How ‘Arrested Development’ and ‘The Sopranos’ Defined An Age of Television As Dudely

I’ve been writing on and off for months about where women fit into the current Golden Age of television (or are we in the Silver Age at some point? Someone who knows more than I do about mythology, help!), particularly into the ranks of masculinized anti-heroes. So I just loved Todd VanDerWeff’s brilliant piece on how the current standards for television excellence are defined by masculinity, and how shows like Girls and Enlightened are powerful—and uncomfortably received—challenges to those norms:

We have a very particular idea about what makes “good” TV in this age of episodic online reviews. “Good” TV is either a single-camera sitcom filled with pop-culture references or moments of pathos (ideally both), or a serialized drama—often on cable—that probes the darkest limits of the human experience and has a bad-boy protagonist. In essence, we’ve created a world where the only two shows that can be copied to make good TV are Arrested Development and The Sopranos.

There’s nothing wrong with this, actually. Copying those two shows has resulted in a lot of great series, including some terrific, distinctly feminist TV, be it the female heroes of Parks & Recreation or Mad Men’s multi-faceted portrayal of what it meant to be a woman in the ’60s. But copying those two shows has also resulted in a narrow TV palette, a limited series of colors to draw from when constructing the next “great” TV show. These series tend to have sensibilities that are very white and masculine, largely because they’re all created by white males, and, hey, write what you know. (It’s not like my reviews aren’t informed by this same perspective.) Even the shows created in this mold that have female characters at their centers—Damages, say—tend to define that female character by how well she fits into a traditionally masculine world.

I’ve long thought that Sex and the City, which I love, has been weirdly excluded from the narrative of the rise of great television even though it premiered before The Sopranos did and had as much to do with the rebranding of HBO as an adult, smart, frank network as The Sopranos did. I wonder if that is in part a response to fact that the default perspective in popular culture is male, so shows aimed at women are based in the assumption that men will never come along, or that women will find some sort of refuge from male-dominated culture hugely refreshing. And to a certain extent that’s true—shows that speak to my experience in any way that’s close to emotionally precise are so rare they feel miraculous. But I wonder if their particularity becomes a hindrance when it comes to acting as a model. It shouldn’t be that hard to extract from Sex and the City that frank, aspirational shows about female friendships and female sexuality are a draw. But somehow, that show becomes particular time, place, and set of actresses, exceptional in its depictions of anti-heroines, its excellence, AND its privileging of women’s experience, while The Sopranos is conventional in its focus on men and unconventional only in its focus on an anti-hero and the quality of its execution.

I hate that we still haven’t found the show with a female lead, about specifically female issues, and from a specifically feminine-coded perspective that’s such a smash and so well-executed that everyone wants to try to be as smart and as ground-breaking and as buzzed-about as it. I hate that quality shows about women remain exceptions rather than anything close to a norm. As much as I love Girls and Enlightened, they’re too low-rated to qualify. But they’re sparking hugely difficult and important conversations, and perhaps they’re turning over fertile soil for someone who will follow them, and strike gold in the same fields..