At the Television Critics Association press tour on Tuesday, Showtime president David Nevins was asked “why do you think we’ve been seeing this trend in reprehensible protagonists?” He could have answered by pointing to obvious incentives, including ratings and the results of awards shows. But instead, he went in a different direction.
“Well, it’s license, you know. Pay cable, you take license. Your licenses are sex, violence, and bad behavior,” Nevins said. “I think the audience wants to do it for the same reason programmers want to do it, to be to be on the edge. But I think we’re now sort of seeing some movement back or at least some of the shows that I’m most interested in are some movement back away from the extreme edge. I don’t think you can keep going further to the left of what Bryan Cranston is doing on Breaking Bad. So I’m sure somebody will figure out and maybe I’ll figure it out how to go further to the left of him, but there’s also interest in more in the middle.”
What Nevins might also have said is that while there’s an enormous amount of sex, violence, and bad behavior portrayed on the networks he and his colleagues run, pay cable is actually at a fairly early stage of creative development when it comes to making use of those licenses.
There’s an enormous amount of sexuality on display on television, but much of it is transgressive. Part of what made the sex scenes and casual nudity between Robb Stark and his wife Talisa, or the sex scene between Jon Snow and Ygritte on this most recent season of Game of Thrones so striking is that depictions of consensual sex between married people is rare, as are the awkward lunges forward of sex between new couples, or the idea that sex is companionable and tender, rather than an occasion for passionate writhing that’s more about an observer than about the experience of the participants. Masters of Sex depictions sex between couples who are shy because they’re research partners, rather than committed couples, and focuses as much on the emotions sparked by their coupling as by what their bodies are doing and what it looks like. The idea that contemplations of sexual kindness, or tenderness, or companionate affection are more radical than explorations of sexual assault or of cheating seems absurd, but to a certain extent, that’s where we are in prestige television.
Similarly, we have a significant body of work on what it’s like to commit violence, but rather less on what it’s like to be a survivor of it, and to feel exceedingly guilty about committing it. On Game of Thrones, a great deal of the violence that goes on is sanctioned by the fact that the show is set in a country at war, and so violence is relatively normalized. Cat Stark’s witness of the massacre that kills her son and daughter-in-law, before she is killed too, was shocking in part because it gave us an actual proxy on the screen for our own role as witnesses. On Breaking Bad, Jesse Pinkman’s reaction to committing violence started out with a rush of adrenaline, and has evolved towards extreme guilt and emotional damage, particularly when violence is directed at children. The best parts of Nevins’ own show, Ray Donovan, about a Los Angeles fixer and his family, are the meditations on how adult survivors of clergy sexual abuse are coping decades later. But we’re still at a very early stage in being willing to confront the impact of violence rather than the aesthetics of it.
And the kinds of bad behavior we see on pay cable are, once again, often relatively acceptable–or at least familiar–ones, like violence within the framework of an institution like the Mafia or the drug trade, with ugly behavior like controlling attitudes or violence towards women growing out of those larger frameworks. We’ve seen much less of addiction rendered ugly and painful, as we did on The Sopranos in Christopher and Adriana’s relationship, or everyday, systemic nastiness between parents and children, or the kind of corporate malfeasance that’s so deeply damaged our country, but for which there are very few social and political consequences. We’re in an era of high nastiness, where, for example, House of Cards‘ Frank Underwood is bad because he killed a colleague who was becoming politically inconvenient to him, rather than because he has no ideological commitments. Much of the bad behavior we see on television makes us feel a little dirty and a little shocking, but it very rarely makes us enraged, or sorrowful.
Anti-hero dramas have been an interesting, and at times morally important test of what sort of behavior we’re willing to tolerate from people while remaining broadly on their sides. But part of the reason it’s important to find new models, like the ones represented by Orange Is The New Black and Masters of Sex, is that they will allow us to answer new questions, and to use pay television services’ licenses to new ends. The so-called Golden Age may have answered the questions it posed to us. But it won’t mean the end of quality for us to move on to new ideas.