I’ve written in the past about the challenges in putting female anti-heroes on television: if they behave decisively and malignantly, they don’t get the credit male anti-heroes do for conforming to gender norms, and if they are weak, or indecisive, or self-obsessed, they’re treated as if they’re distasteful rather than admirable. But another challenge in getting more female anti-heroes on screen is getting networks to try to make them, rather than simply the cable channels that have made their reputations on male anti-heroes.
I think the creators of The Mob Doctor, a drama which stars Jordana Spiro as a surgeon who does medical favors for the Chicago mob to pay the debt she incurred to get her brother out of trouble, are setting up impossible expectations when they suggest that the show will be “ER meets the Sopranos,” as Rob Wright did on Monday. But I think Josh Berman, Wright’s co-creator is on to something, when he talks about the long arc it takes to build a female anti-hero on a network, where viewers will have to build a long investment in Dr. Grace Devlin before they begin following her through the development process that will turn her from a woman stuck doing bad things in difficult circumstances to a genuine anti-hero who embraces stepping over a carefully calibrated moral line.
“We’ve really mapped out her character, and we want it to feel very organic,” Berman said. “And we want to take a woman who never thought this was going to be her life and slowly watch her transform into someone she maybe didn’t think she would become, but is quite confident and happy with who she is. And we’re going to do that slowly. You know, we have milestones over the first season…So hopefully we can deliver on that.”
This strikes me as an astute insight. Viewers of cable shows have become conditioned to come to new programming ready to identify with or root for someone who behaves badly or aberrantly. Within the first episode, we expect to see the contradictions of Tony Soprano as a mobster and family man, Al Swearengen as a tyrant and a man of sympathy to sex workers, Walter White as chemistry teacher and meth genius, Lena Dunham as vain, lazy striver and as cuttingly observant friend. On networks, viewers expect to be introduced to characters who are, with slight variations, straightforwardly worthy of a rooting interest without serious moral complication. Even when a character like Dr. House arrives as a cantankerous jerk, it took a while for House to make him uncomfortably transgressive—his wounds were always obvious enough to provide a psychological backgrounder on his orneriness.
I’m not sure The Mob Doctor is going to be the show that executes this premise successfully, based on the pilot. I like star Jordana Spiro, especially from her tenure on My Boys, where she played a Chicago sports reporter, but there’s a fair bit of melodrama and silliness going on around her. But I think Berman is laying out an important formula, one that if we want richer, more complex women on television, it would be wise to keep in mind that we have to strap in for the long haul.