Too many TV antiheroes signal a need for a new model

SlateJuly 3, 2013 

Early in the first episode of “Ray Donovan,” which aired on Showtime this week, the eponymous Hollywood fixer gets a phone call. Donovan, played by Liev Schreiber, listens patiently, issues a few instructions, and then tells the panicking sports star on the other end of the line, “You don’t think you’re the first person I’ve dealt with who woke up in bed with a dead body?”

No, Ray Donovan, I’m sure you’ve handled more than your fair share of bed bodies. The problem is that, as a viewer, I, too, have seen it before.

I’ve also seen damaged tough guys, demanding wives, selfish parents, messed-up siblings, snake-in-the-grass Hollywood lawyers, dumb actors and deluded agents. And I’m very familiar with your way of introducing a female character and then involving her in a sex scene in a matter of seconds.

Prestige cable dramas are starting to seem like an exercise in TV Mad Libs. The Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan put it best in her “Ray Donovan” review, comparing the show to “Frankenstein’s monster, assembled from an array of shopworn parts.”

Given that this is a drama about a tough guy from an ethnic, criminally connected East Coast clan who works with actors, singers, executives and industry lawyers, ultimately, the show comes off as a less inspired version of “The Sopranos” with a side of “Entourage” – with all the veneration of machismo that combination implies.

Perhaps it’s because I just read Brett Martin’s “Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution,” which is about the post-“Sopranos” “golden age” of television, but of late, my antihero fatigue has turned into a full-blown antihero allergy.

“Difficult Men” is an excellent read, and it offers a convincing explanation of why the new premium cable dramas valorize antiheroes. Liberated from the restrictions of network TV – no advertisers to worry about and no chance of being canceled before the full season aired – and keen to display all that freedom, shows such as “The Sopranos,” “The Wire” and “Deadwood” emphasized “characters whom, conventional wisdom had once insisted, Americans would never allow into their living rooms: unhappy, morally compromised, complicated, deeply human.”

So, sure, that’s where they came from. But I’m ready to yell, “Next!”

“Ray Donovan” isn’t a terrible show – the acting is excellent, Jon Voight gives an amazing performance as an epically selfish man, and the story lines aren’t entirely predictable. It just doesn’t seem to have anything new to say.

In a recent interview, the show’s creator, Ann Biderman, seemed refreshingly visceral in her attitude to generating a fictional universe – it seems to boil down to, “What interests me?” And her attraction to macho men is apparent.

But reviewing “Ray Donovan,” the Wrap’s Tim Molloy put his finger on something that’s been bugging me for a while. He said such shows seem “to think that showing people fighting, cursing and getting it on is enough to make them seem authentic. It isn’t. They also need to seem believable when they’re not in a boxing gym or bedroom.”

Television is often formulaic – but good television doesn’t let the formula show. It may be time to find a new model.

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