, the hermit (hi Louie!), and the nerdy genius. (We tried out “the stoned guy” for a while, but he didn’t make the cut.) Even the superheroes fall into these categories, although, aside from some afterschool special moments on X-Men, we’re still not really comfortable with gay superheroes.
The sidekicks are suddenly extremely uncomfortable with their subject-positions. Wilson keeps trying to escape from House. Troy is perpetually uneasy when he’s around Abed, unless it’s the end of an episode. John Watson exclaims, in utter exasperation, “In case anyone still cares, I’M NOT GAY!” “Well, I am,” Irene Adler shoots back, cool as a cucumber.
What’s so embarrassing about the rich guys, like Merc Lapidus, and the nerdy guys, like House/Sherlock or Walter White, is that their power is founded upon sexism. But these thrones are in jeopardy, and the symbols are getting rather overt; one of the strongest men on television right now, Tyrion Lannister, is going to end up crossing the desert to find Daenerys Targaryen, in order to give her The Iron Throne.
It’s all pretty wonderful, and it pinpoints the great unsolved problem confronting our society right now: the problem of anxiety. All this excitement over S&M isn’t just about power. It’s about anxiety, which can be soothed either by taking control or by losing it. The women on Girls are fascinating and hilarious, but their anxieties aren’t — their anxieties torture both them and us. In Enlightened, Amy Jellicoe flees to Hawaii to escape from anxiety and rage; in Web Therapy, Kudrow’s self-consciousness makes therapy impossible. Claire Dunphy is unbearable most of the time.
That doesn’t mean that things used to be better. In the old days, Tony Soprano was guzzling Prozac, and Pete Campbell was, well, Pete Campbell. Plus, I’ll take Lafayette Reynolds, Omar Little, and Cameron Tucker any day over characters like Vito Spatafore or Salvatore Romano. Vito and Sal basically get chucked back in the closet so we can feel their pain from a safe distance. (Also, for unclear reasons, all gay men used to be Italian.) Louis C.K. is an engine that runs on pure, high-octane anxiety, like Woody Allen before him.
Power doesn’t just corrupt people. It also drives them insane, and the first prickings of that insanity are sweat and goosebumps. But anxiety is a bigger phenomenon, even, than extremes of power: we put incredible effort into straining for the imaginary midpoint between panic attacks on the one hand, and stoner apathy on the other. Thank goodness that everybody, male and female, gay and straight, is now part of the same fight against the same monster. Daenerys’s enchanting little pets grow up, and once they do, there is no pleasure or joy they do not envy, or that they cannot steal.